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Continuous coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It's been a bad year so far for Afghanistan

Here's a timeline of some of the biggest Taliban attacks on Kabul so far this year.
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An Afghan policeman helps a wounded man during clashes following an attack on a police station at the main market in central Kabul on June 18, 2011. Armed militants stormed a police station in the heart of the Afghan capital, triggering an explosion and ongoing heavy exchange of fire, officials and witnesses said. The attackers got into the police station in the crowded main central market area, close to the Afghan presidential palace, defence ministry and other official buildings. (Massoud Hossaini /AFP/Getty Images)

Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, has become more and more unstable in recent months as Taliban fighters launch attacks with deadly regularity.

The series of attacks seem to indicate that security is deteriorating and that the Taliban's capabilities to coordinate spectacular bombings have not been diminished in any significant way. This, just as U.S. President Barack Obama plans for a steep withdrawal of troops and a major handover of security operations to Afghan forces.

Here's a look at the largest attacks that have struck the capital so far this year.

JUNE 28 — The explosions and firing went on for hours, residents said. As of this writing, there was little clarity about the purpose or the final outcome of Tuesday night's attack on Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel. Those living near the scene reported several loud explosions as late as 2:15 a.m., and several people described random and sporadic firing in other parts of the city as well.

At least six attackers had somehow made their way inside the Intercontinental, according to Afghans security officials. An hour after the attack began, at about 10 p.m. in Kabul, reports said that up to 10 people had died. The final count could be much higher as local residents say that the loud booms of rocket explosions could be heard, as well as the sound of automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

JUNE 18 — Just over a week ago, suicide bombers targeted a police station in central Kabul, killing at least nine. Police reportedly noticed one of the militants approaching the station and acting strange. So they shot him. A second militant then detonated his vest, killing three police officers, one intelligence agent and five civilians.


Photo: The things they receive

Care packages on their way to US troops often have a bumpy journey.

Dozens of care packages crash around in the back of a MaxxPro armored vehicle during a delivery mission to remote combat outposts in Kandahar's Zhari District on June 26.



Radios, cell phones, secure internet, bomb jammers and anti-sniper electronics all require antennas, making for a sometimes bizarre landscape.

At Combat Outpost Hutal, west of Kandahar City, soldiers prepare their truckers for the day's patrols. The various antennas rising above the base are for serveral different kinds of radios, cell phones, secure internet signals, bomb jammers and anti-sniper electronics. They make for a sometimes bizarre landscape.


Afghan soldiers receive award, nervously

Afghan soldiers who did good for the US, fear retribution from the Taliban.

When two Afghan police officers operating a checkpoint in Maiwand discovered a huge weapons cache in a white Toyota Corolla last week, the American unit operating in the area wanted to respond with some positive reinforcement. The district police chief suggested medals or certificates during a meeting with the local American leadership.

But the military is prohibited from giving U.S. medals to foreign troops. So 10th Mountain Division improvised — a couple of washers, some graphics printed up and a piece of ribbon created the new "Shona ba Shona medal," meaning "shoulder to shoulder."


Afghan Special Court begins tossing out parliamentarians

As the U.S. heads for the exits, Afghanistan has a full-blown internal political crisis. What else can go wrong?
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Members of Parliament wait for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to inaugurate the new parliament in Kabul on January 26, 2011. Karzai opened Afghanistan's parliament on January 26, ending a week-long stand-off with the newly elected MPs who had threatened to inaugurate the legislature with or without him. (Shah Marai /AFP/Getty Images)

The Afghan Parliament reacted furiously Thursday to a ruling by a Special Court that could land at least a quarter of the lawmakers out of a job.

In a televised session, the five-member panel announced their decisions on a recount of parliamentary ballots that would disqualify more than 40 of the 249 current MPs. The final head roll could be more than 70.

The hastily assembled MPs called for street protests and threatened to defy the court, which they have long held has no legal standing.

The legislature has been in high dudgeon since December, ever since President Hamid Karzai instituted a Special Court to adjudicate cases of fraud in last September’s parliamentary elections.

Few would dispute that the ballot was highly irregular; but according to Afghanistan’s Election Law, final decisions on electoral matters are to be taken by the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission.

These two bodies took more than two months to finalize the results of the elections, but once they announced their decision, lawmakers breathed a sigh of relief. The president also tried to delay the Parliament’s inauguration, since, rumor had it, he was not pleased with its composition. He finally opened the legislature in late January, but not before establishing the Special Court.

Legal analysts, Afghan officials and many international observers agree with the Parliament that the Special Court has no legal standing to rule on electoral matters, but this does not seem to bother the executive branch. Karzai had a constitutional commission rule that the Court was perfectly in line with the law, and the five court members proceeded with their investigation.

Parliamentarians complained that the court was a political tool for Karzai, allowing him to pressure recalcitrant lawmakers. Anyone who did not fall in line with the president’s plan could be threatened with disqualification by the court, they insisted.

Along with the continuing tension over the court, the legislature and the executive branch have been warring over the cabinet. In January of 2010, Karzai sent his nominees to the old Parliament for confirmation. Out of 24 candidates, the legislature rejected 17. After a second try and some determined lobbying by the executive branch, all but seven were confirmed.


After Obama speech, troops begin to see light at the end of tunnel

The excitement was palpable during President Obama's speech.
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Soldiers in the 1/501st of the 25th Infantry Division file off the ridge of a mountain where they spent the night in a Taliban stronghold area. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Media analysis of President Obama's drawdown speech was broadcast in military chow halls across Afghanistan this morning, and the excitement among soldiers at Forward Operating Base Howz-e Madad was palpable. Despite the fact that the withdrawal timeline won't affect the duration or intensity of their current tour, they speculated that even if this isn't their final tour, they might only have one more to go.

According to a recent publication by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, those remaining tours may be cut from 12 months to nine. This is only supposed to apply to troops arriving in Afghanistan after October. Some soldiers now in Afghanistan said they had been threatened with disciplinary action if they discussed rumors that their current, year-long tour, might be shortened.

"We've got to get this thing done by 2014 with fewer troops, so no soldier should be expecting that the Army will ask less of them," said Command Sgt. Maj. John Horney, the senior enlisted man in 1-32 Infantry Battalion. "It's my job to keep soldiers informed with accurate information so there's no letdown.


Are US-Pakistan relations at an all-time high?

Pakistan says it will issue the CIA a bunch of visas. Really?
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U.S. Senator John Kerry shakes hands with Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani during a meeting in Islamabad on May 16, 2011. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

It's been less than five months since CIA operative Raymond Davis opened fire on the streets of Lahore, killing two men. A third Pakistani man was killed that day when he was struck by a car carrying several other CIA operatives who were speeding to the scene down the wrong side of the street.

This, to no one's surprise, resulted in a great deal of public anger in Pakistan. Large protests were held across the country demanding that the CIA halt its activities in the country. Davis was arrested and charged with murder. The case was eventually settled after Davis paid off the victim's families, a common practice in Pakistan.

Anger among Pakistanis was so high in the aftermath of the attack that the CIA temporarily halted drone attacks in North Waziristan, which, also to no one's surprsise, are deeply unpopular among average Pakistanis, more than a thousand of whom (at least) have been killed by the missile strikes since they began in 2004.

The CIA resumed drone attacks on March 18, two days after Davis was released. Then, two months later, the United States raided a house outside of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, killing Osama bin Laden.

All of this is believed to have frayed relations between the two countries to the point of no return.

Yet, on Wednesday, Pakistan said it would issue three dozen visas to CIA operatives so they can continue their anti-terror operations in the country.


Opium farmers take a hit

25 pounds of opium can feed an Afghan family for a year.

Bin Laden raid hasn't damaged US reputation in Pakistan

In fact, it's just as bad as it was before US forces attacked Osama bin Laden's hideaway.
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Pakistanis set fire to a U.S. flag during a protest in Multan on May 21, 2011. (S.S. Mizra/AFP/Getty Images)

A new poll released today by the Pew Research Center found that Pakistanis, while they disapproved of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden outside of Islamabad in May, don't dislike the United States any more than they did before the raid.

That might be because opinions of the U.S. in Pakistan before the raid had already fallen to record lows.

The new poll found that just 12 percent of Pakistanis have a positive view of the United States and only 8 percent are confident that U.S. President Barack Obama will do the right thing when it comes to world affairs. That's pretty abysmal. But it's hardly different than before the raid when the Pew Research Center conducted another poll that found that only 11 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable view of the United States and 75 percent had unfavorable view.

That puts Obama and the United States at about the same level as Al Qaeda and the Taliban, both of which received approval ratings of about 12 percent.


"Spartan" soldiers take page from "300"

I'm all for the military taking itself a little less seriously. Bring on the camouflage hot pants!
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A concrete blast wall with spartan banner. (Ben Brody/GlobalPost)

About six years ago, I was a soldier in 3rd Infantry Division's Spartan Brigade. Some of the imagery associated with the brigade featured a Spartan helm, and the unit prided itself on its austerity and no-nonsense soldiering. There are at least three brigades in the Army named Spartan, and it was just another martial name until the graphic novel-based 300 hit the theaters in 2007.

At Forward Operating Base Pasab in Kandahar, soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division's Spartan Brigade have festooned their concrete blast walls and plywood office buildings with banners featuring the movie's oiled-up, man-scaped actors. The posters exhort their troops to return with their shield, or on it. According to their commander, during training in Louisiana they would be woken at 6 a.m. to Gerard Butler's King Leonidas shouting over loudspeakers, "Spartans! Prepare for glory!"

Now I thought 300 was a really entertaining movie, like Starship Troopers or the insanely violent Sin City. But the movie is also inescapably silly, and only works because it rarely takes itself too seriously. If the base's posters are going to feature a shrieking comic book character wearing leather hot pants, writer Becca Cahill has two fine suggestions for potential motivational slogans: