TIME Foreign Policy

House Speaker John Boehner Visits Afghanistan

Speaker of the House John Bohener arrives for his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Speaker of the House John Bohener arrives for his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer—Getty Images

Republican delegation's visit comes as presidential elections continue, and as U.S. officials weigh how many—if any—American troops to leave in the country after the end of the year, when U.S. operations there are set to conclude

Speaker of the House John Boehner visited Afghanistan Monday, the highest-profile visit by an American official since that country’s first round of presidential voting earlier this month.

Boehner and a number of House Republicans met with American forces, as well as Ambassador James Cunningham and General Joseph Dunford, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. According to a statement from Boehner’s office, “the delegation sent a strong, unequivocal message that the House of Representatives wants to maintain a right-sized presence in Afghanistan to successfully complete the work that has been done to date, and to honor the sacrifice of thousands of troops and civilians, as well as their families.”

The Republican delegation’s visit comes as U.S. officials weigh how many—if any—American troops to leave in Afghanistan after the end of the year, when U.S. operations there are set to conclude. President Barack Obama has stated a desire to keep some American troops in Afghanistan for counterterrorism and training purposes, but ordered the Pentagon in February to draw up plans for a complete withdrawal from the country, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that would provide legal protections for remaining U.S. troops. However, every frontrunner in the presidential election to replace Karzai has said they would sign the bilateral agreement.

Boehner sought to pay tribute to troops who had fought in Afghanistan since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Many Americans have sacrificed to secure these goals, and far too many have made the ultimate sacrifice or suffered life-changing wounds in the past twelve years of fighting,” he said in a statement. “Now, the Afghans are poised to elect a new government for the first time in their history. We must honor the sacrifices of the Americans and Afghans who have given so much to reach this point and continue our work together.”

House Education & Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN), Natural Resources Committee Chairman ‘Doc’ Hastings (R-WA), Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI), Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), and Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) accompanied Boehner on the trip, according to the statement.

Obama last visited Afghanistan in May 2012.

TIME Afghanistan

Afghan Election Marred by Fraud as Early Results Point Toward Runoff

Partial vote count results
Afghan election workers from the Independent Election Commission (IEC) count ballots in Kabul, April 13, 2014. S. Sabawoon—EPA

Early results indicate the Afghan election could be headed for a runoff, but hundreds of cases of fraud have already been reported. The election-complaints commission said it may have to extend the time period for reviewing complaints

Afghan officials are warning of widespread fraud in the country’s presidential election, even as early vote counts indicate a runoff is likely.

Early results show candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani appear to be leading the race to succeed President Hamid Karzai by significant margins, the New York Times reports. The preliminary count reflects 10% of the votes cast in 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, with Abdullah and Ghani holding 41.9% and 37.6% of the vote, respectively.

However, fraud is likely to have a dramatic effect on the election. The election-complaints commission said Sunday it had received so many reports of fraud that it may have to extend the time period for reviewing complaints.

The commission said there were 870 incidents of fraud important enough to sway the results, more than the 815 incidents reported during the 2009 election.

“We are investigating fraudulent votes very carefully, and there’s a strong possibility that some of the vote will be disqualified,” said Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, head of the election commission.

The votes are set to be fully counted by April 24, and a runoff election, if needed, would be held as early as May 28.

[NYT]

TIME Afghanistan

Afghanistan Goes To The Polls

An estimated 7 million people turned out to participate in Afghanistan's presidential election, despite bad weather and threats of violence from Taliban militants

TIME Afghanistan

Afghanistan Defies Taliban Threats To Vote in Historic Polls

Afghan women wait to cast their ballots at a polling station in Mazar-i-sharif
Afghan women wait to cast their ballots at a polling station in Mazar-i-sharif April 5, 2014. Zohra Bensemraz—Reuters

Despite warnings of violence by the Taliban, Afghans turned out in large numbers to vote in Saturday's presidential election. Afghan forces were dispatched in a massive operation across the nation to protect voters

Updated 4:00 p.m. ET

Seven million Afghans braved security threats and inclement weather on Saturday to vote for their next president. Despite persistent intimidation and attacks by the Taliban in the weeks ahead of the April 5 polls, voter turnout was high in what many hope will be the war-torn nation’s first peaceful and democratic transition of power since 2001.

President Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since 2001 and is constitutionally barred from running again, cast his vote for his successor in the morning. Eight candidates are vying to take his place; the three frontrunners are Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, and Zalmai Rassoul. In such a wide field, the likelihood that one candidate will get the votes needed to win outright is slim. A runoff vote between the top candidates is widely expected, meaning that Afghanistan may not get its next government in place until the summer.

Officials and citizens’ central concerns as the presidential and provincial elections got underway were security and fraud. The Taliban had vowed to disrupt the vote, and ran a campaign of high-profile attacks in Kabul and other parts of the country in recent weeks. The day before voting started, two female foreign journalists traveling with election workers were attacked by an Afghan police officer in eastern Khost province. Anja Niedringhaus, a Pulitzer-prize-winning photographer working for the Associated Press, was shot and killed.

Afghan forces were dispatched in a massive operation across the nation to protect voters. Much of Kabul was reportedly blocked off to traffic, and in less stable parts of the country, the election commission closed hundreds of polling centers before the vote, in no small part to prevent ballot stuffing in places where voters and observers would be largely absent. After the 2009 presidential election, some 1.5 million votes were disqualified, according to the election commission. Karzai remained in power, but such widespread fraud this time around could lead to a protracted power struggle in a larger field of candidates.

Over the course of the day, a sense of euphoria built on social media as photos poured in of long lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots and proudly showing off their ink-stained fingers after their turn. A total of seven million out of 12 million eligible voters, or 58 percent showed up to vote, despite the Taliban’s threats, Al Jazeera reports. There were scattered bombings and attacks throughout the country and several deaths were reported, but the violence was less intense than expected.

“On behalf of the American people, I congratulate the millions of Afghans who enthusiastically participated in today’s historic elections,” said President Barack Obama in a statement. “These elections are critical to securing Afghanistan’s democratic future.”

There were reports Saturday that some polling centers had run out of ballots — a better problem to have than widespread violence, but also one that underscores the work still ahead in this historic transition for Afghanistan. Today’s enthusiastic and inspiring vote was a good start.

TIME Afghanistan

Afghanistan Goes To The Polls

Afghan women wait to cast their ballots at a polling station in Mazar-i-sharif
Afghan women wait to cast their ballots at a polling station in Mazar-i-sharif April 5, 2014. Zohra Bensemraz—Reuters

Afghans defied threats of violence by the Taliban to turn out in large numbers to vote in Saturday's presidential election. About 12 million Afghans are eligible to vote in the election where eight candidates are running

Afghan voters braved cold, rain, and the threat of violence by the Taliban to cast their ballots Saturday, lining up at the polls in strong numbers to democratically transfer power for the first time in the country’s history.

There were few reports of violence Saturday, though a roadside bomb killed two policeman returning from a polling station in southern city of Qalat, and four voters were wounded in an explosion at a polling center in a southeastern province, Reuters reports. The Taliban had vowed to derail the elections, calling it a U.S.-manipulated sham.

The United Nations and other foreign donors funded the $100 million election, reports the New York Times.

About 12 million Afghans are eligible to vote in the election for eight candidates. The election is expected to end in a runoff with three leading candidates divvying up the vote.

More than 350,000 Afghan troops were mobilized to protect polling stations and voters, who formed long lines to cast their ballots across the country. Relatively few polling stations were closed under threat of violence.

Afghans had voted previously to elect current president Hamid Karzai in 2004 and re-elect him in a messy 2009 election that occurred amidst massive fraud, but Saturday’s vote is the first to elect a new president in the country’s history.

[Reuters]

TIME Behind the Photos

In Memoriam: Anja Niedringhaus (1965—2014)

Afghanistan, with its stark landscapes, indigo skies and diverse population, has always been a photojournalists’ dream assignment. Ever since the sandaled mujahidin first used their rocket propelled grenades against the invading Soviet army, photographers have been infected with the country’s eerie beauty, sucked back time and again as the story cycled through civil war, the Taliban era, the American war and finally a fragile peace capped by presidential elections that promised at least a glimmer of stability.

And no one has covered that story as well as German photographer Anja Niedringhaus, a dedicated correspondent who lost her life on April 4 covering preparations for those elections, when she and her Associated Press colleague Kathy Gannon were shot by a uniformed Afghan police officer in Khost Province. “In Afghanistan of all places. It is just so tragic that this would have happened to her there,” says an old friend and fellow photojournalist Moises Saman. “She was just really committed to that country in particular. You could see it in the sensitivity of her work, her understanding of that country.”

Afghanistan Photographer Killed
AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus in Rome, 2005. Peter Dejong—AP

Gannon, 60, has undergone surgery and is likely to survive, according to the Associated Press, but Niedringhaus, 48, died instantly. Both were veteran Afghan hands who had worked together for years, lending a deep, nuanced take on a country that resists superficial explorations. “I have never met journalists more passionate about the people of Afghanistan than Anja and Kathy,” says a colleague, who asked not to be named pending permission to comment from AP. “They visited more of the country than any other journalist, and Anja showed a side of Afghanistan that few have ever seen. It’s just a devastating loss.”

Afghanistan, once a relatively safe place to work, has become increasingly deadly for journalists in the run up to the elections. Just last month Swedish-British radio reporter Nils Horner was shot dead in downtown Kabul. Days later Sardar Ahmad of the Agence France Press was gunned down, along with his wife and two children, in an attack on a luxury hotel in Kabul. His youngest son, two-year-old Abuzar, survived several gunshot wounds.

Nor were Gannon and Niedringhaus taking unnecessary risks. They were traveling with election officials in a convoy guarded by government soldiers. Like most correspondents out in the provinces, they took basic precautions against roadside bombs and Taliban ambushes. “They followed the best case scenario for going to tricky areas,” says Saman. “They were experienced combat reporters. But how can you prepare for the time when someone who is supposed to be protecting you turns on you? It’s impossible.”

Niedringhaus, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for her work covering the Iraq war, always stood out for her infectious enthusiasm and good cheer, “even under the darkest of circumstances,” says AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon. “She consistently volunteered for the hardest assignments and was remarkably resilient in carrying them out time after time. She truly believed in the need to bear witness.” She also believed, say friends, in making the best of a bad situation, and could always be counted on to travel with a stash of good cheese, chocolate and wine even to the most remote of locations. And she would share her provisions generously.

Her laugh was loud, and contagious. It didn’t matter if she was traveling with someone new to Afghanistan or a veteran, say friends. She treated everyone she met with the same kindness, generosity and humor.

Even though Niedringhaus made her name as a combat photographer, she didn’t really fit the stereotype, says Saman. “When you say ‘war photographer’ the first image that comes to mind is someone crazy for the bang bang. Not Anja. She was an artist. She used her sensitivity and sense of understanding to access the human side of war.” And she never let the darkness of her work turn her bitter and cynical, sometimes a hazard of the occupation. “She was just so hungry for adventure, and I was struck by her directness and her utter fearlessness,” says former Islamabad correspondent for the AP Nahal Toosi, now deputy political editor at Politico. “I thought, ‘Wow, I could follow this woman into battle!’” Many did, and benefitted from the experience.

This post was updated at 12:30 p.m. EST on April 4.

TIME Afghanistan

Another Journalist Murdered in Afghanistan Ahead of Elections

Afghanistan
An Afghan policeman stands guard in front of an Independent Elections Commission (IEC) building after a gun battle between security forces and insurgents in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Massoud Hossaini - AP

Early reports suggest two Western female journalists were targeted by a man in a police uniform in the eastern city of Khost on Friday, killing one and seriously injuring the other in the latest of a string of attacks against the media leading up to the Saturday election

One journalist was killed and other seriously injured in eastern Afghanistan after a man dressed as a police officer gunned them down a day before the country heads to the polls.

Mobariz Zadran, a spokesman for the governor of Khost province, suggested that the assailant was actually a policeman rather than simply posing as one. “Naqibullah, a policeman in Tani district of Khost, opened fire on two foreign journalists. One was killed and one was wounded,” he said.

The Associated Press has confirmed that staffer Anja Niedringhaus died during the assault in Khost, while veteran South Asia correspondent Kathy Gannon was seriously injured. The AFP reported on Friday that the attack occurred inside a police district headquarters.

The incident is the latest in a disturbing trend of journalists under attack as the war-torn nation struggles to combat an unyielding Taliban ahead of general elections.

In March, veteran Swedish radio journalist Nils Horner was murdered by unidentified gunmen in broad daylight in what was considered one of the safest areas of Kabul. Later that month, the AFP’s Sardar Ahmed was also killed in the capital during a brazen assault on the luxurious Serena Hotel, which left nine people dead.

“The fact that these two attacks occurred in places in the capital with a reputation for being safe can only have a dissuasive impact on media preparing to cover the election,” said Réza Moïni, the Reporters Without Borders media-advocacy group’s head for Iran-Afghanistan, in a statement earlier this week.

“This violence is partly responsible for the withdrawal of certain foreign election-observer missions, making the election’s transparency more dependent on the presence of Afghan and foreign journalists.”

TIME Mental Illness

Don’t Blame PTSD for the Fort Hood Shooting

The disorder's link to violence is the first thing we look to when vets are involved in mass shootings, but research in the area is inconsistent and weak

Shortly after America learned of another shooting Wednesday evening at Fort Hood, news outlets flashed alerts about the shooter’s deployment history and mental health. Among the first facts confirmed and reported about Spec. Ivan Lopez were his four-month deployment to Iraq in 2011, and that he was being diagnosed for post-traumatic stress disorder—though, importantly, had not yet been diagnosed. As post-9/11 conflicts wind down and veterans seek to reintegrate into civilian society, reports of violence perpetrated by veterans increasingly focus on whether a former service member has seen conflict and whether he suffers from mental illness as a result.

A 2008 RAND study estimated that 18.5% of combat veterans return with symptoms of PTSD. Most of them, though, with time and support, go on to lead stable, productive lives. For veterans enrolled in treatment programs, the likelihood of successful reintegration is even stronger. But for a slim minority, problems arise.

I am a veteran, having served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne from February 2007 to April 2008. I’ve also been diagnosed with PTSD related to my time in service. (Many vets, myself included, favor the removal of “disorder” from PTSD, our symptoms being a natural human response to what we have experienced.) When mass shootings occur, much too commonly lately, my veteran friends and I always have the same initial reactions. First, a sincere hope that everyone is okay. But immediately after that we think, “Please don’t let it be a veteran.” When Kate Hoit, a 29 year-old Iraq war veteran and graduate student living in Washington, D.C., first heard of the shooting, she thought, “Here we go again with another round of onslaughts on veterans and those with PTSD.” But a strong link between violent crime and PTSD has not been firmly established.

A 2012 study found that 9% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans surveyed reported arrests since returning from service. But even with this incidence of arrest, most offenses were associated with nonviolent behavior. It’s also notable that the veterans studied, as well as post-9/11 veterans in general, come from demographics associated with higher rates of criminal behavior (young, male, history of family violence, etc.) that are not related to service. That study concluded that veterans suffering from PTSD are at increased risk for criminal arrests, but those arrests are more strongly linked to substance abuse than a predilection towards violence.

The rush to erroneously blame PTSD for violent veterans has been noted. But available research and increased awareness hasn’t stopped the speculation.

In January of 2012, Iraq war veteran Benjamin Barnes killed a park ranger in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State and was later found dead in an icy creek. The media was quick to report on his wartime service and speculate that his time there was partially responsible for his crime. Further investigation revealed that Barnes had suffered from mental illness prior to enlisting, and his time in Iraq consisted of service with a headquarters element and no record of direct combat. When Maj. Nadal Hassan opened fire at Fort Hood in 2009, the early reaction was much the same, until it was revealed that the soldier had never seen combat.

Then again, when Aaron Alexis opened fire with a shotgun at Washington, D.C.’s Navy yard, the immediate question was whether he suffered from PTSD from his time in the Navy. CNN’s Peter Bergen even wrote: “It’s a deadly combination: men who have military backgrounds — together with personal grievances, political agendas or mental problems — and who also have easy access to weapons and are trained to use them.” We again later learned that Alexis never saw combat, worked as an aviation electrician’s mate, and was never trained to use a shotgun. Lopez, it should also be noted, never saw combat either.

None of this is to say that there isn’t reason to be concerned for the mental health of veterans. Lopez was reportedly suffering from anxiety and depression and undergoing treatment for mental illness. As the RAND study shows, my community is certainly at an increased risk for mental illness. Every day, 22 Americans who served in uniform take their own lives. Veterans with PTSD are more prone to alcoholism. Drug abuse is also more common in our community. While errant reports portray veterans as volatile community risks, my comrades are far more likely to hurt ourselves than anyone else.

TIME

Kabul Blast Kills 6 As Taliban Aims To Disrupt Elections

Afghan police men block the street after a suicide bomber wearing a military uniform struck the entrance gate of the Interior Ministry compound in Kabul, April 2, 2014.
Afghan police men block the street after a suicide bomber wearing a military uniform struck the entrance gate of the Interior Ministry compound in Kabul, April 2, 2014. Massoud Hossaini—AP

An attack at the Interior Ministry compound on Tuesday by a suicide bomber, who wore a military uniform to avoid security checks, was claimed by the Taliban hours after it warned Afghans not to vote in Saturday's presidential ballot

Updated at 9:20 a.m. ET

A suicide bomber attacked Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry compound in Kabul Wednesday, killing six police officers ahead of crucial presidential elections Saturday.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack just hours after warning Afghans not to participate in Saturday’s vote, the Associated Press Reports. The attack on the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for securing the elections, is part of the Taliban’s campaign to intimidate voters and target polling centers in Saturday’s elections. Eight candidates are hoping to succeed Hamid Karzai as the country’s president.

The attacker wore a military uniform, allowing him to avoid security checks, said the Interior Ministry.

An Afghan official reported that earlier on Wednesday the Taliban killed nine people abducted several days before, including a candidate running for a seat in the provincial council.

[AP]

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