TIME Afghanistan

Hopes for Survivors Fade After Afghan Landslides

At least 2,100 people are presumed dead after two catastrophic landslides buried hundreds of homes in the Argo district in the mountainous northeastern state of Badakhshan, Afghanistan

TIME Afghanistan

Over 2,100 Reportedly Dead in Afghanistan Landslide

Approximately 24 hours after 2 landslides buried over 2000 residents of Argo district in the mountainous northeastern state of Badakhshan under hundreds of feet of mud. The first landslide buried some 300 homes and those who had been inside or on the streets at the time as well as those attending a wedding party. The second landslide struck as villagers attempted to rescue those trapped - digging with shovels and their bare hands. Today - Saturday - rescuers called off a search for survivors due to a lack of heavy machinery required for the massive task, however, some men continued to dig about above where there homes had once been. Mohammad Karim Khalili, one of Afghanistan’s two Vice Presidents along with a handful of ministers travelled from Kabul to pay their respects at the site of the landslide today. Saturday 3 May, 2014. Photo by Andrew Quilty / Oculi for TIME.
The search for survivors in the Argo district was hampered by poor weather and insufficient tools, May 3, 2014. Andrew Quilty—Oculi for TIME

Rescuers have called off the search in the mountainous Argo district after at least 2,100 villagers were buried under hundreds of feet of mud. They are now focusing on helping the estimated 4,000 people displaced by the disaster

The death toll of a catastrophic landslide in a remote part of Afghanistan reportedly rose to at least 2,100 on Saturday, after a rescue effort slowed by lack of equipment and bad conditions.

Rescuers called off a search in the mountainous Argo district of the northeastern state of Badakhshan after over 2,000 villagers were buried under hundreds of feet of mud, Reuters reports, and turned their attention to the estimated 4,000 displaced by the disaster.

“More than 2,100 people from 300 families are all dead,” Naweed Forotan, a spokesman for Badakhshan’s provincial governor, told Reuters.

Two consecutive landslides took place on Friday morning after the area had been pummeled by heavy rains all week, according to the United Nations. The organization said that in addition to the mounting loss of life, the landslide had caused widespread damage to property and agriculture in the district. Badakhshan, a mountainous province in the far northeast of the country, borders Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.

Local officials had warned that the search for survivors and bodies would be slow, given the lack of equipment on hand in the far-flung district. Rescuers themselves faced a third potential landslide as they set to manually trying dig through the some 330 feet of mud.

With scores assumed dead, the U.N. mission in Afghanistan was said to have shifted its attention to at least 4,000 people forced to leave their homes, either directly due to Friday’s landslide or as a precautionary measure against future landslides.

The operation will test the capacity of Afghan security forces, which were deployed to the area to assist on Friday, according to reports. President Hamid Karzai, who is set to step down in the next few months once a new government is formed, said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened,” and that he had “ordered relevant entities to provide immediate assistance to people affected by the natural disaster and to urgently rescue those who are trapped under the debris.”

President Barack Obama, offering his condolences to the victims and their families during a press conference on Friday, said the U.S. was ready to help if requested. “Even as our war there comes to an end this year, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people will endure,” Obama said. “We stand ready to help our Afghan partners as they respond to this disaster.”

The disaster follows close on the heels of deadly flash floods in northern Afghanistan that left over 100 dead and displaced thousands more. “On behalf of the UN humanitarian agencies, I wish to extend our condolences to all those families who have lost loved ones as a result of these landslides,” Mark Bowden, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Afghanistan, said in a UN news release. “There have now been more Afghans killed through natural disasters in the past seven days than all of 2013.”

TIME Afghanistan

2,000 Missing in Afghanistan Landslide

Afghan villagers gather at the site of a landslide at the Argo district in Badakhshan province, May 2, 2014.
Afghan villagers gather at the site of a landslide at the Argo district in Badakhshan province, May 2, 2014. Reuters

About 300 homes were destroyed after intense rains caused a hill to collapse on the village Hobo Barik

Updated: Friday, 12:35 p.m. ET

A landslide in a remote village of northeastern Afghanistan buried about 300 homes and left about 2,000 people missing Friday, an official said.

A spokesman for the United Nations said at least 350 people were confirmed dead so far, the Associated Press reports. Search efforts were underway but rescuers were strapped for supplies and officials in nearby villages were worried about the possibility of additional landslides.

“It’s physically impossible right now,” Gov. Shah Waliullah Adeeb, of Badakshan province, told the AP. “We don’t have enough shovels; we need more machinery.”

Initial reports had tallied the number of missing people at 250, with seven rescued. The landslide reportedly occurred after intense rains caused a hill to collapse on the village Hobo Barik.


TIME Military

Ending Afghanistan’s Drug Addiction Is Looking Like ‘Mission Implausible’

Afghan farmers tend to their poppy fields outside Jalalabad last month. Noorullah Shirzada—AFP/Getty Images

The Pentagon watchdog overseeing American efforts in Afghanistan says that the country’s booming opium industry is enjoying unprecedented growth that will fuel Taliban insurgents and challenge the government in Kabul

As U.S. troops continue to pull out of Afghanistan, the country’s booming poppy crops and the opium they yield have reached unprecedented levels that will fuel Taliban insurgents and challenge the government in Kabul, the Pentagon watchdog overseeing Afghanistan says.

“We don’t really have an effective strategy” to counter Afghanistan’s expanding narcotics industry, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said in an interview Thursday. “Cultivation is up, drug usage is up, production is up, seizures are down, eradication is down, corruption is up—if you look at all those indices, it’s a failure.” And the U.S. is running out of time to change course.


The U.S. has spent $7.5 billion trying to eradicate Afghanistan’s poppy crop since invading the country on Oct. 7, 2001, shortly after Osama bin Laden oversaw the 9/11 attacks from his sanctuary inside the country. But since 2008, the U.S. and its allies have succeeded in eliminating less than 4% of it, according to satellite imagery. Seizures of opium are even less, accounting for about 1% of production.

The bottom line is bleak: if the U.S., with all of its military might and money, couldn’t tame Afghanistan’s drug problem in 13 years, what chance does a weak central Afghan government have after most of those American troops leave? The Afghan drug trade is like a colony of termites eating away at the framing of an Afghan society the U.S. hoped to build.

“If our policy was to assure we had a stable government in Afghanistan, so it would not be open to be a terrorist sanctuary to attack us—and that’s our stated goal for why we’ve lost 2,300 GIs and spent billions and billions of dollars—we’ve got a grave problem,” Sopko says.

Afghanistan is the source of about 90% of the world’s opium. Its farmers dedicated more than 500,000 acres to the opium poppy’s cultivation in 2013, up 36% from 2012. Much of that crop is sold to the Taliban, who pocket an estimated $100 million annually to fund anti-government forces. “The drug trade undermines the Afghan government because it funds the insurgency, fuels corruption, and distorts the economy,” the IG said in his latest quarterly report. “Moreover, the number of domestic addicts is growing.”

The report is crammed with grim statistics: an estimated 7.5% of Afghan adults use illegal drugs. And while Kabul has established 50 drug-treatment centers across the country, their patients represent only 1% of the nation’s addicts. In some sections of the country, half the parents provide opium to their children, the UN has reported.

Whatever gains the U.S. and its allies may have achieved in Afghanistan are in jeopardy so long as drug money flows freely, distorts Afghanistan’s economy and encourages corruption. (Last year, 50 of the 700 Afghans arrested by special anti-drug units and convicted in Afghan courts were government employees). Sopko, whose assignment is limited to scrubbing the existing efforts—not proposing new ones—concedes the challenge. “It’s extremely difficult, and the people are trying their darndest, and many have died,” he adds. “But the bottom line is, it hasn’t worked.”

Sopko is a veteran government investigator whose blunt assessments often anger those he’s investigating, at least in public. “Off the record, [the U.S. officials responsible for the counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan] say ‘it’s a disaster,’” he says. “On the record, they say `this is a long-term project that’s going to take many years.’”

The inspector general isn’t telling the Pentagon anything it doesn’t know. “Narcotics continued to play an integral role in financing the insurgency, creating instability and enabling corruption,” the Defense Department said in a report to Congress last month assessing recent progress.

The root of the problem is economics, not narcotics. The subsistence farmers growing poppies will grow whatever puts the most food on their tables. “They are not inherently criminals, they are not even politically motivated in what they are trying to do,” William Brownfield, who heads the State Department’s counter-narcotics efforts, told a congressional panel in February. “They conclude that they can make $500 a year if they grow wheat, but they can make $2,000 a year if they grow opium poppy, so they grow opium poppies.”

From 2011 to 2013, as the U.S. troop presence dropped from nearly 100,000 to less than 70,000, the number of drug raids fell 17%. The seizures of opium dropped by 57%, and heroin dropped by 77%. There are now about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and most, if not all, of them are set to pull out by the end of the year.


The provinces’ quest to achieve annual “poppy-free status” has focused Afghan efforts on provinces close to that goal, which makes them eligible for $1 million to build schools, hospitals, roads and other public works. Fifteen of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces were declared poppy-free last year, two fewer than in 2012. The Afghans are concentrating their anti-narcotics efforts on low-hanging fruit. “The majority of Afghan seizures are a result of routine police operations near population centers or transportation corridors, such as at checkpoints or border crossings,” the report says. That focus has “contributed to the concentration of poppy cultivation in limited, remote, and largely insecure areas of the country.”

While 2013 saw peak poppy production in Afghanistan, this year could yield an even bigger crop. That’s because Afghan forces dedicated to anti-narcotic tasks had to be diverted to help secure the recent election, which coincided with the poppy-growing and eradication season. It’s a perverse twist: efforts to nurture democracy helped the poppies flourish, which eventually could doom whatever kind of democracy the U.S. bequeathes Afghanistan at year’s end.

TIME Military

TBIs MIA: An Estimated 30,000 Undocumented Bruised Brains

Army Explosives Team Destroys Roadside Bombs In Iraq
Captured explosives used in roadside bombs are detonated by an Army bomb-disposal unit in Baghdad in 2005. John Moore / Getty Images

The Pentagon recorded only half of the wars' traumatic brain injuries, a new study estimates

Despite its vaunted intelligence-gathering capability, the U.S. military was surprised when enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan began building and deploying roadside bombs to kill and maim U.S. troops.

It got so bad that a soldier asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld nearly two years into the Iraq war why U.S. troops were forced to defend themselves against such improvised explosive devices with homemade “hillbilly armor.”

“You go to war with the Army you have,” Rumsfeld told the soldier, “not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” It took the Pentagon three more years before Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles finally began trickling into Iraq.

While the troops were waiting for that armor, the Pentagon was also neglecting to track the traumatic brain injuries caused by such blasts, a new medical study says. TBIs—the “signature wound” of the post-9/11 wars—are tough to diagnose and treat. Without a good accounting of those who experienced a TBI, those challenges multiply.

The report’s authors, using amputations as a proxy for TBIs, conclude that the military documented only one in five TBIs estimated to have affected U.S. troops between 2003 and 2006. Responding to legislation, the Pentagon began tracking TBIs more closely beginning in 2007.

Overall, during the eight years spanning 2003 to 2010, the study estimates that 32,822 active-duty troops suffered undocumented TBI wounds. That’s more than the 32,176 documented by the Pentagon over the same period of time. “This analysis provides the first estimate of undocumented incident TBIs among US military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan” before Congress demanded the improved counting, the report says.

Such missing diagnoses are important, says the study, conducted by a pair of Johns Hopkins University health experts. Undocumented TBIs could lead to troops being booted from the military as malingerers or for personality disorders—discharges that could restrict their access to care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

For those remaining in uniform, it could lead to additional combat tours, boosting their chances of a second TBI and the “visual and auditory deficits, posttraumatic epilepsy, headaches, major depression, and suicide risk” that accompany multiple TBIs, according to the study. Even a so-called “mild” TBI can rattle the (helmeted) brain inside the skull, leading to a host of maladies including memory loss, cognitive deficits, mood volatility, substance-abuse disorders, personality changes, sleep difficulties and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder.

“In recent years, the U.S. military has generally been reactive, rather than proactive, in responding to public health crises, including suicide, psychotropic drug misuse, and gaps in wounded warrior care,” says Remington Nevin, a co-author of the study. “Public-health leaders within the Department of Defense have a troubling history of having epidemics and programmatic deficiencies identified only by outsiders long after the time to act has passed, rather than having these identified internally in time to mount an optimally effective response.”

A top Army psychiatrist at the time says troops minimized the issue, and their leaders weren’t seeking it out. “Soldiers did not want to come forward, for fear that would be taken out of the fight, or thought to be malingerers,” says retired Army colonel Elspeth Ritchie. “And we — the medics and the line [officers] — were not looking for it.”

The authors used an interesting yardstick to estimate the number of undocumented TBIs: they calculated them by developing a mathematic formula that established a relationship between amputations and TBIs, based on the wars’ later years when the Pentagon was more rigorously tracking TBIs. Unlike TBIs—the so-called “invisible wounds” of the nation’s post 9/11 wars—amputations are visible and easily counted.

IED blasts cause most TBIs and amputations, making missing limbs a good tool to estimate the missing TBIs, says the paper, by Rachel Chase and Nevin of Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Including amputation counts in the model as a proxy for injury causing events is appropriate, given strong clinical and ecological evidence of common mechanisms of injury” for amputations and TBIs, they write in an article in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation slated to be posted next week.

Too often, wars’ impacts aren’t gleaned until years later. Mustard gas experiments poisoned thousands during World War II. Cold War nuclear-weapons tests are suspected of causing cancer. Agent Orange was the ticking time bomb in Vietnam—the Department of Veterans Affairs is still adding to its list of medical consequences. Gulf War Syndrome stemming from the first war with Iraq, in 1991, remains a mystery. Traumatic brain injury is simply the latest in the list of war’s unintended repercussions.

The authors put together two Pentagon charts and circled the missing TBIs. Nevin
TIME Afghanistan

Afghanistan Presidential Election Set For Run-Off

Abdullah Abdullah
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah talks during an interview with the Associated Press at his residence in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 24, 2014. Massoud Hossaini—AP

None of the candidates received the necessary 50% of vote to win outright in the April 5 election, according to preliminary results. The two leading candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, are expected to face off again in late May

Afghanistan’s former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah won the most votes in the country’s election of a new president, but not enough to avoid a run-off election with second place rival Ashraf Ghani.

None of the candidates in the April 5 election received the necessary 50% of the votes to win outright, according to preliminary results. The winner will replace outgoing President Hamid Karzai, who is constitutionally forbidden from running for a third term.

Abdullah, who ran against Karzai in the previous presidential election in 2009, won the most votes with 44.9 percent, the BBC reports. Former finance minister and World Bank official Ghani received 31.5 percent. The two could plausibly form a coalition government together, but are expected to compete in a run-off.

Final results will be confirmed on May 14 to allow time to process complaints. Reports of fraud have been increasing amid accusations from all sides that votes were purposefully miscounted and ballot boxes were stuffed. A run-off vote is expected to take place on May 28.


TIME Military

Killing of 3 Americans Raises New Questions About Afghanistan and Iraq

An Afghan policeman outside Kabul's Cure hospital, where another Afghan policeman killed three U.S. doctors Thursday. SHAH MARAI / AFP / Getty Images

The deaths of three U.S. doctors at the hands of an Afghan policeman raises questions about a continued American presence there

The killing of three U.S. medical personnel Thursday, allegedly by an Afghan policeman guarding their hospital, raises anew questions about the wisdom of a continued U.S. presence there, in uniform, scrubs or any other kind of garb. While U.S. troops may have increased protection after a spate of so-called blue-on-green attacks in recent years, the lifesavers working at Kabul’s Cure International Hospital apparently were slain by a policeman dedicated to their protection.

The murders come as two veteran reporters file on what life is like in Iraq, where the last U.S. troops left in 2011; and Afghanistan, where the U.S. troop presence has shrunk to 33,000, on the way to removing all U.S. combat troops by year’s end.

“Two years after the last American soldiers departed, it’s hard to find any evidence that they were ever there,” Dexter Filkins writes of Iraq in the latest New Yorker. Bombings are a deadly, and everyday, occurrence. Filkins notes that the U.S. started pushing for the election of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister in 2006, after a Central Intelligence Agency officer recommended him to U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. “Among many Iraqis, the concern is that their country is falling again into civil war,” he writes, “and that it is Maliki who has driven it to the edge.”

A total of 4,486 U.S. troops died in Iraq.

Meanwhile, 1,800 miles away in Afghanistan, a unit from the 82nd Airborne Division recently returned and came “looking for a fight.” But it hasn’t happened. “Although they’re still preparing for the worse, the soldiers are discovering that the Afghanistan they left in 2012 isn’t the same country they returned to,” Drew Brooks of the Fayetteville Observer wrote Tuesday. “The job of fighting off insurgents now falls to Afghan national security forces.”

It was a member of those forces who killed the three Americans earlier today.

A total of 2,317 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan.

Two countries, one lesson: there is more than one way to win, or lose, a war.

TIME Afghanistan

Afghan Security Guard Kills Three U.S. Doctors at a Kabul Hospital

Afghan policemen keep watch as foreign nationals wait outside the Cure hospital in Kabul on April 24, 2014 Shah Marai—AFP/Getty Images

Three American doctors were killed by an Afghan policeman at the Cure International Hospital on Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has confirmed. The suspected shooter, newly assigned to guard the hospital, was wounded and is being held and treated

Updated 12:24 p.m. ET Thursday

Three doctors working for a charity in Afghanistan were killed in Kabul on Thursday after being gunned down by a local security guard at a hospital.

The assault occurred at the Cure International Hospital on Thursday morning, according to the New York Times.

According to the U.S. embassy in Kabul, all three of the victims in the shooting were American citizens. They included a doctor as well as a father and son visiting the facility, Afghan Health Minister Suriya Dalil told Reuters. The security guard behind the attack was reportedly shot and injured during the melee.

“The United States condemns the attack today in Kabul that killed three Americans working to provide health care to Afghans,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a Thursday statement. “Any such attack on civilians at a hospital is despicable and cowardly. We send our deepest condolences to the families of all those killed and injured.”

The assault comes weeks after an Afghan police officer opened fire on two AP journalists in the eastern city of Khost in early April. AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed during the shooting and correspondent Kathy Gannon was injured.

This story has been updated to include National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden’s statement and Afghan Health Minister Suriya Dali’s comments on the identities of the victims.



Abdullah Ahead in Latest Afghanistan Election Results

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah speaks to the media after voting at a polling station in Kabul
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah speaks to the media after voting at a polling station in Kabul on April 5, 2014 Ahmad Masood—Reuters

Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has pulled ahead with 44 percent of the votes tallied so far, followed by former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai with 33.2 percent, though final results won't be announced until May 14

Updated: April 21, 6:40 a.m.

Partial results from Afghanistan’s presidential election released Sunday reveal candidate Abdullah Abdullah as the front runner, though a runoff election still appears likely.

Abdullah, a former Foreign Minister who ran against outgoing President Hamid Karzai in the last election, has 44 percent of the votes that have been tallied so far, the Associated Press reports. Abdullah’s closest competitor, former Finance Minister and World Bank official Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, has received 33.2 percent of the vote. Either candidate will need to secure more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission announced the results, which represent close to half of the approximately 7 million votes cast in the April 5 election. Final election results are expected on May 14.

The victor will oversee Afghanistan through a period of transition as the U.S. and other NATO countries are expected to withdraw troops from the nation. Both candidates have called for a new start with Western countries and have promised to sign a U.S. security pact with which Karzai has refused to agree.


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