Taliban has a major northern Afghan city within its grasp for the first time since 2001

The Washington Post reports: Taliban forces were less than four miles from this strategic northern city Monday after seizing control of two key districts over the weekend, triggering fears that they could capture their first Afghan city since U.S.-backed forces toppled the hard-line Islamist regime in late 2001.

The government in Kabul has dispatched reinforcements, including Afghan special forces and their U.S. advisers and trainers, to try to repel the insurgents and rescue about 75 soldiers and police officers trapped inside their district base. But as of Monday evening, the Taliban remained in control of the districts, including one separated from Kunduz city only by a wide, brown river.

“It is a critical situation,” said Mohammad Omer Safi, the governor of Kunduz province.

Not since the Taliban’s collapse has the population of an Afghan metropolis faced such intimidation from the insurgency. Starting this spring, the Taliban has focused its efforts on gaining territory in Kunduz and other northern provinces, straying from its traditional battlefields in the south and east. Whoever controls Kunduz, a vast, rich agricultural region that was a former Taliban bastion, controls the roads to northeastern Afghanistan as well as smuggling and trade routes into neighboring Tajikistan and the rest of Central Asia. [Continue reading…]

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In ISIS, the Taliban face an insurgent threat of their own

The New York Times reports: For nearly as long as the Taliban have been at war, Maulvi Abbas has been in the middle of it, leading a small squad of insurgent fighters in Nangarhar Province and demonstrating a certain talent for survival and success.

But in May, he was captured by the Taliban’s newest enemy, the Islamic State, said residents in one of the districts where Maulvi Abbas often stayed.

Throughout the month, fighters claiming allegiance to the Islamic State’s caliph had been attacking veteran Taliban units south and east of Jalalabad, the provincial capital. In one district, Islamic State loyalists have replaced the Taliban as the dominant insurgent power, and elsewhere they have begun making inroads in Taliban territory, one tribal elder, Mohammad Siddiq Mohmand, said in an interview.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Afghan Army corps responsible for the region said Islamic State fighters had captured and beheaded 10 Taliban who had been fleeing a military offensive, though that account has not been confirmed by other officials. [Continue reading…]

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Afghans form militias and call on warlords to battle Taliban

The New York Times reports: Facing a fierce Taliban offensive across a corridor of northern Afghanistan, the government in Kabul is turning to a strategy fraught with risk: forming local militias and beseeching old warlords for military assistance, according to Afghan and Western officials.

The effort is expected to eventually mobilize several thousand Afghans from the north to fight against the Taliban in areas where the Afghan military and police forces are losing ground or have had little presence. The action is being seen as directly undermining assurances by officials that the security forces were holding their own against the Taliban.

Further, the plan to turn to irregular forces is stoking anxieties of factional rivalries and civil strife in a nation still haunted by a civil war in the 1990s in which feuding militia commanders tore the country apart. Some of the commanders involved in that bloodletting a generation ago now hold senior government positions and are encouraging the current effort to mobilize and rearm militias.

“We have experienced this failed experiment of militia-making before,” said Fawzia Koofi, a member of Parliament from Badakhshan, one of the provinces where the government is planning to form the militias. “This will spread the war from house to house, starting rivalries as everyone begins arming their own groups.” [Continue reading…]

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Afghan militia leaders, empowered by U.S. to fight Taliban, inspire fear in villages

The New York Times reports: Rahimullah used to be a farmer — just a “normal person living an ordinary life,” as he put it. Then he formed his own militia last year and found himself swept up in America’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.

With about 20 men loyal to him, Rahimullah, 56, soon discovered a patron in the United States Special Forces, who provided everything he needed: rifles, ammunition, cash, even sandbags for a guard post in Aghu Jan, a remote village in Ghazni Province.

Then the Americans pulled out, leaving Rahimullah behind as the local strongman, and as his village’s only defense against a Taliban takeover.

“We are shivering with fear,” said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimullah’s militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS fighters kill Taliban commander

Pajhwok: The administrative chief for Charkh district in central Logar province on Monday said Islamic State (IS) militants had killed a Taliban commander and ordered residents to stop watching TV programmes.

Khalilullah Kamal told Pajhwok Afghan News the Taliban commander was killed in an early morning clash between the two groups in the main district bazaar.

He said the masked gunmen, wearing black clothes, gunned down Abdul Ghani and wounded his three bodyguards. The Taliban have not yet spoken about the incident.

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Afghan officials: ISIS operating in volatile southern Helmand province

Associated Press: Afghan officials confirmed for the first time Monday that the extremist Islamic State group is active in the south, recruiting fighters, flying black flags and, according to some sources, even battling Taliban militants.

The sources, including an Afghan general and a provincial governor, said a man identified as Mullah Abdul Rauf was actively recruiting fighters for the group, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Gen. Mahmood Khan, the deputy commander of the army’s 215 Corps, said that within the past week residents of a number of districts in the southern Helmand province have said Rauf’s representatives are fanning out to recruit people.

“A number of tribal leaders, jihadi commanders and some ulema (religious council members) and other people have contacted me to tell me that Mullah Rauf had contacted them and invited them to join him,” Khan said.

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Unruly factions hurt Taliban’s bid to capture Afghan hearts, and territory

The New York Times reports: A series of kidnappings and robberies struck northern Helmand Province this summer, paralyzing residents and embarrassing the Taliban leaders who controlled the area.

Responding to growing complaints, the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan ordered a hunt to find the criminals, but soon discovered an inconvenient truth: Their own people were behind the banditry, earning thousands of dollars in ransoms every month. Within a matter of days, the culprits had been captured and executed, including two notorious fighters known as Pickax and Shovel.

Though the episode went largely unnoticed outside the Taliban stronghold, it highlights a question that is on the minds of many: More than 13 years after the war here started, who exactly are the Taliban? Are they the bandits responsible for the abduction and killings of numerous villagers? Or are they the disciplined leaders who hanged the fighters who had taken to criminal tyranny?

Increasingly, it appears, they are both. [Continue reading…]

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Kabul was eerie and dangerous under the Taliban. It feels that way again

Pamela Constable reports: Many winters ago, I stood in a vast, empty intersection of central Kabul. The only sounds were the jingle of passing horse carts and the ticking spokes of old bicycles. There were no other Westerners on the streets, and all eyes were upon me. Despite being wrapped in many layers of modest clothing, I felt naked.

Much has changed in the Afghan capital since those haunted days under Taliban rule. Bombed-out ruins have been replaced by multi-story apartment buildings and ornate mansions. The populace has quintupled and traffic jams are constant. Cellphone and computer shops with picture windows line the streets, and beauty parlor signs feature women with pouting lips and geisha makeup.

But this winter, even as a frequent foreign visitor to Kabul, dressed modestly and with my head covered, I feel naked once again. Almost every Westerner I once knew here has left the country for good, their missions suspended or shut down, and several of my longtime Afghan acquaintances and colleagues have fled abroad and sought asylum. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban sees U.S. defeat as troops leave Afghanistan

Foreign Policy reports: A day after the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force held a low-key ceremony in a heavily guarded military compound to mark the formal end of its combat mission in Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents on Monday mockingly accused the United States and its NATO allies of leaving the country in defeat after a long and costly 13-year military campaign.

“Today ISAF rolled up its flag in an atmosphere of failure and disappointment without having achieved anything substantial or tangible,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement Monday, using the acronym for the American-led coalition. “We consider this step a clear indication of their defeat and disappointment.”

In the lengthy statement, Mujahid said the war had exacted a heavy toll from the United States and its allies while leaving them precious little to show for their human and financial losses. [Continue reading…]

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Is the influence of the Taliban’s elusive leader waning?

The New York Times reports: If the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, were ever to assert himself more publicly, this would have been the year to do it.

In a season of immense upheaval in the jihadist world, the Taliban gained ground in new Afghan offensives, endured a bloody internal power struggle and had to contend with the rise of the Islamic State militant group as an ideological rival. Through it all, Mullah Omar has remained silent.

Further, though he has stayed completely out of the public eye since he fled American airstrikes in late 2001, his reclusiveness became even more pronounced in the past year: Now, all but two of the Taliban’s leaders who had direct access to Mullah Omar have been cut off, according to senior Taliban figures and Afghan and Western officials, all of whom say a significant power shift is underway.

“I have not seen Mullah Omar in a very long time,” Maulvi Najibullah, a senior Taliban military commander, said in a telephone interview from Peshawar, in northern Pakistan.

The invisibility of Mullah Omar has been accentuated by the visible role of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, reinforcing the Taliban’s increasingly secondary role in the world of Islamist militants, Afghan and Western officials said.

So, is the influence of the elusive mullah waning? [Continue reading…]

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War in Afghanistan ends — except for the fighting

Reuters reports: The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan formally ended its combat mission on Sunday, more than 13 years after an international alliance ousted the Taliban government for sheltering the planners of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on American cities.

About 13,000 foreign troops, mostly Americans, will remain in the country under a new, two-year mission named “Resolute Support” that will continue the coalition’s training of Afghan security forces.

The Afghan army and police are struggling to fight against Taliban militants who this year killed record numbers of Afghans.

“Today marks an end of an era and the beginning of a new one,” said U.S. General John Campbell, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), at the ceremony marking the end of the mission held at the ISAF headquarters in Kabul. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: In a large swath of the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, government centers are facing a long-dormant concern this winter: Four years after the American troop surge helped make such places relatively secure, they are back under threat from the insurgents.

The fighting in Helmand Province in the south has been particularly deadly, with over 1,300 security force members killed between June and November. And the insurgents’ siege of several key districts has continued long after the traditional end of the fighting season.

It has been so bad that the 90-bed hospital for war wounded run in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, by the international aid group Emergency was still running nearly full in early December, according to Emanuele Nannini, the group’s coordinator. While the group keeps no statistics on how many of its patients are fighters, and treats all sides, a rough estimate is that half of the patients are Afghan police officers, from both national and local forces. Soldiers are treated in military hospitals, which do not divulge their statistics.

“This year is much worse than previous years,” said Dr. Abdul Hamidi, a police colonel who is head of medical services for the national police in Helmand. “We’ve heard that the Quetta Shura has a big push to raise their flags over three districts by January, and has ordered their people to keep fighting until they do,” he said, referring to the exiled Taliban leadership council in Pakistan.

One of the differences is that this year, the American forces, and their close air support, have been almost completely absent from the field. And though the Afghan forces are holding on, for the most part, they are taking punishingly heavy losses. [Continue reading…]

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Peshawar massacre: Pakistan’s enemy within

Pervez Hoodbhoy writes: The gut-wrenching massacre in Peshawar’s Army Public School has left Pakistan aghast and sickened. All political leaders have called for unity against terrorism. But this is no watershed event that can bridge the deep divides within. In another few days this episode of 134 dead children will become one like any other.

All tragedies provoke emotional exhortations. But nothing changed after Lakki Marwat when 105 spectators of a volleyball match were killed by a suicide bomber in a pickup truck. Or, when 96 Hazaras in a snooker club died in a double suicide attack. The 127 dead in the All Saints Church bombing in Peshawar, or the 90 Ahmadis killed while in prayer, are now dry statistics. In 2012, men in military uniforms stopped four buses bound from Rawalpindi to Gilgit, demanding that all 117 persons alight and show their national identification cards. Those with typical Shia names, like Abbas and Jafri, were separated. Minutes later corpses lay on the ground.

If Pakistan had a collective conscience, just one single fact could have woken it up: the murder of nearly 60 polio workers — women and men who work to save children from a crippling disease — at the hands of the fanatics.

Hence the horrible inevitability: from time to time, Pakistan shall continue to witness more such catastrophes. No security measures can ever prevent attacks on soft targets. The only possible solution is to change mindsets. For this we must grapple with three hard facts.

First, let’s openly admit that the killers are not outsiders or infidels. Instead, they are fighting a war for the reason Boko Haram fights in Nigeria, IS in Iraq and Syria, Al Shabab in Kenya, etc. The men who slaughtered our children are fighting for a dream — to destroy Pakistan as a Muslim state and recreate it as an Islamic state. This is why they also attack airports and shoot at PIA planes. They see these as necessary steps towards their utopia. [Continue reading…]

Make of it what you will, but a statement attributed to the newly formed al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), strongly condemns the massacre.

In Peshawar army school attack, more than 130 children have died. “And to him we belong and to him we return”. On this tragic incident, our hearts are deeply saddened. There is no doubt about the oppression of pakistan army and that its crimes have exceeded all limits. Truth is that, Pakistan army has exceeded all limits in its subservience to Americans and the massacre of Muslims. Its also true that, America is totally dependent on Pakistan’s army to silence any voice for Shariah.

But these crimes of Pakistan army and its horrific oppression CANNOT justify that its revenge be taken from innocent Muslims.

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CIA analysis: ‘high-value targeting’ had limited effect against Taliban

The Washington Post reports: Raids, drone strikes and other military operations designed to capture or kill “high-value targets” in the Taliban have had little overall effect in part because of the militant group’s ability to replace leaders, according to a 2009 CIA analysis newly released by WikiLeaks.

The document, titled “Making High-Value Targeting Operations an Effective Counterinsurgency Tool,” is dated July 7, 2009, and was produced as the Obama administration grappled with whether to send additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan to launch widespread counterinsurgency operations and train the Afghan police and military. In December 2009, President Obama sent an additional 30,000 U.S. troops in to do just that, expanding the American military presence to more than 100,000 service members.

The CIA analysis released Thursday provides a new snapshot into the intelligence the White House and Pentagon were working with at the time. It acknowledges that “high-value targeting” had been conducted against the Taliban only on an intermittent basis at that point, with limited effect. Counterinsurgency operations conducted against the Taliban to that point had moderate effect, according to the report. The report also examined how the issue of targeting high-value enemy figures played out in other conflicts, including in Northern Ireland and Algeria. [Continue reading…]

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Why the Pakistani Taliban’s war on children keeps on going

Ishaan Tharoor writes: A horrific attack on a military-run high school in Peshawar, Pakistan, has killed at least 141 people, 132 of whom were children and teenagers attending the academy. The slaughter, carried out by six Taliban terrorists, is the single worst terror attack in the country’s history and one of the most brutal assaults on a school anywhere. Even in conflict-ravaged Pakistan, it seems an unprecedented act.

The Pakistani Taliban asserted responsibility for the massacre, calling it retaliation for the military’s ongoing campaign against the militants’ strongholds in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. For the Pakistani Taliban, schools are vulnerable, “soft targets.” By some accounts, the group has struck at more than 1,000 schools in the country since 2009.

These include many schools for girls. In areas under their watch, the militants seek to discourage female education. The conspicuous defiance of one Pakistani schoolgirl, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, nearly got her killed in 2012, when Taliban militants attempted to gun down the teenager and a few of her friends.

In addition to turning education into a security risk for countless children, the Pakistani Taliban has created a public health crisis in corners of the country. Polio has returned among children after the militants banned health workers from distributing vaccines, a consequence, in part, of a CIA vaccination ruse a few years ago in its search for Osama bin Laden. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. hands Pakistan senior militant detained in Afghanistan

Reuters reports: The United States has handed to Pakistan three prisoners including a senior Taliban militant held in Afghanistan, as Washington rushes to empty its Afghan prison before losing the legal right to detain people there at the end of the year.

U.S. forces captured Latif Mehsud, the former number two commander in Pakistan’s faction of the Taliban, in October 2013, in an operation that angered then Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Mehsud, a Pakistani, and his two guards were secretly flown to Pakistan, two senior Pakistani security officials told Reuters. The U.S. military confirmed it transferred three prisoners to Pakistan’s custody on Saturday, but would not reveal their identities. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistani Taliban squeezed by Afghan revolt, U.S. drone strikes

Reuters reports: Pakistani Taliban militants holed up in Afghanistan are being squeezed by U.S. drone strikes and a revolt against them, a trend that could disrupt the insurgents’ capability to strike in Pakistan.

For years, Pakistani Taliban commanders fighting the Pakistani state have been hiding in remote areas of east Afghanistan, plotting attacks and recruiting.

But in recent weeks, officials say the insurgency has been weakened by a spate strikes by U.S. drones and a rebellion by tribesmen in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.

The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are allied and share the goal of toppling their respective governments and setting up an Islamist state across the region.

Their presence on both sides of the border has been a bone of contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the two trading accusations of sheltering insurgents.

But the ascent to power of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has raised hopes for more cooperation in tackling the insurgency.

Four Pakistani Taliban commanders told Reuters drone strikes and tension with tribesmen had forced them to move from small Afghan towns to mountainous border areas. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban brings war to Afghan capital, threatening stability and endangering foreigners

The Washington Post reports: Taliban insurgents have intensified their attacks on this besieged capital with a flurry of brazen bombings and afternoon raids targeting foreigners and Afghans, bringing the war into this city in a way not seen in any other year since the radical Islamists were ousted from power.

The latest assault occurred Saturday, when three militants clutching guns and grenades, including one who wore an explosives-packed vest, stormed a compound inhabited by foreigners in the middle-class Karte-e-Saay enclave. In a frenzy of explosions and gunfire, two foreigners were killed and seven were taken prisoner, said Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Ayub Salangi. All of the attackers died in clashes with Afghan security forces, and the hostages were eventually freed.

On Sunday, authorities raised the death toll to three foreigners — a South African aid worker and his two children — and an Afghan. And Kabul’s police chief, Gen. Mohammed Zahir, abruptly resigned amid the rising insecurity. [Continue reading…]

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Religious extremism main cause of terrorism, according to report

The Guardian reports: Religious extremism has become the main driver of terrorism in recent years, according to this year’s Global Terrorism Index.

The report recorded 18,000 deaths in 2013, a rise of 60% on the previous year. The majority (66%) of these were attributable to just four groups: Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaida.

Overall there has been a fivefold increase in deaths from terrorism since the 9/11 suicide attacks.

The report’s authors attribute the majority of incidents over the past few years to groups with a religious agenda. [Continue reading…]

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