U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates is in Afghanistan on a surprise trip to meet with troops, U.S. commanders, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai (CNN, NYT, AFP, AP, Pajhwok). Gates landed at Bagram air base and later flew to Forward Operating Base Joyce in eastern Kunar province. British prime minister David Cameron, also on a surprise trip to Afghanistan, visited Helmand province and alongside Karzai, played down the impact of cables released by Wikileaks on the British-Afghan relationship (AP, Guardian, Times, BBC). The Karzai government appeared yesterday to back off announced plans to ban all private security companies from operating in Afghanistan, allowing firms with development contracts as well as those working for NATO, embassies, and the U.N. to continue to work until their contracts expire (NYT, WSJ, McClatchy). Firms have to move their offices to the outskirts of Kabul, however.
The Times of London observes that U.S. forces have "suffered some of their worst casualties in the Afghan war since taking over the notorious town of Sangin [in Helmand] from British troops" in September (Times). British commanders have reportedly "been stung by the thinly-veiled criticism of their operations, and especially the closure of their bases."
U.S. Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez tells the Wall Street Journal that a key metric of success in the Afghan war will be whether Afghans join public service in spite of Taliban threats, and observed, "Just as we're not going to kill our way out of this insurgency, we're not going to arrest our way out of the corruption" (WSJ). Around 40 Afghan district-level and army officials have been removed since January for corruption concerns.
The U.S. says it is still 800 short of the 1,500 specialized trainers needed from NATO allies to prepare Afghanistan's security forces for eventual control of the country's security (WSJ).
The chief minister of Baluchistan, the PPP's Mohammad Aslam Khan Raisani, escaped an assassination attempt in Quetta early this morning, as a suicide bomber detonated explosives as the chief minister's convoy drove by (ET, NYT, AFP, AP). At least nine were wounded; there have been no claims of responsibility yet.
A suspected U.S. drone strike killed several alleged militants yesterday in Mir Ali, North Waziristan (CNN, ET, Geo/AFP, AP, AFP, BBC). The leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Mohmand, Omar Khalid, claimed responsibility for yesterday's suicide attacks in the northwest tribal agency that left at least 50 dead, saying the TTP would continue to attack members of anti-Taliban lashkars (CNN, AJE). The Post considers what lessons Pakistani lashkars may have for Afghanistan (Post).
U.S. diplomatic cables released by the web site Wikileaks describe Pakistani leaders as "far more open and friendly" with U.S. envoys in private than in public, though show the U.S. has limited leverage in Pakistan (Post). Pakistan is set to approve an application by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China to open a branch in Pakistan, ahead of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Pakistan later this month (FT). And Pakistan is expected to ratify a trade agreement with Afghanistan that would give Afghan exporters direct access to Indian markets (FT).
A smoggy day in Kabul
Afghan authorities announced yesterday that some 3,000 people die annually because of poor air quality in Kabul, where some 80 percent of pollution is caused by burning low-quality fuels (Tolo). The Afghan government recently declared Thursdays official holidays in a bid to drive down air pollution.