Archive for June, 2010

June 30, 2010

Laos: Drifting amid lost dreams

Cruising on the Mekong in the Si Phan Don (Four thousand Island) region. Photo / Brett and Carol Atkinson


By Brett Atkinson

With 17 years’ experience navigating the Mekong River, Mr Puoy is reckoned to be the best riverboat captain in southern Laos. The watery labyrinth he works in contains a reputed 4000 islands, so he needs to be pretty good.

But right now, at the end of a harsher than usual dry season, the region’s Lao moniker Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands), seems just a tad inaccurate.

In a fading tropical dusk, Mr Puoy is steering the imposing teak-trimmed hulk of the Vat Phou through a dynamic environment of sand bars and swirling eddies, ripples and rapids.

Rustic nets are being cast in graceful arcs from low-slung boats bobbing just centimetres above the waterline, as local ferries transport monks, buffaloes and backpackers across the Mekong’s silvery expanse.

Like any good riverboat, the Vat Phou comes with an interesting backstory. It used to transport teak and rice down the Mekong, and was once owned by a Lao princess.

Recently rock royalty Sir Mick Jagger chartered the whole shebang, replicating our own itinerary of visiting local villages, French-colonial towns, and Khmer temples. In a telling reminder of the area’s remoteness, apparently no one recognised rock’s most iconic hips and lips.

David Beckham would no doubt be mobbed by the kids playing on the Mekong’s sandy makeshift football pitches, but in one of Indochina’s quieter corners, music’s most kinetic 65-year-old was just another skinny falang with a flash camera.

Si Phan Don hasn’t always been drifting off the edge of the map. On the tiny islands of Don Det and Don Khon lies evidence of a grand French plan to transform Asian trade in the 19th century. Linked by a bridge from French colonial times, the twin islands are now a sleepy haven for backpackers who arrive for a night and stay for a month.

Amidst the scrawled signs for bumpy onward transport to Vietnam and Cambodia, a compact French locomotive and a few metres of rusted track are all that remain of Paris’s designs.

Downstream the Khon Phapeng waterfalls thunder towards the border with Cambodia. During the wet season the cataracts swell to a width of 11km, and year round, travel and transport upstream is impossible.

The French planned to link the Mekong’s southern and northern banks by Don Det’s toytown railway, eventually hoping to expand the lucrative trade caravan all the way from Beijing to Saigon and the South China Sea. The weed-strewn and rusted hulk of a locomotive remains a poignant counterpoint to lost colonial dreams.

More colonial ambition lingers in the sleepy riverside town of Champassak. Before the Pathet Lao Socialist revolution in 1975, the town was the seat of Lao royalty, and amid the Chinese shophouses and wandering cows and buffaloes are glorious French mansions. The faded ochre residences are now dusty and overgrown, but still stately and elegant, if curiously out of place in the shimmering tropics of Laos.

More layers of history reside at the nearby Wat Phu temple, arrayed on the gentle slopes of the Phu Pasak range, and trimmed with mini-glens of frangipani. Sanskrit and Chinese inscriptions confirm the Unesco World Heritage site was inhabited in the 5th century, but the star focus in contemporary terms is the pair of gracious Khmer temples – male and female – that predate Cambodia’s Angkor Wat by several centuries.

Compared to the tourist bustle of Siem Reap, this is a sedate and relaxing scene, with just a few Lao tourists ascending the temple’s 180 steps slowly in the afternoon heat.

By the 12th century, the focus of Khmer society had moved on to the architectural overachievement of Angkor Wat, and this sleepy but spectacular slice of Indochina again drifted into languid obscurity until the thwarted 19th century dreams of Paris merchants. And despite a recent visit by an incognito rock superstar, it’s still in little danger of becoming the Next Big Thing.

Four thousand islands, they reckon. On a river cruise this laidback and relaxing, who’s counting?


Getting there: One of the best ways to get there is to go on Cathay Pacific to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and then connect with Vietnam Airlines.

Cruising: Mekong Cruises runs three-day trips on the Vat Phou in southern Laos, and two-day cruises ending in Luang Prabang on the Luangsay in northern Laos. Accommodation is in well-appointed, air-conditioned cabins. All meals are included, with a focus on Lao, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. See for full itineraries.

Brett Atkinson travelled in Laos with the assistance of Mekong Cruises.

By Brett Atkinson
June 27, 2010

Rapid turnover at top worries U.S. military

Afghanistan, Iraq wars have meant doom for careers of many



Left to right: Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Gen. Ray Odierno, Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Tommy Franks, Gen. George Casey.


by Greg Jaffe
updated 6/27/2010 1:16:25 AM ET


Video: Writer: I did not think general would be fired

WASHINGTON — Since 2001, a dozen commanders have cycled through the top jobs in Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. Central Command, which oversees both wars. Three of those commanders — including the recently dismissed Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal — have been fired or resigned under pressure.

History has judged many others harshly, and only two, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, are widely praised as having mastered the complex mixture of skills that running America’s wars demands.

For the military, this record of mediocrity raises a vexing question: What is wrong with the system that produces top generals?

Much of what top commanders do in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq bears little relation to the military skills that helped them rise through the ranks, military officials said. Today’s wars demand that top commanders act like modern viceroys, overseeing military operations and major economic development efforts. They play dominant roles in the internal politics of the countries where their troops fight.

When support for these long wars inevitably flags back home, the White House often depends on its generals to sell the administration’s approach to lawmakers and a skeptical American public. To the military’s extreme discomfort, its generals often act like shadow cabinet secretaries.

“What we ask of these generals is a very unusual skill set,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has advised both Petraeus and McChrystal. “It is a hard thing for anyone to do, much less than someone who comes to it so late in life.”

Repeated disappointment
Over nine years of war, top commanders have fallen victim to their own ignorance of Washington politics and the press. Adm. William J. Fallon, once commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, resigned after he made offhand remarks trashing the Bush administration’s Iran policy.

Other commanders, including Gen. Tommy Franks and Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, spent most of their careers studying conventional battles and couldn’t grasp the protracted wars or the shadowy enemies that they were fighting. “A year from now, Iraq will be a different country,” Franks wrote in his 2004 autobiography. “Our steady progress in Afghanistan is one factor that gives me confidence that Iraq will be able to provide for its own security in the years ahead.”

A few top commanders started out well enough, but they found themselves exhausted and out of new ideas by the end of their tours. With sectarian violence spinning out of control in the spring of 2006, Gen. George. W. Casey scribbled the words “must act” in the margins of an intelligence report that warned of even worse killing in the weeks to come. Yet he did little to change the military’s approach in the months that followed. After more than 30 months in command, he was forced out to make way for Petraeus and a new approach.

Explanations for the shortage of good generals abound. Some young officers blame the Pentagon’s insistence on sticking with its peacetime promotion policies. Military personnel rules prevent the top brass from reaching down into the ranks and plucking out high-performers who have proved themselves especially adept at counterinsurgency or have amassed significant knowledge about Afghanistan and Iraq. “In all previous wars, promotions were accelerated for officers who were effective,” a senior Army official said.

Instead of speeding promotions, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld slowed them down so that officers wouldn’t cycle through complex jobs so quickly. As a result, there are many three-star generals with limited counterinsurgency experience and a large pool of colonels and one-stars who have done multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. The lower-ranking officers are years away from even being considered for senior slots in the wars.

Other experts maintain the military must cast a wider net in its search for creative commanders who can balance the military and political demands of their job. One day after McChrystal was dismissed, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described how hard it is to find just the right general to lead U.S. troops in battle. “One of the most difficult things we do is pick people,” Mullen said. “We spend an extraordinary amount of time on it.” He offered the same observation a year earlier in explaining the move to sack McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan.

Rarely, though, does the exhaustive search lead to anyone outside the narrow confines of the U.S. Army. Eleven of the 12 top war commanders since 2001 have been Army generals. “The Army has had an absolute hammer lock on all the senior jobs and their staffs,” said Bing West, a former Marine who has written several books about the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Marines often point out that Gen. James N. Mattis, who won widespread praise as a two-star general in Iraq’s Anbar province, has spent the past several years at U.S. Joint Forces Command, a sprawling bureaucracy that produces doctrine, conducts war games and oversees troop deployments. He is expected to retire this year.

Rarely, though, does the exhaustive search lead to anyone outside the narrow confines of the U.S. Army. Eleven of the 12 top war commanders since 2001 have been Army generals. “The Army has had an absolute hammer lock on all the senior jobs and their staffs,” said Bing West, a former Marine who has written several books about the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Marines often point out that Gen. James N. Mattis, who won widespread praise as a two-star general in Iraq’s Anbar province, has spent the past several years at U.S. Joint Forces Command, a sprawling bureaucracy that produces doctrine, conducts war games and oversees troop deployments. He is expected to retire this year.

“Part of the Army’s problem is its egalitarianism,” said retired Col. Don Snider, who teaches leadership at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

There is also widespread skepticism that the military’s slow-moving bureaucracy can come up with a system for routinely producing innovative officers with the political, bureaucratic and battlefield skills needed to lead at the highest levels.

“A lot of the service’s efforts feel like groping in the dark,” said Biddle, of the Council on Foreign Relations.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

June 26, 2010

Gen. McChrystal allies, Rolling Stone disagree over article’s ground rules

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2010


Gen. Stanley McChrystal is relieved of his duties President Obama removes McChrystal as commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Wednesday after remarks he made in a magazine interview about top administration officials. » LAUNCH PHOTO GALLERY

It was 2:30 Tuesday morning in Kabul, after a busy day of travel to Kandahar and meetings with top Afghan officials, when Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was awakened by an aide with grim news.

“There’s a Rolling Stone article out,” the aide told McChrystal. “It’s very, very bad.”

Forty hours later, McChrystal had been relieved of his command, his 34-year military career in tatters. Apart from a terse apology, McChrystal has not discussed publicly the disparaging remarks that he and his aides made about administration officials and that appeared in the article.

On Friday, however, officials close to McChrystal began trying to salvage his reputation by asserting that the author, Michael Hastings, quoted the general and his staff in conversations that he was allowed to witness but not report. The officials also challenged a statement by Rolling Stone’s executive editor that the magazine had thoroughly reviewed the story with McChrystal’s staff ahead of publication.

The executive editor, Eric Bates, denied that Hastings violated any ground rules when he wrote about the four weeks he spent, on and off, with McChrystal and his team. “A lot of things were said off the record that we didn’t use,” Bates said in an interview. “We abided by all the ground rules in every instance.”

A senior military official insisted that “many of the sessions were off-the-record and intended to give [Hastings] a sense” of how the team operated. The command’s own review of events, said the official, who was unwilling to speak on the record, found “no evidence to suggest” that any of the “salacious political quotes” in the article were made in situations in which ground rules permitted Hastings to use the material in his story.

‘Clearly off the record’

A member of McChrystal’s team who was present for a celebration of McChrystal’s 33rd wedding anniversary at a Paris bar said it was “clearly off the record.” Aides “made it very clear to Michael: ‘This is private time. These are guys who don’t get to see their wives a lot. This is us together. If you stay, you have to understand this is off the record,’ ” according to this source. In the story, the team members are portrayed as drinking heavily.

Bates said the contention that the night at the bar and other instances in which derisive comments were made about administration officials were off the record was “absolutely untrue.” Hastings was traveling Friday, and an automated response from his e-mail account referred queries to Rolling Stone.

Neither McChrystal nor members of his staff have denied making any of the remarks quoted in the story, including a description of Obama as “uncomfortable and intimidated” in his first meeting with the general and a reference to national security adviser James L. Jones as a “clown.”

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that the atmosphere of disrespect for civilian leaders that McChrystal apparently tolerated and participated in was grounds for dismissal regardless of the context in which the offensive comments were made or who made them.

A U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Air Force Lt. Col. Edward T. Sholtis, acknowledged that Hastings, like other reporters who have interviewed McChrystal over the past year, was not required to sign written ground rules. “We typically manage ground rules on a verbal basis,” Sholtis said. “We trust in the professionalism of the people we’re working with.”

McChrystal’s headquarters first received a copy of the story shortly before midnight Monday from a wire service reporter seeking comment. After McChrystal read it, “he knew instantly, this was going to be very large,” the source said. “But I don’t think any of us realized it was going to be as large as it was.”

Reaching out:

The general’s first action was to call his superiors. Then he began reaching out to members of the Obama administration mentioned in the article. He reached Vice President Biden — whom one McChrystal aide referred to in the article as Vice President “Bite me” — on an airplane as Biden was heading home from an official trip.

At the White House, copies of the article were already circulating among key West Wing officials.

“Tuesday was definitely not a normal day” in Kabul, the source said. McChrystal tried to maintain his schedule, assuming that the response to the story would be handled by the White House and the Pentagon. It was late in the day in Afghanistan when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called to order McChrystal home immediately for face-to-face meetings.

As events unfolded at the White House, members of McChrystal’s staff in Kabul “were all heartbroken,” the source said. “I’ve seen incredibly brave men cry this week.”

Bates said it was telling that it took four days for those close to McChrystal to begin crying foul. Subjects of critical articles, he said, have many ways “after a story appears to question its veracity, [to complain] that things were taken out of context or off the record. None of those objections were raised during the critical few days in which this became a national issue,” he said. “You’re used to instantaneous responses from sources who feel they were abused in any way.”

Sholtis said that “arguing about the merits of the article would have seemed like we were trying to protect or excuse ourselves rather than acknowledge our mistake. That may have not been the best PR strategy, but it wasn’t the approach consistent with the character of General McChrystal.”

Officials also questioned Rolling Stone’s fact-checking process, as described by Bates in an interview this week with Politico. “We ran everything by them in a fact-checking process as we always do,” Bates said. “They had a sense of what was coming and it was all on the record, and they spent a lot of time with our reporter, so I think they knew that they had said it.”

In an interview Friday, the managing editor, Will Dana, said the reporter’s notes and factual matters were exhaustively reviewed.

But 30 questions that a Rolling Stone fact-checker posed in a memo e-mailed last week to then-McChrystal media adviser Duncan Boothby contained no hint of what became the controversial portions of the story. Boothby resigned Tuesday.

In the e-mail, a copy of which provided to The Washington Post by a military official sympathetic to McChrystal, Boothby is asked to confirm the makeup of McChrystal’s traveling staff on the Paris trip and the communications equipment they brought with them on an earlier visit to London. “They don’t come close to revealing what ended up in the final article,” the official said.

“Does McChrystal’s staff joking refer to themselves as Team America?” the fact-checker asked. “Not really,” Boothby replied. “We joke that we are sometimes perceived that way by many of the NATO forces” under McChrystal’s command.

In the article, Hastings wrote that McChrystal and his aides “jokingly refer to themselves as Team America, taking the name from the South Park-esque sendup of military cluelessness, and they pride themselves on their can-do attitude and their disdain for authority.” In other passages, Hastings took what appear to be similar minor liberties with the facts as Boothby described them.

In the last question, the fact-checker asked: “Did Gen. McChrystal vote for President Obama? (The reporter tells me that this info originates from McChrystal himself.)”

Boothby replied in all capitals. “IMPORTANT — PLEASE DO NOT INCLUDE THIS — THIS IS PERSONAL AND PRIVATE INFORMATION AND UNRELATED TO HIS JOB. IT WOULD BE INAPPROPRIATE TO SHARE.” He went on to describe the “strict rules” under which military personnel keep their political views to themselves.

In the article, Hastings reported that the general “had voted for Obama.”

Bates said that the remark was “absolutely” not off the record, and he noted that Boothby’s appeal “isn’t on accuracy or even that it was off the record,” but that it was irrelevant. He said the magazine, like other news organizations, had no obligation to warn sources that they had made unwise remarks.

Reaching out

President Obama removes McChrystal as commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Wednesday after remarks he made in a magazine interview about top administration officials.

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The general’s first action was to call his superiors. Then he began reaching out to members of the Obama administration mentioned in the article. He reached Vice President Biden — whom one McChrystal aide referred to in the article as Vice President “Bite me” — on an airplane as Biden was heading home from an official trip.

June 26, 2010

Colonels’ Corner by Ollie North: General Madness


Friday, June 25, 2010

By Col. Oliver North

Washington, D.C. —  Set aside for a moment how inconceivable it is that an article in Rolling Stone magazine could be the cause of anyone being fired — much less a U.S. commanding general in the midst of a war. But that is what happened this week.

General Stanley McChrystal is a tough, combat-experienced officer who knows how to fight. He knows how to kill the enemy. But he clearly doesn’t “get it” when it comes to the media. His staff let him down — badly — by allowing Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone to “hang around” with a tape recorder.

That the Pentagon, Central Command and General McChrystal’s staff granted unfettered, prolonged access to this publication reflects ignorance, arrogance or both. Everyone involved in approving this “embed” ought to be fired for egregious lack of judgment. They apparently believed they could “win over” Hastings. They were dead wrong.

I don’t disagree with much of what General McChrystal or his staff are quoted saying about the O-Team in the article. I have used many of the same terms to describe the present administration — albeit with fewer expletives. It should also be noted that despite claims of “several lengthy interviews” with General McChrystal, there are very few lines of text in the offending article directly attributable to the general.

On our last Fox News trip to Afghanistan, we reported that many of the troops were concerned about new rules of engagement (ROE), cuts in night operations, and limits on raids and air strikes making them more vulnerable to Taliban attacks and improvised explosive devices. Rolling Stone looked for and found troops who were unhappy with the ROE to support the magazine’s contention that the war in Afghanistan is “unwinnable.” That refrain is increasingly prevalent because President Obama refuses to use the words “win” or “victory.”

General McChrystal’s firing has been likened to President Lincoln replacing George McClellan during the Civil War and President Truman’s sacking Douglas MacArthur in the midst of the Korean War. Not true.

Both McClellan and MacArthur vocally opposed the stated policies and strategy of their presidents. That’s not what happened here. In announcing he had “accepted” his battlefield commander’s resignation, Obama acknowledged he and McChrystal “are in full agreement about our strategy.” This week’s firing was simply political theater designed to enhance Obama’s stature as a “leader” in the eyes of his supporters and critics.

Obama suffers from decision deficit disorder. He is routinely described as detached, disengaged, ambivalent and uncertain in everything from the economy to securing our borders, to the Gulf oil spill, to the war itself. He has been unable or unwilling to name our radical Islamist enemies or define victory. He is the only commander in chief to announce a deadline for withdrawing troops while committing more Americans to combat.

McChrystal was relieved because a thin-skinned president couldn’t take criticism in “the press” and needed to prove he’s “the boss.” The intemperate, published remarks made by General McChrystal and his staff in Rolling Stone provided an opportunity for President Obama to show his left-wing base that he is “in charge.”

The task of commanding 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan now falls on the shoulders of General David Petraeus. In accepting the assignment, General Petraeus has not only stepped down from the more senior post as head of U.S. Central Command, but he has also been thrust into the role of “America’s only competent general.” One critic suggested, “He’s very good, but it does make us look like we’re a banana republic.” Another, a senior officer, said, “Petraeus has accepted ‘mission impossible’; herding coalition cats, getting the cooperation of a completely corrupt regime in Kabul and meeting the often conflicting expectations of an inept regime in Washington.”

Leading the unruly coalition in Afghanistan may well prove to be far more challenging than what General Petraeus had to do in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. In Baghdad, he had a close working relationship with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the respect of other coalition leaders, a supportive, united White House and backing from a bipartisan coalition in Congress. The command in Kabul offers few of these advantages, for the O-Team is nearly incapacitated by internal rivalries and enormous egos.

“Why would General Petraeus take what amounts to a demotion?” I asked. The answer, from an admirer, was revealing: “He was selected because he is a proven commodity. Everyone knows Petraeus is a battle-tested commander and a patriot. In Iraq, he showed how to work every military, diplomatic and political angle necessary to get the job done. By taking the evidently thankless job in Kabul, he just guaranteed he will be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

Perhaps. But first, Petraeus has to convince this commander in chief how to say, “victory.” He has a year to do it.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of “War Stories” on Fox News Channel and the author of “American Heroes.”

Column Archive:

Full-page Colonel’s Corner: Ollie North Archive

June 25, 2010

Afghanistan: Marjah battle not yet won


Four months ago, foreign forces in Afghanistan launched a major operation to clear insurgents out of the district of Marjah, in Helmand province. It was a test of the US-led counter-insurgency strategy. But as the BBC’s Ian Pannell found on his return to Marjah, the outcome has been far from decisive.

They are interviewing for a new baker in Loy Chareh. The last man to do the job was forced to close down, despite reaping handsome profits from the hundreds of soldiers and police recently deployed to Marjah’s district capital.

Many Marjah residents say jobs and security are still in short supply

But the Taliban objected to what they saw as his collaboration by serving bread to “the enemy”.

When they threatened to kidnap the baker’s son, he closed the business and left town.

Force, fear and religion

Hundreds of other families have also been forced to leave because of the appalling security situation. The Afghan Red Crescent says it has processed more than 200 families in the last month.

Their stories vary but the theme is usually the same. Despite the injection of hundreds of millions of dollars, many residents of Marjah say security has deteriorated.

This is the most high-profile operation to date for the Nato-led Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) mission, but for many in Marjah, it is simply too unsafe to live at home any more.

Winning the support of the people who live here is the real battle. It is far from clear who will win.

The Taliban use force, fear and religion to cajole and coerce. That has left most residents either too afraid or just unwilling to side with America and the government it props up.

Operation Moshtaraq

It is more than four months since Marjah, in southern Helmand province, became the epicentre of US President Barack Obama’s war in Afghanistan.

It is where many of the thousands of extra troops were deployed and it became the test-case for the new counter-insurgency mantra of the commanding generals.

Operation Moshtaraq saw thousands of American, British and Afghan troops drop into Marjah and Nad-e-Ali to clear the Taliban from their main strongholds.

Speaking at the time, British Maj Gen Nick Carter predicted: “In three months’ time or thereabouts, we should have a pretty fair idea about whether we have been successful.”

But four months later, America’s war is proving much harder and far slower than military commanders and their political masters hoped for.

More caution

The pressure from Washington for quick results led to what some now concede was the over-selling of the operation, creating inflated expectations and unrealistic deadlines.

" We are not perhaps where some might have aspired us to be" Brigadier George Norton Regional deputy commander

Today, military leaders are far more cautious. Brigadier George Norton, the regional deputy commander in Helmand, says the military are where he would expect them to be.

But he admits, they are “not perhaps where some might have aspired us to be and some of the rhetoric at the time was perhaps encouraging to make people think this could happen quicker than realistically it could do”.

The queues outside the new town hall show that some are ready to turn to the local governor for help.

But many of the men squatting patiently in the midday sun are here to file complaints: about the lack of security and jobs.

Inside, there’s an emergency meeting underway. Provincial leaders and their British and American backers have had to fly in to try and deal with the crisis.

Few of the tribal leaders here will tell you that things have improved in Marjah. Most have risked their lives just by being here.

“Of course I’m afraid. I’m scared. If the Taliban see that I’ve come here to meet the governor, they’ll capture me and cut my head off – they’ll kill me,” one leader says.

Deadliest month

Back at the Marines’ camp, there has been a gun battle with the Taliban. Although the fighting is nothing like the intensity of February, there has been a noticeable increase.

June has the dubious distinction of being the deadliest month for coalition forces. Everyone expects the bloodshed on all sides to increase, and that includes the civilians caught in the middle.

Soldiers complain it is impossible to tell Taliban from local people

Inside the control room, the latest gun-battle is monitored using high-tech cameras and unmanned drones in the sky.

But as happens so often, the insurgents attack and then disappear seamlessly into the local population.

The Marines say it is frustrating trying to identify who is friend and who is foe. Some admit that they need better intelligence.

Guns and boots

The Afghan National Army and police are supposed to step into the breach. This is the “transfer” part of President Obama’s exit strategy for his troops, where responsibility for security passes to local forces.

Again, there has been progress; the men look lean and are certainly eager to take on the insurgents.

But there are too few of them; even after training they require a lot of coaching.

They have almost no logistical support and rely entirely on the coalition for everything from boots to guns.

Shortly before he was sacked, Stanley McChrystal, the general ordered to turn this war around, worried that Marjah was seen as a “bleeding ulcer”.

His replacement, Gen David Petraeus, faces enormous pressure to show tangible progress across Afghanistan by November, when the US votes in mid-term elections.

But there is now a growing gap between what the politicians demand and what the military can deliver.

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