Hey all.

Steve Chao will be along shortly to answer questions!

Here is proof. Here's a video describing where he's at and where he's been.

Steve Chao was in Helmand province with Afghan soldiers who are preparing to take charge of security as part of the 2014 pullout plan, where US forces are starting to hand over bases in the volatile regions of southern Afghanistan.

He is an award-winning correspondent who's reported around the world, covering such events such as the war in Afghanistan, the terror attacks in Mumbai, and the Tibetan uprisings in China.

Most recently he was in Japan for the tsunami disaster, and on the high seas around the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands for the East China Sea dispute. Before his post as the Senior Asia Correspondent for Al Jazeera, Chao was an international correspondent for CTV.

Edit: Steve is here answering questions. Reddit is tweaking out a bit though.

** APOLOGIES ALL. IT'S ONE A-M HERE IN KABUL, AND I'M GOING TO HAVE TO GET A FEW HOURS OF ZZZ'S BEFORE JUMPING ON A PLANE FOR ANOTHER EMBED. I'VE TRULY ENJOYED THIS SESSION AND WILL TRY TO ANSWER SOME MORE QUESTIONS WHEN I GET UP. ALL THE BEST! STEVE

Comments: 389 • Responses: 55  • Date: 

monksense54 karma

Hey Steve, I used to do your dry cleaning on King Street way back when. Glad to see you're doing ok!

SteveChaoAJE44 karma

Wow! I remember! Thanks for always taking care of me!

weealex50 karma

What are the chances that Afghanistan will actually end up stable after the US pull out?

SteveChaoAJE79 karma

That is the million dollar question. The 2014 pullout is THE topic of discussion among Afghans. If there is a general feeling among people here, it is the feeling that 2014 is simply too early a date for the pullout and that the Afghan National Army or ANA, along with the Afghan police force are simply not at a place where they can independently defend the country against a fierce insurgency. There are many parts that are lacking - from inadequate airlift capabilities to get injured soldiers to hospitals, to a lack of military hospitals to tend to injured soliders, to a serious inability to supply troops on the frontlines. And then there are the issues of personnel, the green on blue killings, the fact that the ANA loses about 24% of its men every year.
Many are wondering that if the US and all the NATO countries with their sophisticated equipment couldn't put an end to the insurgency, then how is a fledgling security force expected to.

Alex_Gianturco33 karma

My father spent 2010-2011 in Helmand. He says the moment Washington stops paying the Afghan army's salaries, all of its soldiers will just hop over to the Taliban, which will still be paying. He told me when he came back that absolutely no one had any loyalty to the government.

He also said the Afghan army is mostly made up of incompetent drug addicts/criminals that would be locked up/killed by the Taliban.

What's your experience?

SteveChaoAJE44 karma

There is truth to what your father is saying. There is no question that many join the Afghan army because they need jobs. It's not much different elsewhere in the world. I would disagree that no one has any loyalty to the government. In fact many of the soldiers that we spent time with - expressed hopes that they could help in creating a better Afghanistan. they sounded just like American or NATO soldiers in-country. They believed - or at least wanted to believe - that their sacrifices are worth something. This wasnt idle talk or "propaganda" talk that they were forced to say to us journalists. But genuine desires. Would they choose another profession if it paid better - the majority I would say would. Do they believe the leadership in the government has serious problems - most definintely. Ask any Afghan and they will tell you such.
Will some defect to the Taliban for higher salaries. Certainly I know of cases where Afghan police officers have been phones by the Taliban, offered a better salary on the condition that they shoot fellow police officers beside them. They do. And they drive off with the police vehicle over to the Taliban side. It does happen. But I wouldn't say it's the norm.
As for drug addicts/criminals - that is again, more a problem with the Afghan police. The Afghan army are a far more discliplined force.

bhaller21 karma

Is there a non-military answer to the insurgency and combating it?

SteveChaoAJE40 karma

The non-mlitary solution is to provide good clean governance - that makes a noticeable difference in the lives of people - especially in remote areas, where the Taliban have a great deal of sway. Education is also key. You have to remember that a lot of the areas where the insurgency is strongest, are also areas, where illiteracy is highest. The more people understand the greater world. And the more they understand their own history and the intentions of forces like the US and NATO, the more they will trust that outsiders are there to help.
But... saying that... in order to develop all this, you need to create the security bubble for the good stuff to come in - which means you do need an effective military to keep opposing forces at bay.

etrnloptimist4 karma

How does this view jibe with the reports that the NATO forces are thought of as invaders and occupiers?

SteveChaoAJE6 karma

It is the duality that I've spoken about in some of the other answers here. On one hand Americans and NATO forces are despised as "invaders or occupiers"... on other other, they are seen as benefactors and protectors. In the more remote South, the feelings of animosity are greater. So the balance therefore, is how long does one stay to ensure stability while proving that one is not an occupying force.

heyjude32138 karma

Do you think that there is any hope for Democracy to stay in Afghanistan? I understand that democracy can never be pushed on a country.

SteveChaoAJE55 karma

You're right that no one takes to having anything pushed upon them -especially a political system. Democracy, by its very nature of what it is, must be supported or willed into existence by the people. I think we'll get a true indication of whether democracy in Afgahnistan's form, can survive after the next upcoming elections - slated for April of 2014. The credibility of the last Presidential elections were damaged by what many say was widespread fraud and vote rigging. It is why many people see the current government as illegitimate.

Big_Gay_Mike12 karma

And a follow question, do you personally believe that Afghanistan or other middle-east countries would value from a democracy like the one in the United States?

SteveChaoAJE33 karma

I think humanity is built to desire freedom - the freedom to think, to express opinions, the freedom to decide ones future, without it being imposed upon - the freedom to go to school without fearing for ones life, the freedom to raise a family without worrying if they will survive the next day. What form of government allows for that, is something that each person and each nation must decide for itself. Canadian democracy is somewhat different from American democracy, but it arguably still works. (Canadians would argue their system works better :) ). Again I go back to the systems that provide for a rule of law - independent courts, independent security forces, along with the proper checks and balances to keep all those who could potentially abuse power accountable. What that ultimately looks like, will be for each nation to shape.

SteveChaoAJE14 karma

I have struggled with this question myself even when it comes to China - as I cover the entire Asia region, and was based in Beijing for five years. One thing I've learned is that people of any nation must come to their own solution as to what is the best political system for them. What I have also learned however, is the importance of rule of law, and the need for the leadership of any country to be accountable. The US is far from having it's scandals among leadership (as we have been seeing these past few days in its military). But what US democracy has, are the checks and balances in place. Those who have covered Africa, can tell you of the great hopes in the young leaders of the 90s that rose up. They seemingly were there for the people. However, without independent courts, and checks and balances, power corrupted. That is certainly the danger for middle-east countries, along with Afghanistan as they forge their new paths.

pher149235 karma

do you think pizza for lunch 4 days in a row is a bad idea?

SteveChaoAJE51 karma

It's never a bad idea to have pizza. No matter how many days in a row. :)

mountain1732 karma

[deleted]

SteveChaoAJE33 karma

Thanks for your worries. Usually we always have our flack jacket and helmet on - esp. out in areas like Helmand. But at that instance, we were actually touring the combat outpost with a US Marine Colonel and his Afghan counterpart, and were supposed to be in a "safe" central part of the base... when gunmen opened fire from the valley down below. With so many bullets flying around, it wasn't safe for us to run the 300 metres back to the tent where our flak jackets were. So we hunkered down behind military constructed dirtwalls, called Hescos and shot what we could.

Vertana25 karma

Do the US Marines seem to be in agreement with ending the war and bringing our troops home? How does the environment feel there as far as attitudes and human relations?

SteveChaoAJE24 karma

We spent about nine days with a group of 18 Marine Advisors, along with a small contingent of infantry who were there for protection on Combat Outpost Nolay in Helmand. In our conversations with them, it was clear that the Marine advisors were truly interested in helping the Afghan army get on its feet. There were mixed feelings about whether it was too early to end the war - because there is so much more work to do to ensure the Afghan Army (ANA) is ready. And as fellow Marines will know, they are trained to see the job done, and in this case, there is a huge feeling especially among the Afghan populace, that the 2014 pullout is premature. As for the environment, our Marine Advisors had a great relationship with their Afghan counterparts of the 2nd brigade 215 corps. They had no green on blue killings. And we spent a great deal of time just hanging out with Afghan soldiers having tea. As did the Marines.

Xer021 karma

What is the most dangerous situation you have ever been in?

SteveChaoAJE48 karma

From 2006-2009 I spent the better of six months of the year embedded with NATO forces in Kandahar. Much of that time was spent west of Kandahar city in areas like Panjwai and Zhari; the birthplace of the Taliban. In many operations, we would be under intense small arms, and rpg fire. But the most scary threat was always the IED. i remember one operation that involved a 20 kilometre night march, and then a flurried rush into a village under fire - in that rush, a Canadian soldier in a platoon right behind us stepped on an IED. The explosion was huge, and sent us all to the ground. later, the recovery team could only find scattered parts along with his vest, and pieces of his machine gun. The rest of the day, all I could think of was the fact that I needed to go back down that road when the operation ended.

_flac16 karma

Have you talked to many ordinary afghans? What are their typical views on the challenges afghanistan faces?

SteveChaoAJE22 karma

I've been reporting on Afghanistan since 2001. And keep in regular touch with a number of Afghans. The one topic that is being discussed a great deal among seemingly everyone is the 2014 pullout. There is a great deal of concern as to whether it will bring more violence, perhaps even civil war to the country - as many wonder whether the security forces are strong enough to push back the Taliban. At the same time, corruption remains a dark figure that hovers over everything. Many afghans have lost a great deal of faith in the current leadership of the country, and are hoping that it will be improved come the next elections in April of 2014.

p_nathan16 karma

What is it like? Can you give some kind of vibe as to what its like just walking down the street for a normal person?

SteveChaoAJE27 karma

it all depends on the person. If you're Afghan you can definitely stroll through the streets of any city, town or village. If you're a foreigner however - at the moment, it's still far too dicey a venture to be walking down the street. It wasn't always this way. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, up until around 2004 or 05, foreigners could still walk around in cities like Kabul - without much of a worry. But from that period on, the amount of kidnappings and attacks increased, to the point that the majority of the country is simply "unsafe" for foreigners to travel freely in. Saying that, we do get out in citiies like Kabul, Kandahar City and Lashkar Gah, but we try to limit our time in any one place and keep moving. We also try not to telegraph our plans by telling people on the phone where we will be heading or who we will be meeting.

Enchilada_McMustang14 karma

In what is different working for Al Jazeera than working for a western/american network?

SteveChaoAJE30 karma

For more than a decade I worked for CTV, Canadian television. Between stints, I have also filed for ABC America, CNN, along with other networks. The difference with Al Jazeera, is essentially the breadth of coverage. If you compare the various networks, you will see so many more stories from so many different countries on Al Jazeera in a single day, then on any other network. Why? It goes down to economics. Al Jazeera continues to spend on news coverage to get its teams out in the field in so many countries. Whereas in this day of shrinking advertising dollars around the world, many other networks are consolidating their spending, and closing down overseas bureaus. In terms of editorial judgements, Al Jazeera english has an incredibly international staff, with many of them having come from top networks like CNN, BBC, ITV, Channel 4, among many others. Al Jazeera also still holds to its philosophy of covering the areas that are uncovered... and that often means, again spending on getting to the hard to get to places. I've been near the North Pole for Al Jazeera, in a remote Kingdom in Nepal, which takes five days on horseback to get to...

edisekeed12 karma

What do you think the average American is unaware of but should know about what is going on in Afghanistan?

SteveChaoAJE26 karma

I would challenge Americans to see beyond the number of American soldiers killed. To see the development that has happened here, and the improvement in people's lives. Are there not enough problems domestically at home? Sure. But at the same time, America holds a very unique place in this world and it is often called upon to uphold certain values and to champion the rights of so many. Does it get much thanks, often no. But that is not to say that the US has not made a difference in the world in the areas of human rights, and freedoms. When people can see beyond themselves, then communities become stronger. It could be argued that 9/11 was a symptom of forgetting that we live in an international community and that we need to contribute to bettering this community, otherwise, serious issues of inequality that spark anger and hate and lead people to carry out such horrific acts will only continue to grow.

Billy_Covington11 karma

  • How did you get started in journalism?
  • What languages do you speak?
  • What is your favorite place in Afghanistan?
  • Since you have been reporting there since 2001, I would like to know your opinion on how we could best handle the current situation.
  • Have you personally seen the layers of corruption that are so rampant throughout the country? Any ideas on how to expel this problem?
  • If you had to pick any other country to report from besides Afghanistan, what would it be?

Your the man. I love Al Jazeera and have especially enjoyed your reports from Afghanistan since I began watching. Thank you for doing what you do out there, and for this AMA! Stay safe Mr Chao and continue the good work!

SteveChaoAJE18 karma

Thanks Billy for your kind words. I sort of stumbled into journalism. I was a bright-eyed university student that one summer travelled to Guatemala to do aid relief work. During that time, there was a coup, and the gov't changed. There was a great deal of violence that we witnessed there, but the coup was reported internationally as a bloodless one. On the plane back home, I read all these reports, which were wrong. And decided there needed to be more journalists in the underreported areas of the world, setting the record right. I switched degrees, and halfway through a journalism program was fortunate enough to land my first job at a local TV station. I speak Mandarin, English (obviously), understand some Taiwanese, and also understand a degree of Spanish and French (age has added rust to my abilities in these last two languages).
As for my favorite place in Afghanistan? Hmmm. There are many. I would say the Arghandab valley just north of Kandahar city is one. I still have yet to go to Bamiyan, which I hope to one day.
As for how best to handle the situation... that is a big question. I think Obama and his military commanders will have to think beyond domestic pressures to truly decide what assets... i.e. air support, medical support, to leave behind post 2014, and how many soldiers to leave behind as advisors to ensure a stable transition.
As for corruption - you only have to go as far as the roads outside the gates of the airport here in Kabul. Often as an international flight comes in, a number of police officers will set up checkpoints. They won't stop Afghans, or locals, and they aren't looking for suspected terrorists. They stop foreigners, and search for bottles of liquor. While customs allows two bottles per person, the police at these checkpoints insist on confiscating them. You can imagine where they go. Corruption can only be tackled when the institutions, like the courts are powerful enough to prosecute those involved in the corruption. There also needs to be a will from the leadership of the government to clean up, and to keep all powers accountable. If that happens, then a country stands a chance.
As for other countries - I'm fortunately the Senior Asia Correspondent for Al Jazeera, so my patch includes all of Asia. So I do have a chance to rove around many countries every year. I would however, love to spend more time reporting in Latin and South American and Africa.

ajehals11 karma

Given the apparent local lack of confidence in the ANA and the likelihood that armed groups of one stripe or another will try to take and hold areas again if and when NATO forces are pulled out, do you see anything concrete that could be done in the time remaining to help with stability in Afghanistan?

Second one if I may, what role do you think Iran should have/be playing in Afghanistan?

SteveChaoAJE17 karma

I would say there is a far greater lack of confidence for the ANP, the Afghan National police. In many areas in the south, the ANA are actually welcomed by the people, or at the very least, tolerated. Whereas the ANP are most often despised. That is because there have been so many incidences of police officers extorting money and various other things from the local populace. It is a serious problem, as the ANP are often supposed to help take care of areas of success, where insurgents have been pushed out - only to destroy any of the trust built up by NATO/US or ANA forces. As for what concrete things can be done in the time remaining? My answer will be that which almost every Afghan has passed on to me: there needs to be better leadership at the top. Leadership that will steer the country away from corruption, self-interest. Leadership that will unify the country, more than dividing it. If people can believe in a government, then there is something to start from. But until that happens, and as long as there is a serious lack of faith in the leadership, few good things can follow.

gwzluckyluc9 karma

Do you think the firing of Gulab Mangal was a smart idea?

what effect would the replacement of Karzai (by the us) would have on the outer provinces like Helmand where he wields little power and is very unpopular?

What was the effect of richard holbrooke's death on the Af-Pak relationship?

Who is more unpopular: US/NATO or Karzai?

Do you need a researcher? one who is very familiar with the politics of the area as a result of a year long internship at VOA afghan service

SteveChaoAJE6 karma

These are very good questions. Gulab Mangal was seen as being very cooperative with Western forces, and they did appreciate working with him, but there were internal concerns about his administration in Helmand.
The new governor, is of course selected by Karzai, and it of course then brings this region tighter into his sphere of influence.
What I've been told is that in the transition, ISAF forces stopped all the funding to Helmand... to allow for the new governor to begin understanding what mechanisms were in place to fund which depts/projects etc... and to then appeal to Karzai and Kabul on the need to keep this funding going. Initial reports are that the new governor in fact seems to get it, and seems to be able to work with both Western forces and Karzai. So change may be good. As for Karzai, you are correct that he is highly unpopular in provinces like Helmand. His replacement will fare better or worse depending on who he/she is i.e. tribe, affiliation etc. The loss of Richard Holbrooke was a heavy one - for a man who brokered the 1995 Dayton accords to end the Bosnia war, he was deeply committed to trying to bring stability to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As for who is more unpopular... that is a tough one to answer. I'll give it a miss. And fire the question back at you.

[deleted]8 karma

Exactly how much hashish do Afghani soldiers smoke on a daily basis?

SteveChaoAJE10 karma

Wish I could answer that for you.

grassfarmer_pro5 karma

Can you give some insight into the historical relationship between mainstream Afghanistan and the Taliban?

Specifically, why have a group such as the Taliban been allowed to operate and exist when their values and violent tendencies are so off the wall crazy...What kind of people put up with that crap?

Is there any hope the Taliban will be driven to extinction?

SteveChaoAJE13 karma

The Taliban was born out of the decades of war in this country. The group came into power because its leaders provided the safety and security that Afghans so desperately wanted. Theirs was a regimental system, where you couldn't take a photo of a living thing... including a tree. But at least it was a system that punished thieves, and rapists, and provided some sort of justice. The Taliban was allowed to strengthen because the world forgot about Afghanistan. Decades of war forced out the intelligentsia, stripped children of the chance to learn to read and write, destroyed a culture that once valued itself, and prided itself on its self sufficiency. The only way to end what some would call "extremism", is to offer a better alternative.

IvetaHlouchova5 karma

Hello Steve,

I'd like to ask you about your opinion about the problems of using insurgents in Afghanistan as proxy forces by states. Is it common there? Who supports who, by what means and by what types of support and alike? and also - do you see any connections of the conflict in Afghanistan the to one in Kashmir?

Thank you very much. Iveta

SteveChaoAJE6 karma

Hi Iveta, You all definitely ask tough and informed questions.
Ask any Afghan and they will tell you that it is outside forces... i.e. certain neighbor states that are orchestrating this insurgency. There is a good deal of evidence to support the fact that the Taliban use Pakistan, for example, as a sanctuary to train and resupply its forces. There have also been many claims that Iran has at times tried to play a destabilizing force by supplying insurgents with weapons - the thinking here, being keep the US occupied fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan, so they will be too tied up to "deal" with Iran. While I've seen weapons that allegedly "belonged" to Iran, a lot of such accusations are hard to substantiate. And are the Taliban itself a proxy force? Many of the fighters themselves are paid by the Taliban to fight for them. In 2006 the group was paying far more (and far more consistently) then the national government was paying a police officer - which is why they managed to gather larger numbers of fighters. Some of the pay issues have been addressed. As for a connection with Kashmir. Perhaps the biggest one is the - dare I say it - British designed "Durand line", that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ask many in the South of the country, and they will tell you that they see no line.... that parts of Pakistan and Southern afghanistan belong to the Pashtuns - and they themselves are a nation unto their own. There is a degree of truth in that. And the border that exists remains a touchy subject, as seen when it was raised recently internationally.

english1225 karma

Do you have any idea how the Afghani people at the thought of US soldiers pulling out in 2014? Are they excited/nervous/scared? Do they think the US forces have improved their country?

SteveChaoAJE14 karma

Afghans are a very proud and independent people. In some ways they resent - I would even go so far as to say despise, the presence of US and NATO forces - especially in the South, where there is almost a culture of resistance against anyone that is from the "outside". Saying that... many have seen the benefits that the US and NATO have brought - education, the building of roads, the building of better infrastructure, higher paying jobs etc. So many are fearful that once the pullout starts, much of that will disappear. Already, there is talk that a number of the schools started by the British in helmand will have to be closed because the Afghan government simply doesn't have the funds to pay the teachers and keep the schools open. Economically, things appear to be slowing down too, as people aren't buying cars, or homes, preferring instead to save up - in the case that Afghanistan spirals into more violence again. Many of the restaurants and hotels in Kabul that cater to foreigners are also already reporting that business is down. So yes, for many, there is a nervousness of what the future will bring. Just the other day, I spoke to a female computer class teacher. She said her entire family is worried. For herself, she's scared that the absence of international forces, could mean that one day girls will not be allowed to go to school again.

RobinTheBrave4 karma

Does Afganistan really have a problem that our military can actually fix, or is it really a political problem?

SteveChaoAJE11 karma

I have a two pronged answer to this question. The military can be an effective force in pushing back the Taliban and giving space for the Afghan government to bring in the development and the governance into areas where insurgents have been incredibly strong. One can argue that NATO and the US have done a somewhat commendable job in allowing for that space in major centres, like Kabul - where the amount of development and change is incredible. But the military's contribution cannot stand on its own. The past Presidential election here in Afghanistan truly set the country back, as it was mired in controversy. There needs to be clean and fair elections here. And April 2014 will be a true test of this. If there are legitimate contenders that can truly compete on a level field, then perhaps faith can be restored in the country. Otherwise, the political problem will undermine all that the US military, and NATO forces have done here.

AdmittedSpin4 karma

Thanks for taking questions Steve. I'm a big fan of AJE.

I wanted to know...what do you believe the consequences (good or bad) of the U.S. pulling out of Afghanistan will be for the whole Middle East region? How will it affect Afghanistan's relationship with Pakistan? What's the general attitude of the Afghan people? Are they happy the US is leaving or scrared of what might happen after? Have you discovered anything that would leave you to believe the US will still have major influence in the country?

Thanks again.

SteveChaoAJE5 karma

Am always happy to meet fans of AJE.
You ask a lot of good and tough questions here. The US and NATO pullout, is making for nervous neighbours. Iran, Pakistan, India, and even China are watching closely as to see whether it will lead to a security vacuum. And each of these countries are putting in place contingencies to deal with increased violence in the region. I would say the greatest concern is perhaps not so much the impact on the Middle East, but what this could mean with relations with Pakistan. As the Taliban are very much a force in that country as well. There are also the historical animosities between Pakistan and Afghanistan, that without a third party mediating as much i.e. the US, in such tense relationships could deteriorate further.
As for the attitude of the Afghan people. I don't often like talking in generalities. What I can say is that the 2014 pullout hangs over every Afghan here, and has been talked about extensively. On one hand, the Afghans are proud people, and pride themselves on self sufficiency, which is why the US and NATO presence has been resented. But at the same time they see the US and NATO as protectors and benefactors. They appreciate all the development that has happened in this country, due specifically to international aid flowing in. And while much has been lost to corruption, it has changed the country dramatically - esp. in the capital of Kabul. Many fear that with 2014, the aid money will also dry up, leaving Afghanistan poorer economically. Already, many Afghans are starting to save, rather then spend on cars... houses...etc... to have emergency money on hand to leave if needed.
As for your last question: there remains the talk of how many military advisors the US will leave behind to guide the fledging Afghan security force. The numbers floated have been around 15-20,000. The hard part of Obama is that the war is extremely unpopular back home, and there is pressure to get out of what is increasingly seen as an unwinnable situation. Saying that, the Afghans will clearly need help beyond 2014, especially in areas like air support in military confrontations, so I expect that the US will still play a large role here.

AshofRoses4 karma

Do you think there is any chance that A young girl will grow up to see her daughters have freedom and choices she dosnt now have? if so what would they want them to be.

SteveChaoAJE6 karma

This week I visited a high school where thousands of girls were studying. It was so uplifting hearing the crazy din of excited children running in the hallways headed to class. One girl, when asked what part of Afghan history she liked the most... said she loved the 1920s, under the rule of King Amanullah Khan. it was because he promoted modern ideals that saw both boys and girls go to school. The girls shared the same desires as many around the world... they wanted the freedom to choose their future profession, the freedom to walk the streets...

ALL_in_A_days_WORK4 karma

What was the most interesting experience you've had during your time overseas?

SteveChaoAJE15 karma

I've been blessed with this job, as it has provided me with a front row seat to some of the world's most fascinating, sometimes horrifying events. They have all been interesting, from covering the Space Shuttle disaster in Necogdoches (sp?) Texas, to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, to the Tibetan uprising in 2008 ahead of the Beijing Olympics. The most fulfilling experiences though, come from the interviews and the time spent with many inspiring people. I would include such people as Mongolia's president Tsakhia Elbegdorj, who seems genuinely to be trying to clean his country of corruption, to Mohamad Nasheed, the now ousted president of the Maldives, to Abdullah Abdullah here in Afghanistan.

1mfa04 karma

Since he was in Helmand, I'm assuming the ANA personnel were being trained primarily by US Marines.

  • How did Mr Chao feel they interacted at the lowest level, both personally and tactically?
  • Was there a sense of increasing combat aptitude on the part of the Afghans?
  • What did they feel they needed for success following 2014 - for instance, how did they plan on compensating for such a dramatic loss of support assets?

SteveChaoAJE3 karma

In Helmand, the ANA are being trained by both US Marines and British forces. (We're about to embed with British forces in the upcoming days.) Our experience this time around was with a US marine advisory group. How did the 18 men we were with interact with their Afghan counterparts? They interacted incredibly well, and had good rapports on all levels. While there was a big dirt wall separating the compounds between the Marines and the Afghan unit they were advising (due to the green on blue shootings), the Marine advisors would be over on the Afghan side all the time, sitting, talking with them. The US marines were not doing any fighting. Tactically, even during one of the firefights where we were with them, the Marines would often sit back and watch how the Afghan commanders organized their troops. Once in a while they would offer suggestions, but that was about it. As for increasing aptitude - yes, most definitely. I still remember watching Afghan troops in 2006 during operations. Many would be firing indiscriminately over walls, when some soldiers ran out of bullets, they would simply walk off the battlefield, leaving their fellow soldiers behind. The 2nd brigade, 215th corps (the group we were with), were far better discliplined then that. The US marines advisors, some who have also served in Iraq, say that the Afghans in many ways were better trained than their Iraqi counterparts.
The biggest needs for success post 2014, was air support, medical support, training in skills like artillery. As for how will they compensate for the lack of these? Well there are signs that NATO or the US could continue supporting them in areas such as this past 2014. At the same time, the Afghans are finding their own solutions. You may have read that in some areas, the Afghan military has gone back to using donkeys to get supplies to their bases. Corruption also remains a major problem - as millions of dollars of worth of repair parts for vehicles for example, have gone missing.

cronowing3 karma

Are speculations valid that suggest the prolongued occupation in Afghanistan was attributed to the discovery of a lithium vein?

SteveChaoAJE9 karma

I would say that is the stuff of conspiracy theories. You have to remember that the US is being blamed for dropping the ball here. After the Taliban fell in 2001, the force essentially gave up. There was a great deal of hope then of change, and a prolonged peace. But then many of the US forces meant to come to Afghanistan to stabilize the country, were diverted to Iraq. That period gave the Taliban time to regroup, and begin taking over a lot of the areas they had ceded. If minerals were all that important, perhaps more forces would have been allowed to stay. Keep also in mind that the largest copper mine in Afghanistan was awarded to a Chinese mining company. Not American.

[deleted]3 karma

Hi Steve. I got a couple of questions if you don't mind.

Would you say that the war on terror in Afghanistan has been a success in fighting Al Qaeda and other extremist groups

How has the country been affected by the war and would you say it was worth it

SteveChaoAJE3 karma

The War on Terror began with the goal of eliminating the training camps that allowed Al Qaeda to launch its attacks on US targets. In that respects, it has been a success, as it has taken out those camps. Many would also say that Al Qaeda as an entity is far less a threat to America as it was back in 2001. And while it has found other places, such as in parts of Africa to train, they simply are not the force they used to be. So in that respects, with those parameters, the War on Terror could be considered a success. But at the same time, was it worth the cost. 500 billion US dollars in military spending... more then 2100 American soldiers killed? As for the affect on Afghans. You can imagine what several decades of war does to a country. Long before the US arrived, Afghanistan was gripped in violence... from the soviet occupation, to the civil war led by the mujahadeen, that saw the Taliban rise to power (due to the fact that they brought some semblance of order and safety). People here are tired. They are tired of living in fear. In being caught in the middle between "foreign forces" and the Taliban. At the same time, Afghans have benefitted greatly from the development aid that followed the War on Terror. More than 2 million girls now go to school. Hundreds of kilometres of roads and highways have been paved. (Those who live in Kabul city will tell you of the current traffic nightmares, as city engineers have decided to pave all the roads at once!). The question for many now, is whether the country is stable enough to stand on its own once US and NATO forces pullout.

shinsp3 karma

Is the US army guarding the poppy fields ?

SteveChaoAJE5 karma

No.

THE_CARDINAL3 karma

How much of an impact has the war had on diminishing Taliban, Al Qaeda and other insurgent forces? Are there less or more people joining and fighting for these groups and has their tendencies to attack or fight increased or decreased?

SteveChaoAJE9 karma

Ask General McChrystal, or other experts on fighting an insurgency, and they will tell you that you can only win, once you cut off the supply lines, and you gain the support of the local people. The problem here, is that the Taliban (and less so Al Qaeda here), continue to replenish their supplies and fighters in Pakistan. Its common knowledge that the winter brings a lull to the fighting, as Talibs go back to their sanctuaries - often in the lawless regions of Pakistan, to weather the cold, only to return to Afghanistan to fight in the spring. It is why we've seen US drone attacks in Pakistan.
The level of violence has been extremely high since 2009. Has there been a noticeably improvement? NATO would argue that the past year has been better (a 4-5% decrease), but at the same time, the ways to measure that (the metrics) have been changed, and even a 4-5% decrease doesn't amount to much of an improvement.
The Taliban have lost a great number of its fighters - how much of a blow that has inflicted, is hard to say.

arcalumis3 karma

How dangerous is it? I've had this wish to travel through the khyber pass, but apart from being forbidden for foreigners to travel through how is it really?

Something we hear on /r/travel is that people and region are safer than what we're led to believe...

SteveChaoAJE4 karma

You are right, that often that our news stories make it seem that an entire nation is burning, when its only certain neighborhoods that have come under attack etc... In the case of Afghanistan however, I would say that it generally is a very unsafe place for foreigners. And it really is too bad, as there are so many beautiful places in Afghanistan, that would be some of the top tourist destinations in the world, were it not for the violence here. There are some places that are safe, but you would have to do your research well, and use flights as opposed to taking the roads as often as possible. Part of the problem is criminality, as there are so many bandits and illegal checkpoints from those looking to steal from others.
With your question, I'm reminded of the Korean christian missionaries that thought it would be safe enough to organize peace marches in Kabul and Kandahar. They were captured by insurgents on the road between the two cities. Held hostage for weeks. And if I recall correctly, the lead pastor was killed - to serve as an example.

pbminer7112 karma

It's interesting to me how you note the intentions of US and Nato. Would you mind sharing your thoughts on the War in Iraq. I am not trying to be douchey here, but as you are of affiliation with Al Jazeera, I am very interested in your opinion on this matter on whether you believe the American people were misinformed on our "true" intentions for invading Iraq. Personally, I feel as though resources played the major role in that aspect. Thanks for doing your part, Steve Chao!

SteveChaoAJE7 karma

It's rarely ever our role as journalists to give our personal opinion on things. But I would say this... the reasons for America going to war in Afghanistan and the reasons for America going to war in Iraq were very different. It has also been proven through many hearings that the supposed "evidence" of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, simply was never true. And that Iraq did not have the intentions at the time of attacking America. Obama called Afghanistan, the "good" war. And many US military strategists would agree when I say that when the US went to war with Iraq, it set back the gains made in Afghanistan, as so many of the military resources that were destined for here, were diverted.

sudhanshulogy2 karma

During your interaction with local people what were the major concerns for them?

SteveChaoAJE2 karma

The major concern: What will happen post 2014. The second major concern: Will the April 2014 elections provide a new leader that can be trusted by the people.

Cyclone152 karma

As a journalist, what was or has been one of the hardest events to cover?

SteveChaoAJE3 karma

There have been many. The hardest events to cover are those of injustice, where there seems nothing anyone can do. I have watched people lose their homes and land to corrupt developers in cahoots with government officials in China, in Cambodia, and elsewhere. And your heart breaks because there are not the proper courts to protect the people. I've seen tortured and killed for expressing their beliefs, that may be in opposition of a government's. I've seen people unable to practice their religion or culture, and are punished for it. The self-immolations in Tibet are perhaps the hardest to see. It is out of sheer desperation that we see Tibetans setting themselves on fire, but yet, the world seems incapable of helping.

404bot2 karma

What is the most horrific scene that you observed in Afghanistan?

SteveChaoAJE9 karma

In my eleven years covering Afghanistan, I've seen too many sad things. What is the worst? In 2007, I believe, I was coming back from a forward operating base in Panjwai, to the west of Kandahar city. We were in a convoy run by Canadian reservists. As I got into one of the vehicles, one of the soldiers, a friend, mentioned to me he wasn't feeling very good about the trip back to the Kandahar airbase (KAF). To get the KAF, we needed to drive along a road known as Suicide Alley. It was a tense several minutes as we hit that stretch of road. I had my camera rolling in my hands, as for some strange reason, human instincts sometimes often prove correct. Just as we were nearing the end of Suicide Alley, I clicked off the camera. And at that moment, I heard my friend, who was the turret gunner above me, yell in his coms, "watch out for the minivan on your left". The minivan was packed with explosives, and the driver, at that moment, gunned his vehicle into the convoy right in front of us, and detonated his load. The military flatbed truck in front of us lit up. And we drove through the shrapnel and smoke. While the two soldiers inside that military truck survived, when we got out, we saw so many injured civilians. There was a five year old boy, that had been essentially shredded by shrapnel, lying by his bicycle. There were camels, used to carry loads also dead. And so many injured.

Petrichord2 karma

what are your plans for after 2014 if the pull out occurs, still focus on Afghanistan? and how likely do you think the US troops will in fact pull out in 2014?

SteveChaoAJE12 karma

Al Jazeera plans are to be here to cover Afghanistan extensively pre-and post 2014. In Haiti after the earthquake, we set up a bureau in Port-Au-Prince, and was one of the only networks to stay on for a year to cover the rebuilding attempts. Our incredible journalist, Sebastian Walker, received accolades for his reporting. The media is often, and justifiably blamed for covering a story during its height, then moving on. Al jazeera tries to do it differently. The question for viewers however, is, is there an attention span to continue caring for a place for so long. Or does war fatigue quickly set in? As for myself, I've come in and out of Afghanistan since 2001, and have grown to deeply care for people here. So I will likely be here far past the 2014 pullout.

[deleted]2 karma

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SteveChaoAJE3 karma

Its good to see someone that has taken time to compare the two versions of Al Jazeera - and a nod of the hat to you for having deployed three times.
I too am aware of some differences. As for editorial bias on English's part, of which I am only competent to speak on - I can say that I have never been censored or directed to report on an issue or an event in any way. I have had the freedom to report on things as they are.
Interested to hear more about how you feel the coverage strays! As for whether I feel safer with which forces, I think you and I both know the answer to that one. NATO and coalition forces have better up-armoured vehicles... so with the IED threats as they are... I would prefer to ride with them.
As for the Afghan National Army preparedness - having seen them develop over the past several years, I would say they have improved markedly. Whether they are prepared to fight an insurgency on their own without any NATO or coalition support is another question - and one I don't have an answer to yet.

brownribbon2 karma

What are some of the more noticeable differences you would expect to see in Afghan democracy versus Jeffersonian democracy? For example, I would doubt that the Afghans would institute a separation of church and state.

SteveChaoAJE2 karma

A very good point. Because Afghanistan is a very devout Muslim society, there would likely not be a separation of church and state - that would perhaps be one of the most stark differences. And we've seen the issues that have already come up in recent years that have marked this.. i.e. a muslim being arrested for having converted to Christianity etc.. It is fair to say that Afghan democracy will not be the same as Jeffersonian democracy.

poop_pants2 karma

Do you think the USA is positioning itself for a war with Iran by 2014?

SteveChaoAJE2 karma

Many military analysts say that the US has been far overstretched and needs to take a break from any military ventures. War with Iran by 2014?!? With all the current domestic troubles, financing another war overseas would likely be highly unpopular.

berserkerhmagerd2 karma

Great that you're doing an AMA.

Do you agree with the Afghans when they say the ANA is too young an army, or could it be the the Afghani society in general is just unfit for anything beyond tribalism in combination with an opium-based economy?

Do you think the world (or West) will stand by if Afghanistan indeed falls into civil war?

SteveChaoAJE3 karma

If you ask 86 year old Nancy Dupree, she would tell you that Afghanistan was once a tolerant society, where people accepted differences. That was back in the 60s, when Dupree, an American musician first came to the country. Having been here for fifty years, she has seen the best and the worst of this country - but she truly believes that if Afghans are reminded again of their past, that they can get beyond the tribalism,and also move away from an opium-based economy. She has launched a centre at Kabul university that tries to preserve history, and allow people around the country to learn and to read about that history. As for the ANA - I can say that in the past several years, I have seen marked improvements in their abilities. Are they a young army? Definitely. Will they ever measure up to the capabilities and skills of many of the NATO forces? not likely in the next decade or so. But do they need to be? Can they exist as a barebones military, and still adequately defend themselves? Some US marine advisors we spoke to say there are signs of hope. The problem many Afghans point to however, is the need for people to believe in the leaders of the country. And with Afghanistan being one of the most corrupt nations in the world - for many in this country, there is only disillusionment, when they look towards their government. So even if the military stands, without faith in the country's leadership, the likelihood of it falling apart increases.
As for whether the world (west) will come to the aid of Afghanistan - NATO's head certainly says it will. But as I've often said, in war and in politics, few things are certain. And history is replete with examples of where the international community has stood silent while serious atrocities have been committed. Rwanda being one example.

MJKauz2 karma

Do you believe that there are parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan that will never be able to be stabilized? With so much of the region in difficult terrain, compounding the simple fact that these insurgents come and go from the population with ease, it seems like its impossible to fully take control of the country, especially if the ANA is the ones trying. Places like the Korengal were hard for even the best American troops to operate in.

SteveChaoAJE5 karma

If you look at NATO and America's efforts here in Afghanistan in recent days, it has been to consolidate gains, and protect the main population centres - that means cities like Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Lashkar Gah etc. Military analysts that I've spoken to say that means that at the end of the day, if the ANA prove unable to hold much more then this, that the more remote regions may be ceded back to the Taliban. Areas, especially in the South, may look much like the lawless areas of Pakistan... i.e. Balochistan etc...

OlfactoriusRex2 karma

Any advice for a reporter with just a few years of experience who wants to get into this kind of work? Do you have any language skills you use or do you use translators? I'm a reporter in Alaska and have traveled a lot in Asia after college and would love to work there again (would also like to try working in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan too).

SteveChaoAJE2 karma

I speak Mandarin, understand Taiwanese, and speak a bit of Spanish and French. I would say being able to speak several languages is always a plus. Saying that, because we travel to so many different countries, we do have a network of reliable "fixers" - local producers on the ground, that we call upon to help us set up interviews, shoots etc. As for working in Afghanistan and Pakistan etc... make sure you do go through hostile environment training. When things go wrong, they go wrong quickly, and you want to have the awareness to get out alive... and the know how to treat serious wounds, when things go seriously wrong.
As for how to get into this kind of work? Sometimes you just need to make the jump and go freelance in some of these places and offer yourself up to networks during a big story. Otherwise, keep applying to various networks for postings.

BryndenBFish2 karma

Mr. Chao, I was an ETT (Embedded Training Team) Commander of a 14-man U.S. Army Team responsible for advising and operating with an ANA infantry kandak in the Kabul area in 2010. One of the things that I found most disheartening about my experience was the pressure that was put on us by our chain of command to evaluate our Afghan partners on a graded scale, namely by inflating their ability to operate effectively and independently of American help. In your experience, did you find that the Marine Embed Teams had pressure put on them to inflate the performance of their ANA partners? Follow-up, could the ANA units that you witnessed conduct their own logistics through their chain of command or were they reliant on the Americans to provide their classes of supply?

SteveChaoAJE3 karma

Thanks for writing and for sharing. The Marine unit we were with didn't appear to be under such a pressure - but to be frank we only spent a little over a week with them, and werent privy to what their higher ups were telling them. Saying that, the Col and his NCOs were very open with us and appeared to give us a frank assessment of the brigade they were advising - they pointed out the weaknesses i.e. the number of vehicles needing repair, the shortage of men - resulting in those supposed to be trained in specialties like artillery being put on basic soldier duty, the problems with the supply lines - and how they are trying to make do with what little they have etc...
As for logistics - that remains a major problem - and their chain of command appeared unresponsive. Americans did provide some logistics... i.e. flying injured to the role 3 in Bastion etc... but there seemed to be some improvements on that front as well - the afghan unit was feeding itself, getting ammo and fuel themselves... but they did have to build their barracks using donated used wood from Marines. At Bastion, higher levels of US Command commended the 2nd brigade 215th corps for arranging convoys of soldiers to travel a good distance to provide force protection for Karzai in Zaranj with only 48 hrs notice. The only help from ISAF was to airlift the Col'. ahead of the convoy to Zaranj. I'm interested to hear from you whether - while still pressured to inflate abilities - did you seea much improvement in the infantry kandak in your time there? From what you experienced, do you believe the Afghan units could stand alone?

DonCarlitos2 karma

Forgive me, but I haven't seen a response to the well-posed question regarding the recent move by the Ismaelis to re-constitute their militia, re-arm & take over the defense of Herat. Reports of other war lords re-organizing tribal or regional militias are on the rise. It does look a lot like the "Vietnamization" program years ago that failed so miserably to train the ARVN to take over from US troops during the end-stages of the Vietnam war. Do you have any confidence that Afghanistan will end up any differently, given these recent developments? And if the war lords all re-arm, won't civil war be a given?

SteveChaoAJE2 karma

There are certain rumblings that warlords and factions are preparing themselves in anticipation of a return to civil war. Many of the players involved in the factional fighting of the mid-90s are certainly still around, and willing to protect their "domains", if you will. We've seen local militia's form in many parts of Afghanistan over these past few years - some have lasted, others haven't. But they of itself do not necessarily equate to an inevitable path where Afghanistan descends back into civil war. Are people worried about the future security and stability of Afghanistan? Most definitely. Are they reacting to the uncertainty that 2014 brings - most definitely. But it may be too early to say that it is a sure thing that Afghanistan will lose itself again in violence. I believe how the April 2014 elections are carried out will be key in how warlords or other powerbrokers play their cards going forward.

weealex1 karma

I forgot to post this in my original question, so I'll just post another:

Would you rather fight one horse sized duck, or one hundred duck sized horses?

SteveChaoAJE17 karma

I like the David and Goliath approach. Would take on the horse sized duck.

[deleted]1 karma

[deleted]

SteveChaoAJE2 karma

Canadian soldiers were mostly operating in Kandahar province. The British had Helmand - and they remain there in several places.
As for the gains made by Canadians in Kandahar - sadly, one can say that a lot of the gains have been lost. With the surge of an additional 30,000 american troops - the Taliban were pushed back in parts of Helmand and Afghanistan, and noticeable gains have been made in big population centres like Kandahar city and Lashkar Gah. But outside there, especially in areas like Panjwai, or Zhari (the birthplace of the Taliban - and areas where the Canadians concentrated their efforts), the Taliban remain a fierce force.

the3manhimself1 karma

Do you know Josh Rushing?

SteveChaoAJE3 karma

I do not. But I do know his boss well.

mrpoopistan1 karma

When is the cherry blossom bloom in Helmand? Travelocity keeps disappointing me with no results for my search.

SteveChaoAJE13 karma

Are you talking about the poppy blossoms perhaps?

cupnoodlefreak1 karma

How prepared are the Afghan security forces to take charge from Coalition forces? Do they show the same motivation expected of the soldiers of the United States? Do you think they will be able to fulfill their duties under the threat of taliban resurgence, or will they possibly crumble under the corruption that plagues that Afghan police?

SteveChaoAJE2 karma

The Afghan army is far better prepared than the Afghan police. At the moment, it's hard to assess if they are ready to stand up independently. Winter is coming, and that brings the end to the fighting season. Many say that the Taliban will wait for the spring to truly test the Afghan army, or may wait even until 2014 to take them on in a big way. Are the Afghan soldiers as motivated. Some are, but many are doing it for the paycheque. A sign of this is the fact that he army loses 24% of its force every year. Many "intelligent" soldiers, or those who show promise are sent to various military training schools in Kabul, but one of the biggest problems is that upon arrival, they get offers to work for private security firms (who pay much more), and they desert. Corruption is a major issue, it is disrupting the abilities for the Army and the Police to function. The 2nd brigade, 215th corps in Helmand had 200 out of 700 vehicles out of commission. Many sent back to their headquarters in Helmand have never been returned - as they have either been stolen, or repair parts have never materialized. It is an example of how corrosive corruption is, and how it will hinder the abilities of Afghan security forces.

HakunaMatatabitch1 karma

Do you believe that there is still a big terrorist influence in Afghanistan, enough so that if american troops withdrew, then the terrorists will retake control?

SteveChaoAJE2 karma

It has become very clear to the West that whereever there are failed states, there is a threat. Wherever there are black holes where governments are unable to provide for their people, these are ready places for extremists to gain a foothold.
Will Afghanistan slip back into a place where only the most extreme elements can thrive? Many say likely not. But there remains the possibility. And many Afghans will tell you they are afraid that without a viable leader (post the April 2014, election), that the country could spiral into civil war. That would spell trouble.

Creeindianchief1 karma

Hi Steve. What is the dominant Culture in Helmand Province?

SteveChaoAJE2 karma

Pashtun

DarthArshavin1 karma

What is the standard education/career path for someone who wants to end up doing what you are doing?

SteveChaoAJE2 karma

I'm not sure there is a standard path these days. Some go to university to study journalism (as I did), others sometimes place themselves in certain countries and try to freelance for various networks, or newspapers - and eventually they get picked up fulltime by certain media outlets. There is no tried and true way. I would argue however, that a good basic background on journalism through schooling is important. I am also of the belief, that the best journalists are those that have learned from covering local news in some small town, and moved on to more international arenas of coverage.

stopthewizard1 karma

Do you think that Afghan troops are ready for American troops to pull out?

What do you think American troops can do to cu down on the blue -on - blue violence that has been occurring?

SteveChaoAJE2 karma

I think i've answered the first question quite extensively in other responses. So I'll key in on the second one. I think you're referring to the green on blue violence? One of the problems is that the Afghan security forces have been built up so quickly, which has not allowed for proper screening of recruits. So the Taliban have effectively slipped many of its people in. That problem is being worked on. Still - it's hard to look deep enough into everyone's past, especially with the little records that Afghans keep.

But there are also indications that some of these killings are the result of cultural misunderstandings, or perceived offences caused through misunderstandings.
In Helmand, the Afghan army unit with which we were embedded with, had no green on blue incidences. That is in large part because the US Marine advisory group, was exemplary in showing respect to Afghan soldiers. But at the same time, the Afghan army unit's leaders' were very strong in reminding their troops of the reason for the US soldiers being there.