National Security

FP's Situation Report: U.S. to open spigot of assistance to Syria

A shooting in Norfolk; Why the malware market is thriving; The challenge of finding the black box; Will Sinclair retire as a one-star?; and a bit more.

Overnight: there was a shooting at Naval Station Norfolk aboard the USS Mahan at Pier 1, in which two died, including the civilian suspect. CBS News: "A base spokeswoman says a sailor was shot and killed at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia and security forces killed the male civilian suspect. Terri Davis says the shooting happened around 11:20 p.m. Monday aboard the USS Mahan, a destroyer. Davis would not describe the circumstances of the shooting but said the scene is secure. Davis says the two killed were both males but she didn't have any other information on them. She could not say if the civilian had permission to be aboard the ship or not. No other injuries were reported."

Meantime, the U.S. is about to open a big spigot of non-lethal assistance to rebel forces in Syria. Our story: "The State Department is about to begin delivering tens of millions of dollars worth of new assistance into Syria, including ambulances, communications gear and Toyota pickup trucks for the country's beleaguered rebels... despite the violence and fighting across large swaths of the country, State Department officials say that opposition forces have managed to open the supply route into Aleppo from the Syrian-Turkish border that will allow Washington to send in more aid. In January, rebel forces began a more concerted campaign against al Qaeda militias that managed to push the extremists out of strategically important areas. Now, even as the city of Aleppo itself remains under siege by the Assad regime, the route into the city is for the first time in many weeks free of militants.

As a result, U.S. assistance for rebel forces and the Free Syrian Army can get into Aleppo once again, American officials said...The shipments are part of an $80 million non-lethal assistance package to the FSA, underway since 2012, that has largely come to a halt in recent months because of the country's poor security situation. About one-third of that total aid package has already been delivered to rebel forces; that leaves the remainder of the existing U.S. commitment, more than $53 million of equipment and supplies, that is expected to begin to flow into the country in coming days, weeks, and months, according to a State Department official.

"This will be one of the largest shipments we've ever put across," Mark Ward, the State Department's senior advisor for non-lethal assistance in the region, told FP.

...Some of the shipments now in trucks in the queue along the Syrian border include ambulances, forklifts, trucks, communications gear, mattresses and blankets for the Free Syrian Army. It also includes a few of the Toyota Hilux pickups that Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Washington, described as one of the most critical types of equipment the rebels could have. "We need them in the hundreds, not in the onesies and twosies," he said.

...one congressional staffer believes that Americans are in the dark about the true nature of the Syrian rebels, many of whom are moderates that the administration knows and quietly trusts. "[The administration] doesn't want people to know that because if the public finds out, they may say, why aren't you doing more to help them? And there is no good answer to that question," the staffer said. Read our whole story here.

Welcome to Tuesday's edition of Situation Report. If you'd like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we'll just stick you on. Like what you see? Tell a friend.  And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, we hope you'll say something -- to Situation Report. And one more thing: please do follow us @glubold.

Missing SitRep? Please note: If you regularly receive Situation Report but then miss it here and there on some days and wonder why, do please check your junk or spam filters, as that is typically the cause when readers suddenly don't receive it as usual. And thank you much for reading SitRep.

G-8 minus one: Russia is cast out. The NYT's Alison Smale and Michael Shear: "The United States and its closest allies on Monday cast Russia out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies, their most exclusive club, to punish President Vladimir V. Putin for his lightning annexation of Crimea, while threatening tougher sanctions if he escalates aggression against Ukraine. President Obama and the leaders of Canada, Japan and Europe's four strongest economies gathered for the first time since the Ukraine crisis erupted last month, using a closed two-hour meeting on the sidelines of a summit meeting about nuclear security to project a united front against Moscow. But they stopped short, at least for now, of imposing sanctions against what a senior Obama administration official called vital sectors of the Russian economy: energy, banking and finance, engineering and the arms industry." More here.

How groundbreaking number-crunching found the path of Flight 370. CNN's Thom Patterson: "Monday's announcement by Malaysia's Prime Minister acknowledging that missing Flight 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean opens the door to a big question: How did new number crunching confirm the Boeing 777's path? Now we know for sure "there's no way it went north," said Inmarsat Senior Vice President Chris McLaughlin. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Monday that the plane was last tracked over the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth, Australia. Malaysian Airlines has informed passengers' relatives that "all lives are lost," a relative told CNN." More here.

Why the effort to find Flight 370's black box will face hurdles. FP's Dan Lamothe: "The U.S. Navy announced plans Monday to move a "black box locator" to Perth, Australia, in case debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is found in the southern Indian Ocean. The statement was covered breathlessly, with some media outlets calling it a potential game-changer. But a word of caution: the black box locator faces logistical nightmares that prevented it from being effective in other similar searches in the past. Authorities, in other words, may learn where the flight went down -- but they'll have a harder time finding the device capable of explaining why. 

"The high-tech system on the way to Perth is known, in military-speak, as the Towed Ping Locator 25. Like its predecessors, the system uses a high-powered underwater microphone known as a hydrophone to search for acoustic 'pings' coming from beacons mounted on the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder in a downed aircraft. They're commonly known as "black boxes," although they're usually orange. The ping locator, made by Phoenix International of Largo, Md., is about 30 inches long and weighs 70 pounds. It closely resembles a miniature torpedo, complete with fins, and is pulled on a long underwater cable behind a ship. It can detect pings from up to 20,000 feet under the sea. More here.

Or read the International Business Times' bit on "Why the U.S. Navy's Black Box Locator is a Game Changer," here.

McCain won't block Work's nomination over the LCS. Bloomberg's Tony Capaccio, here.

The Navy may ban tobacco sales on all ships. Military Times' Karen Jowers: "The Navy is on the verge of eliminating tobacco sales on all its bases and ships, according to sources inside and outside the Defense Department. Officials are reportedly considering removing tobacco from all sales venues, to include any exchange-operated retail outlets, as well as MWR-operated retail outlets where cigarettes may be sold. Commissaries on Navy bases currently do not sell tobacco products. The decision would be made at the service's highest levels. Navy officials have been gathering information on the impacts of such a decision, one source said, to include the inevitable drop in profits for the Navy Exchange Service Command - which would reduce the flow of dividends that help fund morale, welfare and recreation programs on installations." More here.

Obama will call for an end to NSA's bulk data collection. The NYT's Charlie Savage: "The Obama administration is preparing to unveil a legislative proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of the National Security Agency's once-secret bulk phone records program in a way that - if approved by Congress - would end the aspect that has most alarmed privacy advocates since its existence was leaked last year, according to senior administration officials. Under the proposal, they said, the N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans' calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order." More here.

Are you curious about the black market for malware and cyber weapons? FYI, it's thriving. Our own Shane Harris: "The world of computer hackers who sell stolen credit card numbers, spyware, and cyber weapons is often likened to an 'underground,' a word that implies the existence of a place cut off from most Internet users and existing in a corner of the Web that most people never see. But a new report concludes that the markets actually function more like thriving bazaars subject to the same economic forces as legitimate stores. And just like those legitimate stores, the bazaars aren't that hard to find.

"A simple YouTube search can unearth dozens of videos describing how to use hacker kits to break into Web sites or steal bank account login credentials. Google "buy stolen credit cards" and you'll eventually get directions to dozens of storefronts that offer up pilfered account data. The cyber black market "has emerged as a playground of financially driven, highly organized and sophisticated groups," conclude the authors of a new report from the Rand Corp., the independent research group that often provides analysis to the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence agencies." More here.

Journalists doing journalism: Some in the military challenge Nebraska Senate candidate Shane Osborn's decisions in the EP-3 incident in 2001. The Omaha World-Herald Steve Liewer: "Shane Osborn takes pride in his popular image as a Navy hero, the cool-as-ice aviator who pulled his crippled reconnaissance plane out of a fatal dive and landed it safely in China, saving the lives of his 23 crew members. He's ridden a wave of public acclaim to a term as Nebraska state treasurer, success in business, and a strong position in his bid this year for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Yet questions have followed Osborn ever since the April 2001 incident - especially from others who have served in the military. Some veterans say, in strong terms, that Osborn should have ditched his four- engine EP-3E ARIES II propeller craft in the South China Sea instead of handing over a highly sensitive electronics platform to Chinese authorities - even if it meant killing himself and much of his crew." Read the rest here.

And here, a sidebar on how Osborn's buddy in the Navy wrote a memo endorsing Osborn's actions during the incident - and how it was distributed by the campaign without clearance from the Navy. Read that here.

Speaking of which: Read this piece about how to avoid a naval war with China, on FP by William Parker and Micah Zenko, here.

Swimming upstream: Pete Hegseth in the WSJ yesterday on the need for military pension reform; an important read ICYMI: "... The system is inequitable as well as expensive. Only members who serve 20 years of active duty are eligible for lifetime retirement pensions and military health care-known as Tricare. The vast majority of enlistees leave the armed forces earlier. That means a U.S. Marine could serve three tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, under combat conditions, and not qualify. Meanwhile, another member of the military who never experiences direct combat or repeated deployment can qualify for full retirement benefits after 20 years. All military service is honorable, but there's something amiss when the majority of combat veterans leave the service with no long-term benefits." Read the whole bit here.

Naturally: Sinclair may get to retire at his current rank. USAToday's Jim Michaels: "The attorney for Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who pleaded guilty last week to adultery and having inappropriate relationships with several women, said it is possible that his client could still retire as a general. In a highly charged case, Sinclair was fined $20,000 and reprimanded, but he avoided prison time. Critics, such as Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., called the sentence a 'mockery.'

The sentence left open an important question. At what rank will Sinclair, 51, be allowed to retire? At stake is a lot of money. Sinclair's attorney calculated that the difference between his retiring as a lieutenant colonel and a brigadier general would amount to $832,000 if he would retire today and live to age 82." More here.

Peter Bergen takes the NYT's Carlotta Gall to task for her piece on Pakistan and OBL. Bergen: "...Gall makes two astonishing claims in her Times magazine piece. The first claim: An unnamed Pakistani official told her, based on what he had in turn heard from an unnamed senior U.S. official that "the United States had direct evidence that the ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad." ISI is Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency.

The second claim: "The ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: bin Laden...the top military bosses knew about it, I was told."

It is, of course, hard to prove negatives, but having spent around a year reporting intensively on the hunt for al Qaeda's leader for my 2012 book 'Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad,' I am convinced that there is no evidence that anyone in the Pakistani government, military or intelligence agencies knowingly sheltered bin Laden."

On three reporting trips to Pakistan I spoke to senior officials in Pakistan's military and intelligence service. They all denied that they had secretly harbored bin Laden. OK, you are thinking: "But they would say that, wouldn't they?"

Well, what about the dozens of officials I spoke to in the U.S. intelligence community, Pentagon, State Department and the White House who also told me versions of "the Pakistanis had no idea that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad"?

During the course of reporting for my book I spoke on the record to, among others, John Brennan, now the CIA director and then President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser; then CIA Director Leon Panetta and his chief of staff, Jeremy Bash; then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen; then Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. James Cartwright; then director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter; then senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, Nick Rasmussen; then head of policy at the Pentagon, Michele Flournoy; Michael Vickers, who was then the civilian overseer of Special Operations at the Pentagon; Tony Blinken, who is now the deputy national security adviser; and Denis McDonough, who held that position before Blinken.

These officials have collectively spent many decades working to destroy al Qaeda, and many are deeply suspicious of Pakistan for its continuing support for elements of the Taliban. But all of them told me in one form or another that Pakistani officials had no clue that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad." Read the rest of Bergen's piece here.

 

 

National Security

FP's Situation Report: Syria blocks aid

Chances of war in Ukraine grow; A scramble for intel; Vets storm the Hill today; More troops to get Kony; Sardar Ahmad's final story: about a lion on a roof; and a bit more.  

Syria is blocking aid and ignoring threats from the U.N. FP's Colum Lynch: "... the Syrian government continued over the past month to lay siege to more than 220,000 of its own civilians, block the delivery of life-saving medicines to opposition areas, and maintain bureaucratic restrictions making it extremely difficult for U.N. relief workers to reach hundreds of thousands of needy Syrians, according to an unpublished March 22 report by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The impediments to the international relief effort come one month after the Security Council adopted its first ever resolution demanding that Syria's combatants provide immediate access to relief workers or face the threat of 'further steps.' The resolution called on the U.N. chief to report to the 15-nation council on progress every 30 days."

"Ban's report, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy, will present the United States and its European allies with one of the first major tests of their ability to work cooperatively with Russia on a major international crisis since Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula sent relations into a nosedive." Read the rest here.

Ahead of elections, Turkey shoots down a Syrian warplane. Reuters' Daren Butler: "Turkish armed forces shot down a Syrian plane on Sunday that Ankara said had crossed into its air space in an area where Syrian rebels have been battling President Bashar al-Assad's forces for control of a border crossing. 'A Syrian plane violated our airspace,' Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told an election rally in northwest Turkey. 'Our F-16s took off and hit this plane. Why? Because if you violate my airspace, our slap after this will be hard.' Syria condemned what it called a 'blatant aggression' and said the jet was pursuing rebel fighters inside Syria." More here.

Welcome to Monday's edition of Situation Report. If you'd like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we'll just stick you on. Like what you see? Tell a friend.  And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, we hope you'll say something -- to Situation Report. And one more thing: please do follow us @glubold.

Missing SitRep? Please note: If you regularly receive Situation Report but then miss it here and there on some days and wonder why, do please check your junk or spam filters, as that is typically the cause when readers suddenly don't receive it as usual. And thank you much for reading SitRep.

Flight 370: The Navy prepares a "black box locator." From a statement provided this morning: "The U.S. Navy is continuing efforts to search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. As a precautionary measure in case a debris field is located, U.S. Pacific Command has ordered U.S. Pacific Fleet to move a black box locator into the region, March 24. If a debris field is confirmed, the Navy's Towed Pinger Locator 25 will add a significant advantage in locating the missing Malaysian aircraft's black box. The TPL-25 Towed Pinger Locator System is able to locate black boxes on downed Navy and commercial aircraft down to a maximum depth of 20,000 feet anywhere in the world. Commercial aircraft pingers are mounted directly on the flight recorder, the recovery of which is critical to an accident investigation."

More U.S. troops to Uganda to look for Joseph Kony. The WaPo's Karen DeYoung: "President Obama has ordered a sharp increase in U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to Uganda and sent U.S. military aircraft there for the first time in the ongoing effort to hunt down warlord Joseph Kony across a broad swath of central Africa. The CV-22 Osprey aircraft will arrive in Uganda by midweek, along with refueling aircraft and about 150 Air Force Special Operations forces and other airmen to fly and maintain the planes, according to Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs. At least four Ospreys will be deployed. The White House began to notify Congress, under the War Powers Act, of the new deployments as they began Sunday night.

"Dory and other officials emphasized that the Ospreys will be used for troop transport and that the rules of engagement for U.S. forces remain the same as for about 100 Special Operations troops that Obama first sent to help find Kony in October 2011. U.S. personnel are authorized to 'provide information, advice and assistance' to an African Union military task force tracking Kony and his organization, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), across Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo. While combat-equipped, they are prohibited from engaging LRA forces unless in self-defense." Read the rest of DeYoung's story here.

Read The WaPo's Rajiv Chandrasekaran's piece on the hunt for Kony from last October, here.

The chances of war in Ukraine grow. FP's Dana Stuster: "With Russia seizing the last remaining Ukrainian military base in Crimea and massing troops along Ukraine's eastern border, a top Ukrainian official warned that the chances of war with Russia were growing higher. Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, said his government was "very much concerned" about the Russian troop deployments and told that the chances of war were 'becoming higher.' Appearing on This Week, the foreign minister said Kiev's fragile pro-Western government preferred to use diplomatic means to settle its dispute with Moscow, but was also prepared to use other means 'to defend their homeland.'" More here.

The U.S. scurries to shore up spying on Russia. The WSJ's Adam Entous, Julian Barnes and Siobhan Gorman on Page One: "U.S. military satellites spied Russian troops amassing within striking distance of Crimea last month. But intelligence analysts were surprised because they hadn't intercepted any telltale communications where Russian leaders, military commanders or soldiers discussed plans to invade. America's vaunted global surveillance is a vital tool for U.S. intelligence services, especially as an early-warning system and as a way to corroborate other evidence. In Crimea, though, U.S. intelligence officials are concluding that Russian planners might have gotten a jump on the West by evading U.S. eavesdropping.

"Even though there was a warning, we didn't have the information to be able to say exactly what was going to happen," a senior U.S. official says. To close the information gap, U.S. spy agencies and the military are rushing to expand satellite coverage and communications-interception efforts across Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic states. U.S. officials hope the "surge" in assets and analysts will improve tracking of the Russian military and tip off the U.S. to any possible intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin before he acts on them. The U.S. moves will happen quickly. 'We have gone into crisis-response mode,' a senior official says.

"Still, as Russia brings additional forces to areas near the border with eastern Ukraine, America's spy chiefs are worried that Russian leaders might be able to cloak their next move by shielding more communications from the U.S., according to officials familiar with the matter. "That is the question we're all asking ourselves," one top U.S. official says. The Obama administration is 'very nervous,' says a person close to the discussions. 'This is uncharted territory.'" More here.

Putin says he doesn't "need" Ukraine. But he might take it anyway. James Traub's BLUF, writing on FP: "It is a very, very unsettling thought that Ukraine's fate now depends on Putin's calculations of self-interest, or even his whims. The ringmaster of Sochi seems still to be glorying in the vast powers at his disposal. We can only hope that the vapors start to disperse in the harsh light of day." The whole story here.

How Putin has remained a riddle for three American presidents, by The NYT's Peter Baker, here.

Decoded: Romney and Palin, playing a bit of "I told you so" lately. The Christian Science Monitor's Mark Sappenfield: "Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, as we know, have been able to indulge in a bit of "I told you so" lately over the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea...What was more interesting than the obligatory political target practice, however, was the nuance in Romney's comments Sunday. While not new, the comments may prove increasingly prescient as Obama and the world seek to recalibrate how to deal with Russia going forward.

"On one hand, they were classic Romney. One has difficulty imagining Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan - the great political communicators of our time - ever using the words 'geopolitical adversary' on television, much less twice in the space of eight minutes, as Romney did Sunday. It is a phase that bespeaks academic condescension, and Romney, after all, never quite nailed the common man thing in 2012. Yet, at length, Romney found his inner cable guy and hit his point. 'They [Russia] are not our enemy, but they're an adversary on the playing field of the world.'... Obama, Romney said, 'should have had the judgment from the very beginning to understand that Russia was not our friend, it had very different interests and ambitions than we did.' In the wake of Crimea's annexation by Russia last week, it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue with Romney on that point." More here.

Putin in The Onion (not really Putin, FYI) on thanking everyone for being so cool about all of this. "Putin": "It's certainly no easy task to forcefully annex an entire province against another country's will, so I just wanted to thank you-the government of the United States, the nations of western Europe, and really the entire world population as a whole-for being super cool about all of this." Alert for wonks who sometimes don't get it: The Onion is a spoof - it ain't real. Read the rest of it here.

The vet group IAVA will storm the Hill today, no joke, to combat suicides. The WaPo's Josh Hicks: "An emerging veterans group plans to descend on Capital Hill this week to demand new action on veterans issues and launch a national campaign to combat suicide among former troops. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has named veteran-suicide prevention as its top priority for 2014. On Monday, the group will send 31 representatives to discuss mental health challenges with members of Congress and President Obama.

Participants will call for new legislation and executive orders that could strengthen access to mental-health services and improve coordination between government agencies, according to an announcement from the group." Rest of the WaPo post here.  Deets of the IAVA event here.

Patrick Murphy talking about the Storm the Hill event on MSNBC here. 

A delay for the software for the F-35. Bloomberg's Tony Capaccio with the scoop: "Delays in testing critical software for Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 jet are threatening to delay the Pentagon's most expensive weapon and boost development costs, according to congressional investigators. 'Persistent software problems' have slowed testing to demonstrate the aircraft's war-fighting, navigation, targeting and reconnaissance systems, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said. The Marine Corps F-35 version, designed for short takeoffs and vertical landings, has a key milestone next year. While the Marines want the plane to be deemed ready for combat in mid-2015, tests on some of its software might not be completed on time, and possibly 13 months late."

According to a draft of a GAO report obtained by Bloomberg's Capaccio: "Delays of this magnitude would mean that the Marine Corps will not likely have all of the capabilities it expects in July 2015... The effects of these delays compound as they also put the timely delivery of Air Force and Navy initial operating capabilities at risk."

"The Air Force's F-35 version is supposed to meet a similar deadline in 2016, and the Navy model in 2018. Italy and the U.K. are buying the Marine Corps model. The F-35 program is estimated to cost $391.2 billion. While Lockheed Martin officials haven't yet seen the GAO report, they are 'confident we will complete flight testing of the software required for Marine Corps initial operational capability this year,' Laura Siebert, a spokeswoman for the Bethesda, Maryland-based contractor, said in an e-mail statement." More here.

Where the Pentagon gives up, the French and Germans push forward (the search for MIAs): ProPublica's Megan McCloskey (and co-published with The Daily Beast): "U.S. Army Private First Class Lawrence S. Gordon - killed in Normandy in 1944, then mistakenly buried as a German soldier - will soon be going home to his family. But don't thank the American military for this belated return. The Pentagon declined to act on his case, despite exhaustive research by civilian investigators that pointed to the location of his remains. Instead, Gordon's family and advocates used the same evidence to persuade French and German officials to exhume Gordon and identify him through DNA testing. That's right: the relatives of this U.S. soldier, who fought against the Germans, are relying on Germany to bring him back home.

"Gordon's case is another example of breakdowns in the American system for finding and identifying tens of thousands of missing service members from past conflicts." Read the rest here.

Sardar Ahmad was a "charming and talented journalist" for AFP in Kabul who had just told a tale of a lion who lived on a roof. AFP's obit of the senior reporter for AFP in Kabul who was shot dead, along with his wife, Humaira, and two of their three children, in the recent attack by the Taliban at the Serena Hotel (the third child, not quite two, is in a coma): "...An AFP staff photographer identified the four bodies at a city hospital on Friday, and said the family's infant son was undergoing emergency treatment after suffering serious wounds. 'This is an immensely painful and enormous loss for Agence France-Presse,' AFP chairman Emmanuel Hoog said. He described Ahmad as a 'dedicated and courageous journalist, a cornerstone of our team in Afghanistan who delivered, every day, exceptional coverage of the news in extremely difficult conditions.' 

"Four teenage gunmen with pistols hidden in their socks managed to penetrate several layers of security to attack the luxury hotel on the eve of Nawroz, the Persian New Year which is a major holiday in Afghanistan. The Serena attack was claimed by the Taliban, who have vowed a campaign of violence to disrupt the April 5 election that will decide a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Hired in 2003 to cover daily briefings by the US-led coalition at Bagram airbase, two years after the invasion that drove out the Taliban regime, Ahmad went on to cover all aspects of life, war and politics in his native country.

"He was known among his colleagues for his wit, charm and ebullience. His time covering the briefings at Bagram allowed him to achieve an impressive level of fluency in English -- and a distinctive American accent."

Gilles Campion, AFP's Asia-Pacific regional director, said: "During the 11 years he spent with AFP in Kabul, he always exercised immense courage and objectivity when reporting, despite the risks faced by journalists in that country."

"Ahmad was a versatile reporter with an eye for unexpected stories that opened a window on life in Afghanistan away from the bombs and blast walls. His last feature for AFP, filed on Tuesday, was about a lion called Marjan, who was rescued by animal welfare officials from living on a rooftop in Kabul. That was a follow-up to a story Ahmad himself broke last year, generating headlines around the world.

"He wrote in the feature: "Marjan is named after a famous half-blind lion who lived at Kabul zoo and became a symbol of Afghanistan's national survival after living through coups, invasions, civil war and the hardline Taliban era before dying in 2002."

"Ahmad's second-last story, the day before, covered a threat by the Taliban to attack polling staff, voters and security forces ahead of the April 5 election. Outside AFP, Ahmad showed his entrepreneurial bent by founding Kabul Pressistan, a successful local news agency that has provided fixing and translation services for numerous foreign reporters coming to Kabul." The obit, here.

Sardar Ahmad's final story, about the lion on the roof, here.