TIME press freedom

Western Journalist Shot Dead in Afghanistan

Swedish journalist Nils Horner.
Swedish journalist Nils Horner. Mattias Ahlm—Sveriges Radio/EPA

Nils Horner, the South Asia correspondent for Swedish Radio, was reportedly shot dead by gunmen in broad daylight—a rare, brazen attack on a foreigner near the city's diplomatic district

A British-Swedish journalist was shot dead in Kabul on Tuesday, in a brazen attack in a busy section of the city that many worry is a harbinger of future security issues in Afghanistan’s capital.

Nils Horner, 52, the South Asia correspondent for Swedish Radio, was killed assassination-style by a pair of gunmen in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul, an area populated with embassies, western nongovernmental organizations and journalists, the Washington Post reports. Afghan police said Horner, who was identified by the Swedish embassy, was on his way to visit a Lebanese restaurant Taverna du Liban that was bombed in January, killing 21 people, mostly foreigners.

Horner had spoken to the news desk earlier in the morning, Anne Lagercrantz, head of news at Swedish Radio, told the AP. Upon seeing the news that a foreign journalist had been shot, staffers aimed to contact their colleague by email but received no response. When they called his cell phone, Lagercrantz added, a doctor answered to say Horner was the victim.

Cilla Benkö, the chief executive of Swedish Radio, confirmed initial reports that gunmen shot Horner in the back of the head and fled the scene. Horner was taken to the hospital where he died from his injuries, the Post reports. Afghan police said two suspects had been arrested.

Benkö said Horner always took the appropriate safety precautions in these types of reporting situations. “This was his life,” he said. “He didn’t want to do anything else.”

During an interview in 2011, Horner, who was known for coverage from Afghanistan in 2001, Baghdad in 2003 and Thailand following the tsunami in 2004, elaborated about the risks of radio field reporting: “We don’t feel the same pressure to always be in the middle of a firefight, or something like that, but of course we want to be as close as possible,” he said. “You almost have to sort of, everyday, ask yourself is this worth doing—taking the risk—or is it not?”

Although Kabul has often been the scene of bomb attacks on government buildings, the city has rarely seen such an attack on a civilian in broad daylight, on the edges of an area the Guardian describes as “the heavily fortified diplomatic district.” A Taliban spokesman said the group was not claiming responsibility, but that they would speak with insurgent groups who may have been responsible for Horner’s killing.

[Washington Post]

TIME Afghanistan

Taliban Order Fighters To Disrupt Afghan Elections

Presidential elections are scheduled to take place in April

The Afghan Taliban issued a warning on Monday against anyone taking part in the upcoming presidential elections on April 5, ordering their fighters to “use all force” to disrupt the polling.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said in a statement that the group is telling clerics across the country to inform locals that the election is “an American conspiracy,” the Associated Press reports.

“We have given orders to all our mujahadeen to use all forces at their disposal to disrupt these upcoming sham election to target all its workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices,” the statement said. It also advised Afghans to not put themselves in danger by going to the polls.

Several incidents of campaign-related violence have been reported in the last month, with the Taliban taking responsibility for some of the attacks. President Hamid Karzai, who became leader following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, is barred from running for a third term.


TIME Afghanistan

Afghan Vice President Dies from Illness

In this Sept. 22, 2011 file photo, Afghanistan’s Vice President Field Marshal Mohammed Qasim Fahim attends a press conference honoring former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul, Afghanistan Kamran Jebreili—AP

Afghanistan's government announced on Sunday that Mohammed Qasim Fahim, who served as the head of the the nation’s intelligence service in the 1990s, and was appointed as first Vice President in 2009, has died of natural causes

Afghan Vice President Marshal Mohammed Qasim Fahim has died of natural causes, the government announced on Sunday, and three national days of mourning will be observed.

The official Twitter account of Aimal Faizi, the spokesperson of President Hamid Karzai, stated that Kabul has called for the flag to be flown at half-mast during that time.

Fahim, 56, was reportedly suffering from diabetes and died as a result of illness at his home in Kabul, according to Tolo News. AFP reports Fahim was labeled a “ruthless strongman” who received U.S. support after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

According to an official biography, Fahim was born in 1957 in Panjshir province in northern Afghanistan. He fought against the nation’s Soviet occupation alongside military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Fahim served as the head of the the nation’s intelligence service in the 1990s, and was appointed as first Vice President in 2009.

His death comes ahead of the planned withdrawal of most foreign troops in December, and less than a month before Afghanistan’s national elections take place. Voters are due to decide a replacement for the mercurial Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from running for another term.

President candidates Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul both quickly expressed their condolences on Twitter. “I am deeply saddened & shocked by the news of Marshal Qasim Fahim, 1st VP’s, passing. My heartfelt condolences with his family and #Afg ppl,” wrote Rassoul, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs who stepped down from office to run for president this year.



Study Suggests Some Mental Health Problems in Army Precede Enlistment

The Pentagon, headquarters of the Department of Defense since 1943. Navy photo

Suicide rates climbed among both soldiers who went to Iraq and Afghanistan and those who never left the U.S.

A major ongoing U.S. Army study has yielded valuable insights and challenged long-held assumptions about why the suicide rate among American soldiers began soaring in the 2000s.

Between 2004 and 2009—during some of the hardest fighting in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—the suicide rate for U.S. soldiers more than doubled, surpassing the rate for their civilian counterparts in 2008. It has since fallen back to a level commensurate with the rate for civilians but, in response to that alarming uptick, in 2008 the Pentagon launched the Army “Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemember” to get to the bottom of the matter.

The survey, which began in 2008 and has sifted through the records of more than a million American soldiers, found that while the suicide rate did climb markedly for soldiers on deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, it also climbed for those who never left the U.S. The findings suggest that overall cultural changes in the military during time of war—rather than just the stress of combat itself—contributes to the significant mental health challenges many in the military have faced in this last decade-plus of war.

In the three reports the study has yielded thus far, researchers report that many of those who suffer from mental health problems while in the military may bring the seeds of those problems into the services with them. Soldiers in the survey were twice as likely to suffer from a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression as civilian counterparts but only about half of those problems came about after enlistment, the New York Times reports.

Soldiers in the survey were more than five times more likely than civilians to experience impulsive anger—likely a key contributing cause of the high suicide rates among U.S. servicemembers; soldiers are less likely than civilians overall to make suicide attempts but more likely to succeed.

“The people at highest risk of making an attempt struggled with depression and anxiety, or post-traumatic stress, in combination with impulsiveness and aggression,” said the lead author on one paper. “The former gets people thinking about suicide, and the latter gets them to act on those thoughts.”


TIME India

Indian Hospitals Are Doing a Roaring Trade in Medical Tourists From Afghanistan

An Afghan child Leema, 17 months, recovers from heart surgery at Narayana Hrudayalaya hospital in Bangalore, India, in this file photo from 2008 Aijaz Rahi / AP

With healthcare in their own country in a parlous state, Afghans who can afford it go overseas for treatment

Jamshed walks out of the gates of the Kasturba Niketan Colony—a gated community in South Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar area, populated mostly by Afghan medical tourists like him. He passes an Afghan grocery store, and heads onto the street outside, glancing at Afghan pharmacies and advertisements for rented accommodation written in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two official languages.

He stops at a roadside nanwayee (Afghan bakery), to buy bread from men in khet partug (Afghan trousers) and walks into Mazaar, one of the many restaurants in the area that serves authentic Afghan food, where he sits gratefully at a table. He has spent the entire day at a Delhi hospital, where his brother is being treated for a brain tumor.

“There are big hospitals in Afghanistan too,” says Jamshed. “But the medicines are mostly fake.”

Delhi’s Little Kabul, as the Lajpat Nagar district has come to be known as in recent times, is testament to Afghanistan’s spiraling medical crisis.

Last week, a report by international charity Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) said one in every five of the patients interviewed had a family member or close friend who had died within the last year due to a lack of access to medical care. Aid money can’t always fix the problem. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) recently revealed that construction defects, and a lack of water, staff and and power, meant that the Salang Hospital in Parwan province was unable to function properly, despite the fact that over half a million dollars had been spent on it.

“Many Afghans continue to struggle to access basic and emergency medical care due to insecurity, distance, cost and the fact that many health facilities do not function adequately,” Benoit De Gryse, MSF Country Representative in Afghanistan told TIME.

(MORE: The Woeful State of Afghan Healthcare)

All this would explain why the numbers of Afghans heading to India for medical treatment is rising. The Indian embassy in Kabul issued 32,200 medical visas in 2013, up from 26,500 in 2012.

“If you have a heart attack and if you are rich you go to London,” says Ajay Bakshi, CEO of Max Hospitals, which clocked 6000 Afghan patients in 2013. “If you are middle class you go to India.”

Few Afghans can afford the sums involved. For most, coming to India means mortgaging property, taking out a loan, or getting sponsorship. Nabiulla Wajekh works in the Afghanistan army as a registration officer. His daughter was born with a hole in her heart and a charity paid for her treatment in Delhi. Even so, the family has had to burn through money for living expenses, with Wajekh spending his meager monthly salary of $300 in two weeks.

“Who wouldn’t want to be able to walk into a hospital in his own country to get well?” he asks.

Although medical treatment would be cheaper and nearer in Pakistan or Iran, political instability in the former, and harassment by the authorities in the latter, means that many Afghans prefer India, which lays out a welcome mat.

India introduced medical visas for Afghans in 2005 and Indian hospitals have been eager to tap this new revenue stream. Many have websites in Dari and Pashto, and separate payment and service desks for Afghans. They offer prayer rooms, Halal food and Afghan cuisine. Almost all hospitals provide interpreters free of charge.

“There’s no huge financial investment in this,” says Max Hospitals’ Bakshi. “But it helps in establishing an emotional connect. It makes them feel taken care of.”

India has a strategic interest in establishing those connections. It has invested heavily in the rebuilding of Afghanistan with $2 billion in aid, seeking to win economic influence, boost security and gain a link to Central Asia. The booming medical tourism industry is a valuable projection of Indian soft power that Afghans are all too aware of. Even the medical professionals.

“Afghanistan at the moment cannot cope with healthcare,” says Mohammad Naim, who came to India to treat his uncle’s stomach cancer. His job? Surgeon, at the Mazaar-e-Shariff government hospital in northern Afghanistan.

TIME Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s President is Furious at the Way the U.S. Has Conducted the War

Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestures during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on January 25, 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestures during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on January 25, 2014. Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images

Hamid Karzai says he's in two minds over whether the war was worth it

In an emotional interview with the Washington Post, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has opened up about his disappointment with the way the U.S. has fought the war in his country, saying the high number of civilian casualties made him question whether the war had been worth it.

Karzai has been known for his at times vocal and adversarial stance towards the U.S. military, saying that noncombatant deaths had eroded what “common cause” Kabul and Washington had.

“I had no other weapon to resort to, no other means to resort to, but to speak publicly and get attention that way,” he told the Post. “In other words, I was forced to yell.”

The U.S. military’s efforts to reduce civilian casualties have not mollified Karzai, who said “Afghans died in a war that’s not ours” and added that his emotions would not subside until “two, three or five years from now.”

Leading the reporters out of his office, Karzai told them to give the American people “my best wishes and my gratitude” but to send “my anger, my extreme anger” to the U.S. government.

[Washington Post]

TIME Afghanistan

Obama Warns Afghanistan Leader of U.S. Withdrawal

Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestures during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on January 25, 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestures during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on January 25, 2014. Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images

Unless a so-called Bilateral Security Agreement is reached soon

President Barack Obama told President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on Tuesday that the United States is making preparations to remove all troops from the country after 2014 in the absence of an acceptable longer-term security agreement, the White House said.

“President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the [Bilateral Security Agreement], the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning,” the White House said in a statement describing a phone call between the two leaders.

Obama’s message amounts to the latest round of brinksmanship between the two countries. Karzai has increasingly bucked and publicly criticized his American backers, and has refused to sign a security agreement that was endorsed by a powerful council of tribal elders. While leaving open the possibility that a so-called BSA governing the status of American forces in Afghanistan could be agreed upon at a later date, and that the U.S. could still stay in Afghanistan after 2014, the White House said Obama emphasized that “the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel echoed Obama’s position.

“The Department of Defense will move ahead with additional contingency planning to ensure adequate plans are in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal,” Hagel said in a statement Tuesday. “This is a prudent step given that President Karzai has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would provide DoD personnel with critical protections and authorities after 2014.

TIME Afghanistan

New Report Reveals Woeful State of Afghanistan’s Health Care

A new report by Médecins Sans Frontières details gaping holes in Afghanistan's public health system as the country's occupation by foreign troops draws to an end

As the almost 13-year-occupation of Afghanistan by foreign troops draws to an end, a new report by Médecins Sans Frontières highlights jarring shortcomings in the public health system they’ll be leaving behind. These pictures, by documentary photographers Andrea Bruce and Mikhail Galustov, both of whom have spent years covering the war’s toll on the innocent, are paired with the aid group’s findings.

The report released Tuesday concludes that access to basic or emergency medical care remains hard to reach—or beyond grasp—for many Afghans despite years of Western involvement and billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance. Aid workers interviewed hundreds of hospital patients over the course of six months in Helmand, Kabul, Khost and Kunduz provinces. The results of their survey strike a blow to “prevailing narratives of progress,” says MSF, as battles with the Taliban rage and international aid dries up.

Some clinics lack qualified staff, specific medicines and even electricity, MSF was told. One-fifth of patients interviewed said a family member or close friend had died in the past year due to a lack of access to proper care. Among the main barriers for reaching treatment were high costs and lack of money, long distances and the armed conflict. “The fighting doesn’t stop when there are injured people, so we can’t get them to a doctor. So we wait, and then they die, and the fighting continues,” said one man, a 25-year-old principal in the northern Baghlan Province. “Even if you are able to move with your wounded, you still have to get through roadblocks, checkpoints, questioning and harassment before you can reach the hospital.” Forty percent of interviewees who reached the hospitals said they encountered those hardships, among others.

MSF does note that the number of health facilities has risen “considerably” over the past decade and that national statistics claim more than 57 percent of people now live within an hour’s walk of a public health facility—up from nine percent in 2001—but that’s just about all the good news that there is. With this report and accompanying photographs, the organization calls on international donors, other aid groups and the Afghan government to begin filling in the gaps and meeting the needs of a population wracked by decades of war before the situation gets any worse. —Andrew Katz

TIME Afghanistan

Intelligence Chief Says Afghanistan Leader Unlikely to Sign Security Pact

US Army soldier from 3rd Platoon Chaos C
A U.S. Army soldier from 3rd Platoon Chaos Company 1-75 Cavalry 2nd Brigade 101st Airborne Devision points his gun during a patrol in Siah Choy village in Zari district of Kandahar province, south of Afghanistan on Oct. 24, 2010. Massoud Hossaini—AFP/Getty Images

James Clapper says Hamid Karzai probably won't strike a deal for U.S. troops to stay

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is unlikely to sign a security agreement allowing American troops to stay in the country through the end of this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Tuesday.

During a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, asked Clapper if it might be best to concede now that the U.S. will need to wait until the Karzai’s successor takes office to finalize the security agreement.

“Well, obviously it takes two to sign this. And it’s my own view, not necessarily company policy,” Clapper said, making a distinction between the official position and his personal assessment, “I don’t believe President Karzai is going to sign it.”

The Obama administration has been pushing for the security pact to give it breathing room as it works to decide whether to leave a contingent of U.S. troops in the country or pull out altogether. Karzai has turned cold on the agreement in recent weeks, even though the loya jirga—a powerful committee of 2,500 elders from around Afghanistan—gave its approval to the pact.

TIME olympics

Olympic Critics Turn Sochi’s Opening Gala Into a Pity Party

The VIP bash for Russia's elite was meant to be fabulous but the mood was sour

On Thursday night, the eve of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a selection of Russia’s rich and famous got together for the Games’ unofficial opening – a gala in the city’s renovated sea port, which overlooks a harbor full of yachts and, a little further out to sea, navy patrol boats. It was, in many ways, a distinctly Russian party. Foreigners were conspicuously few in number. The tables creaked with mayonnaise-laden salads, herring, vodka and the dish most typical of New Russian cuisine – the sushi roll. But the usual frivolity of the Moscow beau monde had clearly been soured by all the bad press the Sochi Olympics have already been garnering. As the night wore on, it gave the chatter near the bar a tone of mutual commiseration, making it feel less like a ball than an extravagant pity party.

“Listen, we tried,” pouted Iosif Kobzon, the Russian crooner-turned-politician who often gets compared to Frank Sinatra. “We never promised to be the best at everything. We only promised to pour our hearts into these Games. And we have!”

But from all the flak these Olympics are taking from the Western press and Russian dissidents, you might not get that impression. Reports of unfinished hotels, detachable door handles, banned yogurt, unusual toilet arrangements, missing floors and other glaring Olympic oversights have dominated global coverage in the lead-up to the Games, and for the Russians who have spent the last few years touting their awesomeness, that seemed to hurt.

“Of course it hurts,” says Andrei Malakhov, the effervescent host of Russia’s most popular talk show, who came to the party in a bright red Olympic jumpsuit. “What do the Americans have to complain about? I saw their hotels. Every masseuse is fluttering around them, not even making time for me! And still all they see is the horrible stuff. Yes, it exists. But this is supposed to be a party.”

And even copious amounts of alcohol couldn’t get this one going. Pouring it up at last night’s gala was the vodka-and-banking billionaire Roustam Tariko, who tried to keep an uncharacteristically low profile. “Vodka and sport don’t make such a good pair,” he told me by the bar. “So we try to stay behind the scenes.”

To wit, his VIP lounge was kept hidden from a lot of the guests at Thursday’s party, tucked behind two layers of security guards in a far wing of the sea port. On the red velvet couches inside, Russian movie stars and TV personalities sipped brandy beside their waifish model wives, glancing now and then at the walls full of socialist realist paintings of Russia’s last Olympics, the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Yet even when the band started playing La Bamba, none of them got up to dance. “Maybe by midnight someone’ll get drunk,” remarked a bored photographer. It never happened.

The party was reserved, certainly by Russian standards. Toward midnight, the Kremlin officials and lawmakers poured out of the small dining room to which they had secluded themselves for most of the night, helped their wives into their mink coats and made their way to the exit. Near the door, Kobzon, the crooner, stopped to reminisce with a few of the older statesmen about the Games of 1980, which was a low-point for the Olympic spirit.

The Winter Games were held that February in Lake Placid, New York, and overall, the Soviet Union handed the U.S. a beating, taking home 10 gold medals and topping the winners’ table. But that was also the year of the so-called Miracle on Ice, when the American hockey team beat out the Soviets by one goal in the final period. “Oh, how we wept after that game,” recalls Kobzon, who was part of the Soviet delegation to Lake Placid. A few months later, the weeping turned to anger when the U.S. led an international boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow. Though it was meant as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that year, the snub also tarnished the Olympic tradition of letting sport rise above the bad blood of the Cold War.

It was an experience no one at the Sochi opening party wanted to repeat, not even the few icons of the Russian opposition who were invited. Andrey Makarevich, Russia’s most famous rock musician, wrote many of the anthems of the Soviet dissident movement, and he still likes to lampoon the Kremlin in some of his lyrics today. But on Thursday, he also put on the garish Olympic uniform of Team Russia and mingled with the politicians. “For these two weeks, you have to call a truce,” he told me in the vodka room. “We have to pause all the politics and let the Games be a celebration. When it’s over, we can go back to criticizing each other.” Maybe after Friday night, when the official opening ceremony will try to win over the world, some of Sochi’s critics will start to agree.

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