U.S. Forces In Afghanistan Will Soon Outnumber Those In Iraq

UN shuts mission in Kandahar. After a surge of violence in Kandahar--the heart of the Taliban insurgency, and the location of the next NATO military offensive--the U.N.has shut down its mission there, evacuated many of its foreign staff, and told its Afghan staff to stay home, reports Reuters. The Afghan president's brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, the provincial council chief of Kandahar, condemned the move, calling it an "irrational decision" that would leave a negative perception of security.

"The security situation has gotten to the point where we needed to withdraw them yesterday," a U.N spokeswoman said. "We hope people can go back and keep doing what they have been doing. We see it as a very temporary measure."

Neighborhood watch Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces have seen security improve through a pilot project called the Local Defense Initiative--a sort of a Afghan neighborhood watch that organizes armed groups to fend off Taliban militants.

From the Washington Post:

These days, the bazaar is thriving. The schoolhouse has reopened. People in the area have become confident enough to report Taliban activity to the village defense force and the police. As a consequence, insurgent attacks have nearly ceased and U.S. soldiers have not hit a single roadside bomb in the area in two months, according to the detachment.

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reservations about the program, which he fears might create the type of armed militias that arose across the country during the 1990s. While the State Department has stopped supporting the defense initiative--concurring with Karzai and mindful of his concerns--the program has tacit approval from senior U.S. military officials, reports the Post.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan will soon outnumber those in Iraq. According to Brookings, by late May or early June, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will outnumber those in Iraq--a shift that's symbolic of the Obama administration's focus on Afghanistan. Currently, there are 90,000 American troops in Afghanistan and 100,000 in Iraq. Forces are being withdrawn from Iraq at a pace of around 5,000 a month, while the U.S. builds up a presence ahead of a major offensive in Afghanistan, increasing troops by a couple thousand a month.

Residents demand Sharia law. Time's Rania Abouzeid reports that the residents of the Swat Valley, from which Taliban militants were ousted last year, are demanding the restoration of Sharia law. They aren't calling for the return of the Taliban, Abouzeid notes, but the return of quick, customary justice--called Nizam-e-Adl--based on Islamic law. Once the Taliban were routed out, the government put in place Pakistan's federal legal system, which is a hodgepodge of British common law and Islamic principles. It is also notoriously corrupt, slow, and expensive. The residents' grievances against Pakistan's laws date back to 1969, when the princely state of Swat was incorporated into Pakistan. Islamist militants have since seized on anti-government feelings to stir up rebellions.

Coming clean about the drone strikes. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation have an op-ed in today's New York Times, arguing that it's time for the U.S. and Pakistan to come clean about the "world's worst-kept secret"--U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani territory. They believe that by publicly acknowledging the drone strikes, the Pakistani public's support for the strikes can actually increase. Firstly, they note that because the drone strikes are shrouded in mystery, the civilian casualty figures are exaggerated and the real figures (a civilian casualty rate of 20 percent) will make the program more palatable to Pakistanis. Second, they argue that it could improve America's profile in the region if it told the truth about the drone strikes, which are evidence of a "deepening" U.S.-Pakistani strategic relationship. Finally, because Pakistani support for the war against the Taliban has increased, "[i]f Pakistan came clean about its involvement with the drones, public backing for the program might similarly increase."

Powerpoint imperiling mission in Afghanistan? The New York Times reports on the pervasive use of PowerPoint slides in the U.S. military and how it "stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making." As one commander put it, "PowerPoint makes us stupid." The main concern is that the complexities of fighting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan can't be summed up in a few bullet points, but that is what almost always happens. From Secretary of Defense Bob Gates to NATO Commander General Stanley McChyrstal, the military's top brass makes extensive use of PowerPoint.