Monday, November 24, 2014

Why the Pentagon Axed Its Afghan Warlord

By MARK THOMPSON / WASHINGTON Mark Thompson / Washington–

Public beheadings in Afghanistan are usually associated with the Taliban, but on Monday it was Defense Secretary Robert Gates metaphorically wielding the axe from the Pentagon platform. Gates announced that he had asked for and requested the resignation of his top commander in Afghanistan, Army General David McKiernan, after only 11 months in that theater. The 37-year veteran will be replaced by Army Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal. Army Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, the Defense Secretary’s own top military aide, is to serve in a newly created post as McChrystal’s deputy.

The move was yet another dose of accountability from Gates, who has previously cashiered officers for failing to tend to hospitalized troops or to secure nuclear weapons. But Monday’s action was more momentous: It marked the first time a civilian has fired a wartime commander since President Harry Truman ousted General Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for questioning Truman’s Korean War strategy. (See pictures of U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan.)

The Obama Administration has made Afghanistan the central front in the war on terror over the past month, it had concluded that McKiernan’s tenure there had involved too much wheel-spinning even as the Taliban extended its reach. There was not enough of the “new thinking” demanded by Gates. “It’s time for new leadership and fresh eyes,” Gates said, refusing to elaborate. He noted that Joints Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, and General David Petraeus, who as chief of U.S. Central Command oversees the Afghan war, had endorsed the move. Officers have typically served about 24 months in the slot, meaning McKiernan had served less than half his expected tour.

Military experts anticipate that U.S. policy in Afghanistan more militarily pointed as well as politically deft, once McChrystal and Rodrigues, his 1976 West Point classmate and fellow Afghan vet, are confirmed by the Senate. “McKiernan did his best – he was just the wrong guy,” says retired Army officer and military analyst Ralph Peters. “McChrystal will ask for more authority, not more troops.” By the end of this year, the U.S. expects to have close to 70,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 21,000 ordered there by Obama. While that’s just half the 130,000 troops the U.S. maintains in Iraq, Gates has been leery of sending further reinforcements. (Read TIME’s 2-Min. Bio of McChrystal.)

McChrystal proved adept at using intelligence to multiply the impact of the troops at his disposal when he commanded U.S. Special Forces in Iraq as they hunted down and killed al-Qaeda leaders such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. And unlike what some call McKiernan’s “shy” demeanor and his desire – in Army parlance – to “stay inside his lane,” McChrystal is eager to take the spotlight. He’s also expected to challenge behavior of the Afghan government that undermines the war effort: One official on the Joint Chiefs of Staff expects McChrystal to warn President Hamid Karzai to shut down drug running operations that fund the Taliban, even when their networks run uncomfortably close to his government. “[McChrystal] will tell him: ‘If you don’t clean this up, I will.’ ”

Not everyone welcomed the change, however. Some viewed McKiernan’s firing as unfair, noting that he had inherited command of an under-resourced Afghan theater that had been a secondary priority to Iraq. “In Afghanistan, we do what we can,” Mullen himself had said in December 2007. “In Iraq, we do what we must.” And while McKiernan was given his Afghan command during the Bush Administration, it had been Gates who had appointed him – at Mullen’s recommendation.

Gates took pains on Monday to avoid criticizing McKiernan. He told the four-star general that his Army career was effectively over during a face-to-face meeting in Afghanistan last week. “This was a kick in the teeth, but McKiernan took it extraordinarily well,” a senior Pentagon official said. Other military officials were less courteous. “I still can’t figure out why they put an armored guy with no Afghan experience in charge” one said. A second senior official said “Dave McKiernan is clearly part of the Army’s old guard – he led troops in [1991’s] Desert Storm, for pete’s sake. But if things were going better over there, he’d be staying.”

Gates has long demonstrated an impatience with war-time commanders who passively wait for the military hierarchy to give them what they need. He was stunned at the military’s foot-dragging when he ordered additional armored vehicles and drone aircraft to the Afghan and Iraq wars.Even though McKiernan’s dismissal had been in the works prior to Gates’ trip to Afghanistan last week (Mullen had warned McKiernan two weeks ago that it was coming), Gates was incensed by some of what he witnessed during that visit. Several troops complained that they lacked basic gear after arriving in Afghanistan. “It is a considerable concern to me,” he said last Thursday, brushing off a suggestion that the Taliban or the priority given to Iraq had been to blame for the Afghan shortfalls. “It’s more, really, a logistical challenge than it is anything else,” Gates said. That, one of the defense chief’s top aides said, is an unacceptable failure in a theater of war. “McKiernan never quite figured out how to ensure that he would succeed – he was still too dependent on the organization coming to his rescue,” he said. “Sadly, this institution doesn’t always do that.”

Time.com:

Shaky Pakistan Is Seen as Target of Qaeda Plots

By MARK MAZZETTI and ERIC SCHMITT–

WASHINGTON – As Taliban militants push deeper into Pakistan’s settled areas, foreign operatives of Al Qaeda who had focused on plotting attacks against the West are seizing on the turmoil to sow chaos in Pakistan and strengthen the hand of the militant Islamist groups there, according to American and Pakistani intelligence officials.

One indication came April 19, when a truck parked inside a Qaeda compound in South Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, erupted in a fireball when it was struck by a C.I.A. missile. American intelligence officials say that the truck had been loaded with high explosives, apparently to be used as a bomb, and that while its ultimate target remains unclear, the bomb would have been more devastating than the suicide bombing that killed more than 50 people at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September.

Al Qaeda’s leaders – a predominantly Arab group of Egyptians, Saudis and Yemenis, as well as other nationalities like Uzbeks – for years have nurtured ties to Pakistani militant groups like the Taliban operating in the mountains of Pakistan. The foreign operatives have historically set their sights on targets loftier than those selected by the local militant groups, aiming for spectacular attacks against the West, but they may see new opportunity in the recent violence.

Intelligence officials say the Taliban advances in Swat and Buner, which are closer to Islamabad than to the tribal areas, have already helped Al Qaeda in its recruiting efforts. The officials say the group’s recruiting campaign is currently aimed at young fighters across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia who are less inclined to plan and carry out far-reaching global attacks and who have focused their energies on more immediate targets.

“They smell blood, and they are intoxicated by the idea of a jihadist takeover in Pakistan,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former analyst for the C.I.A. who recently led the Obama administration’s policy review of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It remains unlikely that Islamic militants could seize power in Pakistan, given the strength of Pakistan’s military, according to American intelligence analysts. But a senior American intelligence official expressed concern that recent successes by the Taliban in extending territorial gains could foreshadow the creation of “mini-Afghanistans” around Pakistan that would allow militants even more freedom to plot attacks.

American government officials and terrorism experts said that Al Qaeda’s increasing focus on a local strategy was partly born from necessity, as the C.I.A.’s intensifying airstrikes have reduced the group’s ability to hit targets in the West. The United States has conducted 17 drone attacks so far this year, including one on Saturday, according to American officials and Pakistani news accounts, compared with 36 strikes in all of 2008.

According to a Pakistani intelligence assessment provided to The New York Times in February, Al Qaeda has adapted to the deaths of its leaders by shifting “to conduct decentralized operations under small but well-organized regional groups” within Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the same time, the group has intensified its recruiting, to replace its airstrike casualties.

One of Al Qaeda’s main goals in Pakistan, the assessment said, was to “stage major terrorist attacks to create a feeling of insecurity, embarrass the government and retard economic development and political progress.”

The Qaeda operatives are foreigners inside Pakistan, and experts say that the group’s leaders, like Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, appear to be wary of claiming credit for the violence in the country, possibly creating popular backlash against the group.

“They are trying to take an Arab face off this,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

“If you look at Al Qaeda as a brand, they know when to broadcast the brand, as the group has done in North Africa,” Mr. Hoffman said. “And they know when to cloak the brand, as it has done in Pakistan.”

As a result, it is difficult for American officials to assess exactly which recent attacks in Pakistan are the work of Qaeda operatives. But intelligence officials say they believe that the Marriott Hotel bombing was partly planned by Usama al-Kini, a Kenyan Qaeda operative who was killed in Pakistan by a C.I.A. drone on New Year’s Day.

According to Mr. Hoffman, Al Qaeda may be trying to achieve a separate goal: getting the C.I.A. to call off its campaign of airstrikes in the tribal areas. A wave of terrorist violence could foment so much popular discontent with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, he said, that Pakistan might then try to pressure the Obama administration to scale back its drone campaign.

For now, however, Obama administration officials say they believe that the covert airstrikes are the best tool at their disposal to strike at Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, which remains the group’s most important haven, but where large numbers of American combat forces would never be welcome.

The April 19 strike that hit what appeared to have been a truck bomb in a compound used by Al Qaeda set off an enormous secondary explosion, intelligence officials say. A second, empty truck destroyed in the same attack may also have been there to be outfitted with explosives, they say.

In another significant attack, on April 29, missiles fired from a C.I.A. Predator killed Abu Sulayman al-Jazairi, an Algerian Qaeda planner who American intelligence officials say they believe helped train operatives for attacks in Europe and the United States.

Still, officials caution that Al Qaeda has not abandoned its goal of “spectacular” attacks in the United States and Europe. According to one American counterterrorism official, the group continues to plan attacks outside its sanctuary in the tribal areas, aiming at targets in the West and elsewhere in Pakistan.

“They are opportunistic to the extent they perceive vulnerabilities with the uncertain nature of Pakistani politics and the security situation in Swat and Buner,” said the American counterterrorism official, who like other officials interviewed for this article was not authorized to speak publicly on intelligence issues. “They’re trying to exploit it.”

In meetings this past week in Washington, American and Pakistani officials discussed the possibility of limited joint operations with American Predator and Reaper drones.

Under one proposal, the United States would retain control over the firing of missiles, but it would share with the Pakistani security forces some sophisticated imagery and communications intercepts that could be relayed to Pakistani combat forces on the ground.

C.I.A. officials for months have resisted requests by Mr. Zardari to share the drone technology. In a television interview broadcast Sunday, the Pakistani leader said he would keep pressing to get his own Predator fleet.

“I’ve been asking for them, but I haven’t got a positive answer as yet,” Mr. Zardari said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“But I’m not giving up.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of drone strikes that American officials say the United States has conducted against Al Qaeda so far this year. It is 17 strikes, not 16.

Source: The New York Times

President Karzai visits Washington for second trilateral meeting

Second Trilateral Summit of Afghanistan-Pakistan-United States in Washington, DC

On Wednesday, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan met with President Zardari of Pakistan and President Obama of the United States in Washington, DC, in the second summit of the trilateral contact group established in February. The Afghan and Pakistani presidents also met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Members of the Afghan and Pakistani delegations, including Ministers of Agriculture and intelligence professionals, met with their counterparts as well.

(President Barack Obama (center) with Afghan President Karzai and Pakistan President Zardari walk along the Colonnade following a US-Afghan-PakistanTrilateral meeting in Cabinet Room May 6, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

(President Barack Obama (center) with Afghan President Karzai and Pakistan President Zardari walk along the Colonnade following a US-Afghan-PakistanTrilateral meeting in Cabinet Room May 6, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Karzai arrived in Washington, DC on Monday for a four-day visit, and on Tuesday he spoke at the Brookings Institution, where he said that the fundamentals of the US-Afghanistan relationship are strong, despite reports of tension in the press. He spoke of the ambitions of Afghans to build a strong, stable country in partnership with the United States and other Western allies.

During Wednesday’s day-long summit, the Afghan delegation, which included the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Agriculture and Finance, as well as the Director of National Intelligence, met and discussed issues of security, trade, agriculture, development and justice with their Pakistani and American counterparts, and attempted to find areas of cooperation. In an important step, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding on trade-transit issues and agreed to discuss the issue further.

Much of the focus of the summit was on the shared threat from al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant extremist groups. President Obama, in his remarks after the trilateral meeting, said, “The security of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States are linked.” President Karzai expressed his commitment to fighting this threat, and to working with the Americans to improve development and governance in Afghanistan.

  1. Click here to read the transcript of the press conference held with President Karzai, President Zardari and US Secretary of State Clinton.
  2. Click here for video of the press conference.
  3. Click here to read the statement delivered by President Obama after his trilateral meeting with President Karzai and President Zardari.
  4. Click here for video of President Obama’s remarks.
  5. Click here to read the press briefing on the trilateral meeting by National Security Advisor Jim Jones.
  6. Click here to read the statement delivered by President Hamid Karzai at the Brookings Institution.