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Archive for September, 2010

Posted by on September 26th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

The United States, in the person of Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the man responsible for all training of Afghan security forces, is trying to blackmail its NATO allies into providing more trainers after those allies have dragged their feet on escalating their involvement in the nine-year quagmire.

"We made a decision two or three years ago that we were going to produce war-fighting formations first, and then all the other things that are essential for an enduring force — engineering, medical, communications, transportation, maintenance, logistics, intelligence — that we have not built yet."

The current forces "are very dependent on the coalition forces for all that right now."

Topping his list of 15 immediate priorities was the police force, including paramilitary and border police, followed by air, medical, signals and counter-insurgency capabilities, he said.

"We came up with 684 slots so we can keep the momentum going on the progress we have already achieved this year," he said, adding that 1,500 trainers would be needed over the coming 18 months.

"If we don't get these trainers, no trainers, no transition."

That decision to produce lightly-armed cannon fodder with no back-up formations was essentially a Bush administration unilateral decision, just as it was in Iraq, and for much the same reasons: to keep the locals dependent upon the US just a little longer. Caldwell doesn't address whether it was a good thing - but many analysts argued for a much earlier and better integrated build-up of indigenous logistics, armor, air and command/control capacity as being the best route to local self-sufficiency.

However General Caldwell, who was Bush's hand-picked man to go to Iraq and spin everything he could as "progress", may be over-playing his hand. Even if other NATO nations refuse to provide the trainers he wants, the Dutch have already proven that the NATO charter-call and committment to Afghanistan are unilaterally withdrawable from. If other NATO nations decide to follow suit, that would leave the US pretty much alone in Afghanistan, providing the trainers and holding the bag – the phrase "no trainers, no transition" would be left applying to the US alone. And, so far, none of the US' allies have shown any inclination to buckle to Caldwell's ultimatum.

Such a course of events would probably lead directly to the break-up of NATO and that's really the only thing caldwell has to hold over allied nations' heads. He's gambling that "no trainers, no transition" doesn't turn into "no transition, no NATO".

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Posted by on September 25th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

The Afghan parliamentary election, the very thing the Surge ™ was supposed to protect and ensure more fairness in by allowing more monitoring, is a complete bust.

Turnout cratered, violence was actually higher than the presidential election last year which had set a nine-year record for bloodshed – not down, as ISAF had originally said – and fraud is so widespread that it makes a mockery of the electoral process

The complaints to provincial election commissions have so far included video clips showing ballot stuffing; the strong-arming of election officials by candidates’ agents; and even the handcuffing and detention of election workers.

In some places, election officials themselves are alleged to have carried out the fraud; in others, government employees did, witnesses said. One video showed election officials and a candidate’s representatives haggling over the price of votes.

…“From an overall democracy-building perspective it does not look rosy,” said one diplomat who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

The widespread tampering and bare-knuckle tactics of some candidates raised serious questions about the effort to build a credible government that can draw the support of Afghans and the Obama administration and its NATO partners as they re-evaluate their commitment to the war.

American and international diplomats kept their distance from the tide of candidate complaints this week, and NATO and American Embassy officials said little other than that the election was an Afghan process and that it was the Afghans who were responsible for its outcome.

But a less than credible parliamentary election, following last year’s tarnished presidential vote, would place international forces in the increasingly awkward position of defending a government of waning legitimacy, and diplomats acknowledged that it could undermine efforts to persuade countries to maintain their financing and troop levels.

The Election Complaints Commission said Thursday that it had received more than 3,000 complaints since last Saturday’s election. So far they have registered case files on nearly 1,800 of those complaints — 58 percent of which were considered serious enough to affect the outcome of the balloting. That may change in the course of investigations but that preliminary figure is high, election monitors said.

The complaints are not evenly distributed and were markedly worse in 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. In those 13, at least half the complaints were deemed to be high priority — forecasting bitter fights over the outcome.

In addition, complaints in four provinces — Kandahar, Nuristan, Zabul and Paktika — have yet to be categorized, but fraud is expected to be extensive and has already been widely reported.

In the absence of any legitimate Afghan organs of government, local or national, the US is trying to rent legitimacy, spreading money around by the truckload on projects that more often than not just line the pockets of corrupt, elite powerbrokers and create a culture of dependency. However, the military and the Obama administration seem to have lost sight of what according to Petraeus' own manual is a key precept of counter-insurgency operations: as Col. David Maxwell puts it "when the US takes the lead and pushes the host nation to a secondary role in its own country then the US takes on the role of occupier. They are conducting “pacification operations”.

COIN has been popular among the military and neoliberal interventionist policymakers because it seemed to be the "fix" for two stalled occupations. But that popularity willfully ignores the unpleasant truth that such a fix is impossible when the U.S. is an occupying power bereft of a legitimate and sovereign host government. COIN as currently understood by the powers-that-be in America is inevitably a colonial adventure. It's the great unspoken truth of COIN the Mystery Religion that, nine years in, a counterinsurgency campaign is still fifteen years and well over $1 trillion from seeing any light at the end of the tunnel – if it ever does.

Yet, undettered, Obama has thrown in his lot with Petraeus and the counterinsurgents. If there ever was a backbone in the White House it seems it has now been lost.

President Barack Obama says U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan "until the job is done."

The president made the comment in an interview Friday with BBC Persian Television, which reaches Persian-speaking audiences in Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere.

As he has in the past, Obama emphasized that a July 2011 date to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan does not mean the end of America's commitment to that country.

Obama said that the job in Afghanistan is "to provide Afghans themselves the capacity to secure their own country."

Sounds utterly Bush-like to me. If he'd simply said the US would "stay the course" it would be a perfect echo.

Fifteen more years of playing "whack-a-mole" while the amazing, disappearing Afghan security forces stand up only long enough to desert. Yep, that'll break the bank, break the Army and break the country.

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Posted by The Agonist on September 25th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

New York Times, By Jenny Nordberg, September 20

KABUL, Afghanistan — Six-year-old Mehran Rafaat is like many girls her age. She likes to be the center of attention. She is often frustrated when things do not go her way. Like her three older sisters, she is eager to discover the world outside the family’s apartment in their middle-class neighborhood of Kabul.

But when their mother, Azita Rafaat, a member of Parliament, dresses the children for school in the morning, there is one important difference. Mehran’s sisters put on black dresses and head scarves, tied tightly over their ponytails. For Mehran, it’s green pants, a white shirt and a necktie, then a pat from her mother over her spiky, short black hair. After that, her daughter is out the door — as an Afghan boy.

There are no statistics about how many Afghan girls masquerade as boys. But when asked, Afghans of several generations can often tell a story of a female relative, friend, neighbor or co-worker who grew up disguised as a boy. To those who know, these children are often referred to as neither “daughter” nor “son” in conversation, but as “bacha posh,” which literally means “dressed up as a boy” in Dari.

Through dozens of interviews conducted over several months, where many people wanted to remain anonymous or to use only first names for fear of exposing their families, it was possible to trace a practice that has remained mostly obscured to outsiders. Yet it cuts across class, education, ethnicity and geography, and has endured even through Afghanistan’s many wars and governments.

Afghan families have many reasons for pretending their girls are boys, including economic need, social pressure to have sons, and in some cases, a superstition that doing so can lead to the birth of a real boy. Lacking a son, the parents decide to make one up, usually by cutting the hair of a daughter and dressing her in typical Afghan men’s clothing. There are no specific legal or religious proscriptions against the practice. In most cases, a return to womanhood takes place when the child enters puberty. The parents almost always make that decision.

Semi-related, previously: Sworn to virginity and living as men in Albania

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Posted by Peace Action West on September 25th, 2010

From our partners at Peace Action West

Don’t ask retired Four Star General and Secretary of State Colin Powell. On Meet the Press on Sunday, he said he “doesn’t know whether the United States is winning in Afghanistan.”

Powell said that “although generals in the Afghan campaign claim progress as they move into new territory, it’s hard to tell if the Taliban really is being defeated or merely is moving from one place to another.”

Well if the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs doesn’t know if the U.S. winning, maybe our Secretary of Defense Robert Gates can give a straight answer. Three days before Powell’s Meet The Press interview, Gates made his case for continued support without solid evidence of progress after nine years.

Gates said last week, citing recent assessments from the new top U.S. and NATO commander and Gates’ personal impressions from a recent trip to Afghan battlefields:

“I think there is a general feeling that there has been some progress in that area, but it will have to be sustained.”

That doesn’t instill much confidence, or tell us what “winning” really means.

Back in December 2009, one week after President Obama announced the “surge” of 30,000 troops, Gates defined winning as, “reversing the momentum of the Taliban – denying them control of territory, population.”

Apparently, we’re not doing that.  The deterioration of security is described in a recent New York Times article:

“With one attack after another, the Taliban and their insurgent allies have degraded security in almost every part of the country (the one exception is Panjshir Province in the north, which has never succumbed to Taliban control).

The Afghan N.G.O. Safety Office says that by almost every metric it has, Afghanistan is more dangerous now than at any time since 2001.

The most recent troop buildup comes in response to steady advances by the Taliban. Four years ago, the insurgents were active in only four provinces. Now they are active in 33 of 34, the organizations say.”

Based on the increase in violence in 33 of the 34 provinces, the US has not “denied the Taliban control of territory”. In fact, if the US military is only able to claim control of one of the 34 provinces, it’s clear that the Taliban is the one denying the US control.

Unarmed government employees can no longer travel safely in 30 percent of the country’s 368 districts, according to published United Nations estimates, and there are districts deemed too dangerous to visit in all but one of the country’s 34 provinces.

The number of insurgent attacks has increased significantly; in August 2009, insurgents carried out 630 attacks. This August, they initiated at least 1,353, according to the Afghan N.G.O. Safety Office, an independent organization financed by Western governments and agencies to monitor safety for aid workers.

Based on the evidence of an increase in attacks, from 630 in August of 2009 to 1,353 in August of 2010, we are not winning. Based on the inability of humanitarian aid workers to travel and operate inside Afghanistan, we are not winning. Based on the inability to provide security and monitor elections in a significant portion of the country, the US does not have the territory, or the situation, under “control.”

So after nine years, 100,000 troops,  335 Billion dollars, 14,000-34,000 Afghan deaths,  and 1,985 coalition deaths, our nation’s highest ranking military officers do not know if they are winning but tell us when they have “a general feeling” about progress? By Sec. Gates’ definition of winning, we are losing the war in Afghanistan.

The fact is, there is no military means of “winning” this war, and defining success in military terms means grasping at unattainable goals. It also means many thousands more dead and many billions more spent. The Obama administration  needs to start seriously looking at implementing a more cost effective, less counterproductive strategy, based on a non-military realistic definition of “success” rather than an unrealistic military definition of “winning”.

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Posted by Just Foreign Policy on September 24th, 2010

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

A major contribution of the "inside experts" Afghanistan Study Group report (read here ; send to your reps in Congress here), released last week to spur Washington debate towards de-escalating the war at the next fork in the road is that its very first recommendation is this:

1. Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion.
The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.

Predictably, there appear to have been two principal objections so far to this proposal:

1. Oh my God. How dare you suggest that the U.S. should support a peace deal with the Afghan insurgency. You must be some kind of amoral monster.

2. Ho hum. Nothing new here. Everyone already knows this. Why do you tax our patience by stating the obvious as if it were a profound revelation? This is already Administration policy. Move along, nothing to see here.

It should go without saying that these two objections are, as a matter of logic, mutually exclusive. A real peace process leading to a new political dispensation in Afghanistan that ends the civil war could be the worst idea in human history, or it could be a commonplace that everyone already knows and is already Administration policy. But it cannot be both.

read more

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Posted by on September 23rd, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

The Afghan parliamentary elections saw a cratering in the turnout – reflecting Afghan apathy over rule by a corrupt elite – and a record number of accusations of fraud, almost 5,000.

In fact, right after the election the only bright spot seemed to be that election violence was down by as much as 37% over the presidential election last year, leading analysts like my pal Joshua Foust to write it was the only bright spot and that it was possible "insurgents either see a future in the government, or they feel the politics of government is something they want to participate in".

Certainly, ISAF was keen to spin the apparent drop in violence as a good thing.

"The people of Afghanistan sent a powerful message today," said U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top Western commander. "The voice of Afghanistan's future does not belong to the violent extremists and terror networks. It belongs to the people."

The trouble is, though, that a week later ISAF has had to concede that, instead of dropping, election violence rose to an all time record high.

A spokesman for Isaf said that although it had originally claimed there were fewer insurgent attacks on Saturday the true figure showed an increase of more than a third over last year's vote, which at the time was the most violent day of Afghanistan's post-Taliban period.

The figures are a significant volte face for Isaf, which on the day after the election asked one news agency to publish a correction after it reported an increase in violence.

Isaf's initial claim had been ridiculed by many observers who reckoned the level of violence was far higher. The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office said it recorded 443 insurgent attacks around the country on 18 September, a 56% increase on the 20 August presidential election last year.

That level of violence also constituted a 15-fold increase in violence for the month of September, the organisation said.


ISAF's new spin – that more troops were in the country so "More forces means more areas covered and may have led to increased insurgent-initiated attacks and increased reporting" is pretty weak tea. Weren't those increased forces meant to have stopped those attacks ever happening? That was the original story, certainly.

The three key words of the counterinsurgent, according to Petraeus' own manual, are legitimacy, legitimacy and legitimacy. We don't haz it.

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Posted by Peace Action West on September 23rd, 2010

From our partners at Peace Action West

According to the New York Times and other media outlets who got a hold of Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars, the administration is plagued by infighting and a lack of confidence in the military strategy in Afghanistan.  From Foreign Policy’s Passport blog:

Neither Richard Holbrooke, the special advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan, nor retired Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, the White House “war czar,” believe in the current U.S. war strategy. Woodward quotes Holbrooke saying flatly “it can’t work”; Lute apparently said that the Afghan strategy review didn’t “add up” to the course the president ultimately chose.  For his part, Vice President Joe Biden is quoted calling Holbrooke “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met.”…

…Gen. David Petraeus, the man now charged with saving Obama’s ass in Afghanistan, thinks White House advisor David Axelrod is “a complete spin doctor.” Petraeus also told his aides in May that the administration was “[expletive] with the wrong guy,” though it’s not clear what the context was…

The most explosive revelations, however, center around the Obama’s decision last year to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but set a controversial July 2011 timeline for beginning to withdraw — an awkward compromise that Woodward’s sources seem eager to portray as very much the president’s own. And Bob’s got the goods: Obama, who comes across as deeply skeptical about the war and overwhelmingly concerned with finding an “exit strategy” rather than winning, personally dictated a six-page “terms sheet” outlining the conditions under which he was sending the troops. Woodward describes a tense Nov. 29, 2009, meeting where the president demanded that each participant read it and raise any objections “now.” According to the Post, “The document — a copy of which is reprinted in the book — took the unusual step of stating, along with the strategy’s objectives, what the military was not supposed to do.”

As Woodward describes it,the memo represented Obama’s attempt to keep the military from boxing him in and pushing to escalate the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (a storyline we’ve heard before, though with fewer details). At one point, Woodward says, Obama told military leaders, “In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, ‘We’re doing fine, Mr. President, but we’d be better if we just do more.’ We’re not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] … unless we’re talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011.” It’s not clear just who’s boxing in whom at the moment, though. The Post remarks on the irony that Petraeus has been tasked with implementing a strategy with which he clearly does not fully agree, but the general has been pretty savvy about thus far about establishing that the withdrawals will be “conditions-based.”

If officials in the administration recognize, along with the majority of the American people, that their approach in Afghanistan isn’t going to work, then they need to find the political courage to end it.  It would be irresponsible and immoral to do otherwise.  It appears, however, that General Petraeus has something else in mind:

Woodward quotes Petraeus as saying, “You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”

If President Obama is going to step up and do the right thing by ending the war in Afghanistan, he needs the support of a public and Congress who are constantly pressuring him to do so and pushing back against military leadership that is happy to continue a counterproductive, costly and deadly war.  Woodward’s book points to the fact that the president is sensitive to this opposition:

Obama told Gates and Clinton at another meeting that he didn’t want to stay in Afghanistan for a decade: “I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.” He also made a similar remark to Lindsey Graham, telling the South Carolina senator, “I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

He’s already losing a huge chunk of the Democratic Party, with registered Democrats opposing the war in large numbers and a majority of the Democratic Caucus in the House on the record calling for a timetable for military withdrawal.  It’s up to us to fight even harder and make this war far too politically costly for the administration to continue, and pressure our congressional representatives to hold the administration accountable to changing course.

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Posted by on September 22nd, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

The main thrust of Bob Woodward's new book "Obama's War" is that powerful men bicker and maneuver to see which of them can become even more powerful. Not exactly a shocker and not all that different from all of Woodward's other books. So what's new about this stuff? Despite the Drudge red highlighter leading most rightwing blogs, Pavlov-style, to concentrate on Obama's (correct) assertion that "we can absorb a terrorist attack", it's not exactly in the same league as a public exhortation to "bring it on".

Well, the Devil's in the details. In between the tales of surge-sceptical senior staff, of back-biting and knives in the back – which the internets have already brought us if not in quite so much embarassing detail – there are thing's like Hamid Karzai's alleged manic depression – Woodward quotes Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador, as saying, "He's on his meds, he's off his meds" or the 3,000 strong private army of local proxies the CIA has amassed. These are new details which throw into stark relief the legitimacy challenge the US faces as an occupying power and add to the body of evidence which calls into question the entire Petraeus/Obama strategy.

One of Woodward's key quotes, one that the Republican party will be snipping to suit their purposes, runs like this:

Mr. Obama's struggle with the decision comes through in a conversation with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who asked if his deadline to begin withdrawal in July 2011 was firm. "I have to say that," Mr. Obama replied. "I can't let this be a war without end, and I can't lose the whole Democratic Party."

The "I can't let this be a war without end" part, needless to say, will not appear in any of the horrified recountings of this.  But while Woodward talks about Petraeus and Obama butting heads, the internets have already taken us past that – it's so 2009. It's clear from more up-to-date reporting, as Robert Dreyfuss points out, that they are now "joined at the hip" and that the December review will just be a "rubber-stamp approval of General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency scheme."

Obama has already decided that Petraeus' war without end is the way to go, perhaps because he believes he won't lose the whole Democratic Party if he let's Petraeus take the lead and hides behind the Teflon General. It's up to those of us who believe that would be the very worse course of action for America and Afghanistan to tell him that it'd be the very worse course for Obama's political future too.

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Posted by The Agonist on September 22nd, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

There is no other way to spin this, no matter how hard they try, than the reality: Obama was rolled by his generals and is a fundamentally weak president:

“President Obama urgently looked for a way out of the war in Afghanistan last year, repeatedly pressing his top military advisers for an exit plan that they never gave him, according to secret meeting notes and documents cited in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.

As Col. Lang notes:

The bottom line here is that President Obama does not really have the generals under control. This is a potentially disastrous portent for America’s future. The president makes policy. The generals carry it out. That is the American tradition.

That is weakness, at its very core.

So, how many other issues has Obama felt strongly about that he got rolled on?

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Posted by on September 22nd, 2010

From our partners at

By Dave Anderson:

Pat Lang (a retired US Army colonel) is thinking logistics.  He notes that the US military is reliant on a massive, slow, chockful of chokepoint supply line to move bulk supplies from Karachi to Peshwar and then through the Khyber Pass before they arrive at the main US logistics hubs near Kabul.  The Afghan and Pakistani Talibans as well as run of the mill economic bandits have been harassing this route for years but they possess the ability in his opinion to squeeze this route.

"…The Taliban have the military capacity to shut down the NATO
supply links to Pakistan and other adjoining countries."  Nasuti


I have been saying for years that supply line interdiction is the
greatest danger to our forces deployed in places like Iraq and
Afghanistan in the midst of potentially hostile populations.

The Pakistani Taliban has been crimping the throughput of US supplies through Karachi-Peshwar-Khtber for a while now.  Large scale attacks have occurred and entire convoys have been captured or burned.  Bridges in the Khyber Pass have been blown, culverts cut, depots raided and tunnels attacked.  The supply routes are much more vulnerable in the winter as the network contracts because most roads become naturally impassible and sabotage is easier to execute. 

However, the US supply lines are also Taliban cash lines.  The supply line is so large, crates routinely "fall off the back of a truck" and find their way into anti-government fighters hands or friendly markets to raise cash.  

The anti-government insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan continued
to grow as the US poured more money into each respective nation.  The
crumbs that fell off the US funded gravy train were more than sufficient
to arm and sustain fighters who were able to deny the US its maximalist
objectives.  The more we spend in Afghanistan, the more crumbs we
generate, and the more the Taliban and other anti-government and anti-US
groups can raise.  It is a nasty positive feedback loop…

The US has the ability to airlift enough supplies into Afghanistan to avoid seeing any forward outpost starve or run out of ammunition.  However airlift is expensive, and limited in its ability to move bulk goods like armored vehicles and aviation fuel.  Without a steady stream of replacement vehicles and with limited helicopter support, more and more US bases would be forced to adapt a defensive posture with local foot patrolling to keep mortar teams on their toes but they would be unwilling or unable to conduct offensive presence patrols into disputed civilian territory as US infantry would be deprived of their fire support and thus forced to fight on much closer to even terms with Afghan guerrillas.  And there would go the last figment of the kinder, gentler, population-centric war that the Very Serious People think will work.  

Completely cutting the Karachi-Peshwar-Khyber supply line only makes sense for Afghan anti-government armed groups if their leadership believes that the US is making significant political gains and the Karzai government gains legitimacy.  Until then, cutting those routes means cutting off a significant cash source while not displacing US forces from their firebases.  

However, the Pakistani Taliban may be willing to attack the US/NATO/ISAF supply lines if the situation in Karachi gets out of control.  Karachi's population of 16 million people is roughly 25% Pashto speaking, and 75% Urdu speakers.  There are significant tensions between these groups.  The Urdu speaking MQM party is increasingly hardlining, including suggesting the Pakistani military should overthrow the civilian government.  The recent killing of an exiled MQM leader has sparked another round of rioting in Karachi that included significant targeting of Pashtun communities and interests. 

Four million Pashtuns in Karachi could shut down the city and its port quite readily.  More importantly, the rural Pashtuns along the supply routes could see that it is in their interest to cut a support for the federal government (money received from the US for allowing supplies to go through) if the federal government either fails to intervene or officially joins in on Pashtun bashing in Karachi.  If that is the case, the US reaction of increased airlift and decreased operations tempo is merely a second order impact to the situation. 

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