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Continuous coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Was Afghanistan’s “Great Escape” actually a great big sham?

Official says Kandahar “prison break” more like a carefully planned prisoner release.
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Escape route or stage set? The Afghan justice minister insists that this tunnel was not used to help Taliban detainees escape from Kandahar's Sarposa Prison. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Truth can be stranger than fiction in this land of endless conspiracies.

I have a source I’ll call “Deep Throat.” For all you post-boom babies out there who do not remember Watergate, go get a copy of “All the President’s Men” if you want to understand the cultural reference. My source and I do not meet in parking garages, and I actually do know his real name, but you get the idea.

Working inside the Afghan government, he comes up with juicy tidbits that are almost always too far-fetched for me to use. In fact, until a few days ago, I thought he was a bit bonkers.

The news item that rehabilitated Deep Throat for me was buried in a report by Tolo, Afghanistan’s most popular private television station. The Afghan Justice Minister, Habibullah Ghalib, had just announced that the widely publicized prison break that had titillated the country and embarrassed the government was a fake.

According to the minister, the 500 or so “escapees” had not tunneled their way to freedom through 1,000 feet of dirt and clay, but had instead been let out through the front gate


Kabul locked down as the Taliban promise “spring offensive”

The Pentagon is “cautiously optimistic.” NATO scoffs at “Taliban propaganda.” Meanwhile, the UN is moving its personnel onto military bases and police outnumber pedestrians on Kabul’s streets.
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Afghanistan soldier standing guard in Kabul after a suicide attack on an Army bus injured 7 soldiers and 3 civilians on 9 April, 2011. The Afghan Army as well as international forces are braced for more such attacks as the spring fighting season begins. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)
KABUL — Security has increased in recent days as the Afghan government, foreign diplomats, and NATO are braced for a Taliban “spring offensive.”

It’s Victory Day, but who’s winning?

The government backs down on its celebration of Mujaheddin Victory Day in a concession to the deteriorating security situation.
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Afghan Army soldiers guard the gate to the Afghan Air Force compound following a shooting at the airport on April 27. 2011. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — All was quiet in Kabul on Thursday, with the most dramatic events climatic in nature. A huge dust storm blew in around noon, bringing high winds and thunder.

Plans for the traditional military parade to mark Mujaheddin Victory Day — the anniversary of the overthrow of the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime by the Northern Alliance in 1992 — were scrapped Wednesday night after an Afghan Air Force pilot opened fire on NATO troops, killing eight military personnel and one contractor.

Defense Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi did not mince words when he announced the cancellation.

“For security reasons and in order to avoid threats against defenseless people, the military parade and gatherings will not be held," he told reporters at a press conference Wednesday evening.

The concession marks a clear triumph for the Taliban, who had threatened to disrupt any festivities scheduled for the controversial holiday.

Mujaheddin Victory Day — known in Dari as Asht-e-Saur (8th of Saur, for the date on the Afghan calendar when the event occurred), tends to bring out the worst in Afghan inter-factional relations. Some see the day as heralding the worst years in Afghanistan’s recent history — the brutal civil war that tore the country apart and set ethnic and political groups at each other’s throats.

Others, however, relish the chance to honor the sacrifice that the Afghan fighters made in battling and ultimately defeating a far mightier enemy — the Soviet Union.

The Taliban have long scoffed at the government’s Victory Day celebrations; they consider themselves the true mujaheddin, who fought for their country’s freedom. The government of President Hamid Karzai, they say, has given Afghanistan back to the infidels, by welcoming the presence of international troops.


Preparations for Mujahedeen Victory Day paralyze Kabul

Afghanistan’s most problematic holiday approaches — when all of the country’s grievances and wounds come to the fore.
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Afghan schoolgirls perform under a poster of Ahmad Shah Massoud at an earlier, and happier, Victory Day celebration in 2004. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

Kabul has been eerily quiet for days. There are few cars on the streets, and many more police checkpoints than usual. Trucks full of army soldiers occasionally snarl traffic, but movement around town is quick and easy for the few foreigners who are not locked down.

Restaurants are all but empty; even the venerable Gandemack Lodge, where what passes for Kabul international society comes to rub elbows with already famous or up-and-coming journalists in an atmosphere of 19th-century frontier colonialism, had most of its tables available on Monday when I was last there — although the wood-paneled bar downstairs seemed to be doing a brisk business.

A pall of apprehension hangs over the city. Everyone seems to be braced for a storm.

This is the “holiday” atmosphere of Asht-e-Saur, otherwise known as Mujaheddin Victory Day, commemorating the 1992 collapse of the communist regime of Dr. Najibullah.

For some, it is the anniversary of the great and glorious day when the brave Afghan fighters known in the West as the Northern Alliance finally defeated the Soviet-backed government forces and established a mujaheddin government free from foreign domination.

For many others, it was the start of one of Afghanistan’s darkest periods, when the various commanders and political factions who had united in an uneasy alliance against the Soviets turned their guns and rockets on each other in a bloody power grab that tore the country apart.

Kabul, the capital, had survived the nine-year Soviet intervention all but intact. The major violence occurred in the south, in the areas of fierce Pashtun resistance, like Kandahar.

But once the mujaheddin began their battles, Kabul began to crumble.


Trying to stay sane in an insane world

Analysis: These days, Afghanistan can challenge even the strongest of us.
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Burqa-clad Afghan women make their way along a street in the old city area of Kabul on April 24, 2011. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

The peerless war correspondent Martha Gellhorn said it best:

“The way people stay sane in war, I imagine, is to suspend a large part of their reasoning minds, lose most of their sensitivity, laugh when they get the smallest chance, and go a bit, but increasingly, crazy.”

In my own case, after seven years in Afghanistan, I’m afraid that the craziness is winning out over the sanity on an almost daily basis.

But I can leave when it becomes unbearable. What of the Afghans, who have been living in this hell for the past 30 years?

A few days ago a friend of mine was telling me about an “amusing” incident he had recently witnessed. Kabul had been having unsettled weather, with heavy rains blowing in each afternoon, and the few river beds in the city, usually bone-dry, were experiencing flash floods.

“I was out for a walk after the rain stopped,” he said. “I saw a group of people on Pul-e-Sokhta, all pointing and laughing.”

Pul-e-Sokhta is a bridge in the western part of the city, known for attracting heroin addicts, who camp out underneath it.

“A torrent of water had come down the mountain,” he continued. “And it washed the addicts away. There were four or five of them struggling to get out of the flood. Two of them went down while I was there, and never came up.”

I listened in shock.

“Didn’t anyone try to help them?” I asked.

Another Afghan man in our group simply shrugged.

“They are just addicts. They are already expired,” he said.

I suppose this is as good an illustration as any of the desensitizing properties of conflict.

But there are many such examples in this land of eternal war.


The frog in the water

As a recent attack on the Defense Ministry in Kabul attests, security in Afghanistan is getting worse by the day. How will we know when it’s time to leave?
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Afghanistan National Army soldiers stand guard at the main gate of the Defense Ministry in Kabul on April 18, 2011. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Yesterday marked a significant milestone here in the Afghan capital. The Taliban managed to penetrate into the heart of the Defense Ministry.

An armed man with an Afghan Army uniform and a valid ID managed to gain access to the offices of the Minister himself, killing 2 and injuring 7 before being shot by bodyguards. According to Defense Ministry officials, the attacker never managed to detonate the explosive vest he wore, although some local media had reported an explosion.

Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, the presumed target of the attack, escaped harm because he was not in the building at the time. French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet, who is visiting Afghanistan and was also a tempting objective, was also out of range.

The bomber wore an Afghan military uniform, and at first most assumed that he had cobbled together the kit from supplies readily available in Kabul’s markets.

But the attacker was not an imposter at all. He was a bona fide member of the Afghan armed forces, a fact that has sent shockwaves through the military establishment here. Worse still, the Taliban are publicly gloating that they have another 150-200 infiltrators in Afghan institutions, just waiting to pull the cords on their suicide vests.

It may be true; it may be a bluff. But after yesterday’s attack it has the advantage of paralyzing the government while everyone frantically searches for traitors.


Corruption in Afghanistan: The elephant in the room

It’s everywhere, it’s impossible to fight, and it's almost impossible to document. But corruption is the defining characteristic of Afghanistan, and foreign aid is helping it along.
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai talks during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on Apirl 11, 2011. (Massoud Hossaini)

Just ask Vice President Joe Biden about corruption in Afghanistan. During a now-famous dinner with Hamid Karzai during the 2008 U.S. election year, then-Sen. Biden questioned the Afghan president about corruption in his government. Karzai assured him that reports had been overblown by the Western media. Biden threw down his napkin and walked out.


A political endgame in Afghanistan

The UK’s former foreign secretary is pointing the way forward in Afghanistan. But is anyone listening?
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David Miliband, at the time the UK's Foreign Secretary, at the London Conference in January, 2010. Miliband is advocating a political settlement to the 10-year-long war. (Peter Macdlarmid/AFP/Getty Images)

The only way to peace and stability in Afghanistan, says David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary, is “working to mend it not just rushing to end it.”

In a widely circulated op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday, Miliband gave a detailed roadmap to this “mending.”

His approach is both simple and revolutionary.

First and foremost among his recommendations are genuine negotiations, conducted in good faith and with realistic expectations, by “Western powers led by the United States, with all factions in the Afghan struggle and their backers in the region.”

This recognizes an important truth in the Afghan war: that negotiations will have to be a far-reaching, multi-national affair, including Pakistan as well as Afghanistan; NATO, in particular the United States, which is the overwhelming military force now in Afghanistan; and other regional players.

So far, “talks” have been largely limited to vague interchanges between the Afghan government and the Taliban, neither of which can, by itself, make any permanent decisions on peace.

The negotiations themselves are the endgame, Miliband tells us; a political settlement “is not one part of a multipronged strategy in a counterinsurgency; it is the overarching framework within which everything else fits and in the service of which everything else operates.”

What Miliband is advocating is nothing less than standing the entire U.S. strategy in Afghanistan on its head.


Petraeus praises Mark Sedwill, senior civilian rep

Civilan rep Sedwill says goodbye, boasting that Afghanistan War has gone from "Mission Impossible" to "Mission Achievable."
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U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus greets Ambassador Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative, following a farewell ceremony for Sedwill on April 9, 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (US Navy Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell)

It was all smiles and backslapping at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led security mission, as dignitaries gathered Saturday to bid farewell to Mark Sedwill, senior civilan representative and former U.K. ambassador.

Sedwill, who was the U.K.’s envoy to Kabul from 2009 to early 2010, assumed the position of NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative in January 2010, making him the mufti equivalent of Gen. David Petraeus.

Petraeus was full of praise and warm words for his civilian counterpart, pinning two medals on his chest and sprinkling his valedictory speech with superlatives praising Sedwill’s superb leadership and brilliant efforts to maintain the alliance during his 15-month tenure.

The departing ambassador entertained the illustrious crowd with fond if teasing references to Petraeus, speculating that a movie about his time at ISAF might someday be made, called, perhaps, “A London Limey ay King David’s Court,” a twist on the Mark Twain classic. He modestly suggested Colin Firth or Hugh Grant to play himself, depending, he said, “on whether it is a comedy.”

But he was unstinting in his admiration for Petraeus. “One man I must single out,” he said. “Dave, it has been an immense privilege to serve alongside you. I have learned more about strategic leadership in the past nine months than in the previous nine years.”

Petraeus was appointed to the ISAF leadership in June 2010, after his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was sacked in the wake of some very ill-advised comments made to a Rolling Stone reporter.

Both men were at some pains to further the narrative of “victory snatched from the jaws of defeat” that has become the standard ISAF line.

“When I arrived here, many thought this was 'Mission: Impossible,'” said Sedwill. “While as General Petraeus says, it is all hard all the time and there is a long, hard road ahead, we have proved in the past year that it is 'Mission: Achievable.'”


More talk about talks

Reports of near-breakthroughs on Taliban peace negotiations are commonplace. Real progress, however, remains elusive.
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestures during a teachers graduation ceremony in Kabul on March 30, 2011. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)

The media is abuzz with yet another major story that the Afghan government is holding talks with the Taliban. But the devil is in the details.

The New York Times, among others, gave good play to a press conference by Mohammad Massoom Stanekzai, the secretary of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, in which the Afghan official boldly stated that “We’re in touch, we talk all the time, we’ve done a lot.”