Afghan president puts aside peace bids and vows harsher fight against Taliban

The Washington Post reports: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stepped back Monday from attempts to engage Taliban insurgents in peace talks, vowing that Afghanistan will instead “execute” enemies of the state and undertake preparations for an extended war.

In a speech that signaled a significant shift in policies, Ghani left open the prospect of dialogue with Taliban fighters who put down their weapons. But he labeled the broader Taliban organization and its Pakistan-based offshoot, the Haqqani network, as “terrorists” and promised expanded attacks by the Afghan military.

Ghani’s remarks are a setback for the Obama administration’s hopes that the 14-year Taliban insurgency could be ended through a negotiated settlement. Back-channel discussions have been held for the past three years to try to establish a framework for such talks. [Continue reading…]

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Kabul car bomb reminds us this bloody conflict is no nearer an ending

The Guardian reports: The complex attack by the Taliban on an elite military unit at the heart of the Afghan capital on Tuesday morning was a bloody reminder of how the war there is spiralling to new levels of violence, and spilling into urban areas that were once deemed relatively safe.

For years Afghans fled to the capital, and other major cities, to escape the daily brutality of a war fought mostly in their rural home districts. But as the conflict has intensified nationwide, following the departure of western forces, both fear and bloodshed has spilled over into urban areas.

The promise of the government and its western backers that their authority would stand firm in towns and cities, even if insurgents took the countryside, are ringing increasingly hollow.

Kabul’s streets are now deemed so dangerous that the US embassy ferries its staff from airport to bunkered embassy by helicopter, to avoid a five-minute drive down a broad, straight road. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban starts spring offensive with Kabul truck bomb

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Taliban claimed responsibility for a bombing outside a Kabul government building that Afghan officials said killed at least 28 people and wounded more than 300 others, the deadliest attack in the capital in months.

The Islamist militant group said it had detonated a truck laden with explosives, though the report couldn’t be immediately confirmed by Afghan officials. It announced the start of its annual spring offensive last week and has since intensified attacks across the country.

Tuesday’s bombing targeted a compound used by Afghanistan’s Secret Service, flattening part of its perimeter wall. Taliban gunmen disguised in military uniform stormed it shortly after the explosion and continued to battle Afghan security forces for a few hours. The fighting ended in the early afternoon when Afghan government officials said two gunmen had been shot dead. [Continue reading…]

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Civilian casualties in Afghan war are unabated in 2016

The New York Times reports: With nearly 2,000 civilians killed or wounded and more than 80,000 people displaced this year already, the Afghan conflict continues to affect lives in record numbers, the United Nations said on Sunday.

The report came as fighting raged across several provinces. For a third day, government forces repelled Taliban attacks across several districts of Kunduz and were trying to prevent the insurgents from taking the provincial capital, as they did in the fall.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan documented 600 civilian deaths and 1,343 wounded in the first three months of 2016, which by most accounts is expected to be a bloody year as the Taliban rejected the latest efforts to bring them to peace talks. While the death toll fell 13 percent from the same period last year, the number of wounded increased 11 percent, the report said, with a high rise among children. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan soldiers desert as Taliban threaten key Helmand capital

CNN reports: Sometimes you know a war’s going badly when your enemy is right in front of you.

About 3 miles outside the southern city of Lashkar Gah, Afghan soldiers can see a white flag. It’s not one of surrender — quite the opposite.

The flag belongs to the Taliban, and shows exactly how close the militant group is to the capital of Helmand province.

Despite Afghan government assurances that the army can hold and retake ground, the strategic province that hundreds of NATO troops — who have been in the country for the last 15 years — died fighting for is closer than ever to falling to the Taliban.

Those inside Lashkar Gah are understandably nervous.

A Helmand police official, who did not want to be named for his own safety, told CNN on Sunday that the army had not made any recent advances, and at least five full districts in the province were already under full Taliban control. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban leader, trying to end infighting, appoints critics to senior posts

The New York Times reports: In a compromise bid to unite the ranks after months of infighting, the Taliban’s new leader has appointed the brother and son of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the movement’s deceased founder, to senior leadership posts, a spokesman for the insurgent group said on Tuesday.

The appointments are the latest move by the supreme Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, to publicly consolidate his authority after a leadership struggle last summer.

Facing criticism or outright rebellion from field commanders who distrusted his ties to Pakistan and his handling of the succession, Mullah Mansour brutally quashed breakaway groups and sought to buy the support of other skeptical commanders, all while maintaining a publicity campaign that has portrayed the Taliban as united under his command, according to interviews with Taliban members. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering Mullah Mansour.

Now, the announcement that he had formally brought two of the most influential skeptics back into the fold — Mullah Abdul Manan, the brother of Mullah Omar; and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, the founder’s son — was expected to help bring other dissenters into line right as the Taliban’s annual offensive is expected to pick up momentum in Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan spy agency arms villagers to hold off ISIS

The Wall Street Journal reports: n Afghan spy agency is recruiting villagers for militias to hold back Islamic State fighters seeking to expand their foothold in this opium heartland in eastern Afghanistan.

The program, which one top official says the government hopes to roll out across the country and may later use against the Taliban, is President Ashraf Ghani ’s riskiest attempt to defend rural villages—and also a part of his much larger counterinsurgency strategy.

The government has closely guarded the program, and news of it essentially hasn’t been reported since its establishment in August 2015. Details of the program came from Afghan government officials, local village leaders and Western officials who have been monitoring its progress.

The militia groups that are part of the pilot project, known as the People’s Uprising Program, are being called on to hold territory the army has recaptured from Islamic State in three districts.

More than a thousand men, mostly village farmers who turned against the extremist group’s harsh rule in areas it seized in the past year, are on the payroll of the spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, which receives funding from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. So far, the militias in Kot, with the backing of the army and police, have repelled six Islamic State attacks. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan militant group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar threatens fresh wave of violence

The Wall Street Journal reports: The militant group behind the park massacre here this week on Tuesday threatened to unleash a wave of new attacks, as the government rounded up thousands of suspects.

The Easter Sunday bombing that killed 72 people was the latest in a series of bloody assaults by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar extremists over the past two years, which has established them as the most brutal and capable militant group in the country. The Pakistani Taliban affiliate’s network, officials say, reaches into the country’s heartland of Punjab province, whose capital Lahore is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s hometown and political base.

“Let Nawaz Sharif know that this war has now reached the doorstep of his home,” Ehsanullah Ehsan, the militant group’s spokesman, said in a Twitter post on Tuesday, announcing a new campaign of violence. “God willing, the winners of this war will be the righteous holy warriors.” [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan bombing: Who are Jamaat ul-Ahrar?

By Talat Farooq, University of Birmingham

The Easter Sunday suicide attack on Gulshan-e-Iqbal amusement park in Lahore, Pakistan has claimed more than 70 lives. A rescue services spokeswoman confirmed that at least 29 children, seven women and 34 men were killed and more than 300 were wounded. On the fateful day, the popular resort was crowded with people marking Easter.

Pakistan is in a state of shock and dismay as eye witnesses on television screens recalled scattered body parts and pools of blood across the park, and hospital officials tweeted calls for blood donations.

Jamaat-ul Ahrar, a breakaway faction of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack. Ahsanullah Ahsan, the spokesman for Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, said the group had targeted Christians celebrating Easter, although the police are still investigating the claim. Warning Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that “we have entered Lahore”, the capital of the Punjab province and the political power base of Sharif, the militant group threatened further attacks.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has so far launched several attacks on Pakistani civilians and security forces in recent months in an apparent attempt to boost its profile among Pakistan’s increasingly fractured Islamist militants, who since June 2014 have been at the receiving end of a fully-fledged military operation in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). So far, the military has killed and arrested hundreds of suspected militants in the operation.

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Lahore bombing is faction’s boldest bid to stake claim as Pakistan’s most violent terrorists

The Guardian reports: Christian leaders have expressed horror at the massacre of more than 70 people in Lahore on Easter Sunday, the most significant day in the church calendar.

The Vatican said Pope Francis was praying for the victims and their families in the aftermath of the suicide bombing, which “casts a shadow of sadness and anguish on the feast of the Easter”. [Continue reading…]

Jason Burke reports: The bombing of Lahore’s most popular park is the bloodiest attempt yet by a new Islamic extremist faction to establish itself as the most aggressive and violent of the many such groups active in Pakistan.

The target was the country’s long-beleaguered Christian community, according to a credible claim of responsibility from Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a group founded about two years ago after a split within the fragmented movement known as the Pakistan Taliban.

However, many Muslims were among the scores of victims when a suicide bomber detonated a nail-filled device near a children’s playground. This is unlikely to bother the perpetrators.

Extremist clerics have made sustained efforts to find theological justification for such casualties in recent decades and, though such arguments are contested by mainstream scholars, they are preached in hardline mosques and taught in many religious schools in Pakistan.

The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, like the broader Pakistan Taliban, follow an extremist branch of the rigorously conservative Deobandi strand of Islam which, along with equally intolerant schools of practice influenced by those in the Gulf, has made major inroads in Pakistan in recent years at the expense of more open-minded local traditions. [Continue reading…]

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China offers Afghanistan army expanded military aid

The Wall Street Journal reports: China has offered the Afghanistan army expanded military aid to combat the Taliban, according to the Afghan Defense Ministry, a move that reflects Beijing’s readiness to deepen its engagement with the war-torn country.

The offer was made during a rare, high-level visit at the end of February by a Chinese military delegation headed by General Fang Fenghui, chief of the Joint Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army, Afghan officials said.

China has been wary of publicly supporting the Afghan military against the Taliban, as it nurtures relations with the militant group in an effort to be seen as a neutral party in the conflict and help the peace process. However, deteriorating security and the emergence of Islamic State has prompted China to take a more active role in Afghanistan.

The timing of General Fang’s recent trip was seen as a strong show of support for the Afghan government at a time when it is losing control over parts of the country following the withdrawal of most foreign troops in 2014. The Taliban now control nearly a third of the country, according to U.S. and allied officials. [Continue reading…]

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Civilian casualties in Afghanistan hit record high

Reuters reports: Civilian casualties of the war in Afghanistan rose to record levels for the seventh year in row in 2015, as violence spread across the country in the wake of the withdrawal of most international troops, the United Nations reported on Sunday.

At least 3,545 noncombatants died and another 7,457 were injured by fighting last year in a 4-percent increase over 2014, the international organization said in its annual report on civilian casualties.

“The harm done to civilians is totally unacceptable,” Nicholas Haysom, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan forces struggle as ranks thinned by ‘ghost’ soldiers

The Associated Press reports: Afghan forces are struggling to man the front lines against a resurgent Taliban, in part because of untold numbers of “ghost” troops who are paid salaries but only exist on paper.

The nationwide problem has been particularly severe in the southern Helmand province, where the Taliban have seized vast tracts of territory in the 12 months since the U.S. and NATO formally ended their combat mission and switched to training and support.

“At checkpoints where 20 soldiers should be present, there are only eight or 10,” said Karim Atal, head of Helmand’s provincial council. “It’s because some people are getting paid a salary but not doing the job because they are related to someone important, like a local warlord.”

In some cases, the “ghost” designation is more literal — dead soldiers and police remain on the books, with senior police or army officials pocketing their salaries without replacing them, Atal said. [Continue reading…]

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As U.S. focuses on ISIS and the Taliban, Al Qaeda re-emerges

The New York Times reports: Even as the Obama administration scrambles to confront the Islamic State and a resurgent Taliban, an old enemy seems to be reappearing in Afghanistan: Qaeda training camps are sprouting up there, forcing the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies to assess whether they could again become a breeding ground for attacks on the United States.

Most of the handful of camps are not as big as those that Osama bin Laden built before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But had they re-emerged several years ago, they would have rocketed to the top of potential threats presented to President Obama in his daily intelligence briefing. Now, they are just one of many — and perhaps, American officials say, not even the most urgent on the Pentagon’s list in Afghanistan.

The scope of Al Qaeda’s deadly resilience in Afghanistan appears to have caught American and Afghan officials by surprise. Until this fall, American officials had largely focused on targeting the last remaining senior Qaeda leaders hiding along Afghanistan’s rugged, mountainous border with Pakistan.

At least in public, the administration has said little about the new challenge or its strategy for confronting the threat from Al Qaeda, even as it rushes to help the Afghan government confront what has been viewed as the more imminent threat, the surge in violent attacks from the Taliban, the Haqqani network and a new offshoot of the Islamic State. Former administration officials have been more outspoken — especially those who were on the front lines of the original battle to destroy Al Qaeda’s central leadership. [Continue reading…]

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A year of Taliban gains shows that ‘we haven’t delivered,’ top Afghan official says

The Washington Post reports: As the Afghan convoy entered the battered village, Taliban fighters opened fire. U.S.-trained Afghan policemen poured out of their Humvees and began wildly shooting their AK-47 rifles in every direction.

“The enemy is firing one bullet, and you are responding with dozens!” their commander, Col. Khalil Jawad, screamed into his radio in frustration. “Aim, then fire!”

A minute later, the militants melted away. On this day in early December in the southern province of Helmand, they had delivered their message: The Taliban is back, its fighters showing a battle discipline and initiative far superior to the Afghan security forces trained and equipped by the United States.

In private, top Afghan and American officials have begun to voice increasingly grim assessments of the resurgent Taliban threat, most notably in a previously undisclosed transcript of a late-October meeting of the Afghan National Security Council. [Continue reading…]

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