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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The Taliban winter offensive bodes ill for Afghanistan’s future

By Amalendu Misra, Lancaster University

The world will mark the 15th anniversary of its military operations in Afghanistan under a dark cloud. After all the efforts of a coalition of 40 powerful countries, over US$1 trillion spent and thousands of uniformed lives lost, the primary objective of the mission undertaken in 2001 has not been met – and war has become the seemingly insurmountable status quo for Afghanistan.

And as the UK announced it was deploying personnel to help try and save the troubled Helmand province and the town of Sangin, one cannot but accept the fact that the dreaded Taliban is back with a bang – and that the rest of the world is nowhere near defeating it. The Taliban would appear to be in a resurgent mode across the country, and many Afghans now believe it’s winning. How did we get it so horribly wrong? Who screwed it up?

A chorus of events has helped the Taliban’s consolidation in recent years. While the end of NATO-led combat operations in 2014 removed any large strategic challenges, it is the fact that Afghanistan is a dysfunctional state, which has proved to be the biggest boon to the Taliban’s revival.

[Read more…]

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Russia gives intelligence to Taliban and weapons to their enemy, the Afghan government

The Washington Post reports: A Kremlin official said Wednesday that Russia was exchanging information with the Taliban, the Islamist insurgency that the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001, as a bulwark against the spread of the Islamic State militant group in that country.

Zamir Kabulov, a Foreign Ministry department head and President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan, told the Interfax news agency that “the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours” in the fight against the Islamic State, which has captured broad swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

“I have already said earlier that we and the Taliban have channels for exchanging information,” Kabulov added, in remarks reported by Interfax and confirmed to The Washington Post by a ministry spokesman.

A limited partnership with the Taliban, which announced last week that it would send “special forces” to fight the Islamic State, is a striking, and somewhat confusing, twist in Russia’s war on terror. Although Russia plunged enthusiastically into its airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in Syria in September (critics say Russia is mainly there to prop up President Bashar al-Assad), Moscow has opposed the Taliban for more than a decade as a potential vehicle for terror and instability in the former Soviet Union. [Continue reading…]

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Beheadings trigger largest demonstration Kabul may have seen this century

Yesterday, BBC News reported: About 2,000 people have protested in the eastern Afghan city of Ghazni against the killing of seven civilians by militants.

The murdered Hazaras included four men, one woman and two girls. Some had their throats slit – it is not clear by whom.

Their bodies were found at the weekend in southern Zabul province where fighting between rival Taliban factions has escalated over the last few days.

The seven Hazaras were killed after fighting erupted between two factions of the Taliban. It is not clear who murdered the abductees.

Some reports point the finger at foreign fighters, possibly from Uzbekistan, who are said to have joined a Taliban splinter group. But the deputy head of the breakaway faction denied any involvement in a phone call to the BBC.

However two days after the killings, eight other Hazara hostages were freed.

One of those released told the BBC that they had been held by foreign fighters who were speaking Uzbek. [Continue reading…]

TOLOnews reports: Thousands of women joined the protest march in the streets of Kabul on Wednesday morning which saw numbers swell by mid-morning to around 20,000.

Despite the cold and rain, demonstrators took to the streets over the beheading of seven Zabul residents who were kidnapped last month and killed by alleged Daesh militants a few days ago. [Continue reading…]

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The Taliban turn on each other, but that may not be good news

The Daily Beast reports: Fierce fighting reportedly broke out over the weekend between rival Taliban groups, raising concerns that no faction will be strong enough to make a peace deal, even if it were inclined to do so, and possibly opening the way to more recruitment by the growing forces in Afghanistan of the so-called Islamic State.

While the United States and the Kabul government previously sought to “divide and conquer” the group, under the current circumstances in Afghanistan, this latest development may only heighten the fracturing of society and the chaos of war.

Throughout most of the two decades the group has existed, under the leadership of the one-eyed Mullah Omar the Taliban showed remarkable unity. They took power in the mid-1990s, then were ousted by the American-led invasion in 2001 for protecting Osama bin Laden, and in the years since they’ve struggled to retake the government — but, still, they stuck together.

Almost as soon as the death of Mullah Omar was confirmed last July — and revealed to have taken place two years earlier — the cracks began to show. [Continue reading…]

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Ann Jones: The never-ending war

In an effort to attack Taliban fighters, an air strike by a U.S. plane killed dozens of civilians in Kunduz, Afghanistan. In the wake of the attack, an American general responded in unequivocal fashion. “I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously,” he said. “I have ordered a complete investigation into the reasons and results of this attack, which I will share with the Afghan people.”

In an effort to attack Taliban fighters, an air strike by a U.S. plane killed dozens of civilians in Kunduz, Afghanistan. In the wake of the attack, an American general responded in unequivocal fashion. “I want to offer my deepest condolences to those innocent civilians who were harmed and killed on Saturday,” he said. “I’ve ordered a thorough investigation into this tragic incident… we will share the results of the investigation once it is complete.”

The first of those air strikes took place in 2009 and targeted fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban. The second took place last month and targeted a hospital that Afghan officials say was used as a safe haven by the Taliban. The striking similarities between the two attacks are rooted not in uncanny coincidence but in the law of averages. Bomb a country long enough and such echoes are bound to occur.

Of course, U.S. planes have been carrying out attacks and terrorizing innocent Afghans in and around Kunduz (and elsewhere in the country) since 2001. This is, after all, America’s war in Afghanistan, which has produced eerily repetitive tragedies; a war that’s also seen almost endless announcements of achievements, improvements, and progress; a war that seems to regularly circle back on itself.

“The Taliban is gone,” Army General Tommy Franks, the chief of U.S. Central Command, announced in 2002. “Afghanistan is rising from the oppression of the Taliban into an independent, democratic nation.” Six years later, the Taliban was, oddly enough, still around. But things were still going well. “We’re clearly not done… But I do know that we’re making good progress, and each and every day we’re making a difference in the Afghan people’s lives,” said Army Major General Jeffrey Schloesser. In 2010, Army General David Petraeus offered his unique assessment of the war. “We’re making progress, and progress is winning, if you will,” he insisted. This summer, another five years having passed, Army General John Campbell weighed in: “We have done a great job, both from both a conventional perspective and our special operating forces, and from the Afghan security forces… I see [the Afghans] continue to progress and continue to be very resilient.”

There have been so many claims of “progress” these last 14 years (and so many air strike apologies as well) and yet each announcement of further success seems to signal the very opposite. Days after Campbell spoke, for instance, Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, the U.S. deputy chief of staff for communications in Afghanistan, told reporters, “Kunduz is — is not now, and has not been in danger of being overrun by the Taliban… that’s sort of how we see it.” Just over a month later, Kunduz fell to the Taliban.

This is the war that TomDispatch regular Ann Jones has monitored, analyzed, and covered since its opening stages, first as a humanitarian worker and then as a reporter. While the military was spinning tales of progress, Jones had a far more realistic assessment. “The story of success in Afghanistan was always more fairy tale than fact — one scam used to sell another,” she wrote at this site in 2006, drawing attention to “a threefold failure: no peace, no democracy, and no reconstruction.” After embedding with U.S. troops in 2010 she said all the things America’s generals never did. “I’d been ‘on the front’ of this war for less than two weeks, and I already needed a vacation,” she wrote. “Being outside the wire had filled me with sorrow as I watched earnest, heavily armed and armored boys try to win over white-bearded Afghans — men of extraordinary dignity — who have seen all this before and know the outcome.”

All this is to say Jones has been remarkably, consistently, undeniably ahead of the curve on the conflict, a reality reflected in her revelatory look at the deeply personal costs of America’s second Afghan War in her now-classic book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story. She’s done what billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, the finest officers produced by America’s premier military academies, and untold numbers of analysts with access to highly classified information, have failed to do: accurately assess the situation in a country the U.S. has been intimately enmeshed in, on and off now, for the better part of four decades. With that in mind, let Jones give you the lowdown on the current state of “progress” there. When you’re through, chances are — even if you lack a top-secret clearance and have never set foot in the Greater Middle East — you’ll have a better grasp of the reality of the war than either the Pentagon or the president has ever had. Nick Turse

Afghanistan “after” the American war
Once more down the rabbit hole
By Ann Jones

Ten months ago, on December 28, 2014, a ceremony in Kabul officially marked the conclusion of America’s very long war in Afghanistan. President Obama called that day “a milestone for our country.” After more than 13 years, he said, “our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”

That was then. This is now. In between, on September 28, 2015, came another milestone: the Taliban takeover of Kunduz, the capital of the province of the same name in northern Afghanistan, and with a population of about 270,000, the country’s fifth-largest city.

[Read more…]

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A mass refugee crisis, and it may yet get worse

The New York Times reports: They arrived in an unceasing stream, 10,000 a day at the height, as many as a million migrants heading for Europe this year, pushing infants in strollers and elderly parents in wheelchairs, carrying children on their shoulders and life savings in their socks. They came in search of a new life, but in many ways they were the heralds of a new age.

There are more displaced people and refugees now than at any other time in recorded history — 60 million in all — and they are on the march in numbers not seen since World War II. They are coming not just from Syria, but from an array of countries and regions, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, even Haiti, as well as any of a dozen or so nations in sub-Saharan and North Africa. They are unofficial ambassadors of failed states, unending wars, intractable conflicts.

The most striking thing about the current migration crisis, however, is how much bigger it could still get.

What if Islamic State militants are not beaten back but continue to extend their brutal writ across Iraq and Syria? What if the Taliban continue to increase their territorial gains in Afghanistan, prompting even more people to flee? A quarter of Afghans told a Gallup Poll that they want to leave, and more than 100,000 are expected to try to flee to Europe this year. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban and Russian interests may converge in fight against ISIS

The Daily Beast reports: The Taliban are not as lonely as they once were. The pariahs who protected Osama bin Laden and quickly collapsed when the U.S. counter-attacked after September 11, 2001, have been developing contacts with neighboring states and even with Russia, driven out of Afghanistan in 1989.

There’s nothing simple about this picture, and, interestingly, it appears partly tied to Russian efforts to oppose the spread in Afghanistan of groups pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. That same concern has helped to forge links between the Taliban and their longtime enemies in Iran.

And the Russian connection is emerging, ironically, at the same time that Afghanistan’s Uzbek warlord and vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, has openly warmed to his onetime allies in Russia and tried to strengthen ties to the former Soviet states on Afghan frontier.

Dostum visited Moscow and Grozny this month and launched an offensive just last week in provinces near the Turkmenistan border. Dostum lumped the Taliban together with Daesh, a common Arabic acronym for the Islamic state, on his enemies list.

“The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States from Russia to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all these states are willing to stand with us against Daesh [one of the acronyms for the so-called Islamic State], against extremism, against the bloodthirsty Taliban,” Dostum declared.

But The Daily Beast has learned that Russia and some of these neighboring states may be playing a double game, or, at the very least keeping their options open if the Taliban manage to retake power. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS is making these Afghans long for the Taliban

The Washington Post reports: When the Islamic State fighters seized the Mahmand Valley, they poured pepper into the wounds of their enemies, said villagers. Then, they seared their hands in vats of boiling oil. A group of villagers was blindfolded, tortured and blown apart with explosives buried underneath them.

“They pulled out my brother’s teeth before they forced him to sit on the bombs,” recalled Malik Namos, a tribal elder who escaped the valley along with thousands of other villagers. “They are more vicious than the Taliban, than any group we have seen.”

At war for more than three decades, Afghans are familiar with violence perpetrated by a raft of armies and militias. But even by their jaded standards, the emergence here of the Islamic State — the extremist organization that arose in the Middle East — has ushered in a new age of brutality. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan Taliban’s reach is widest since 2001, UN says

The New York Times reports: The Taliban insurgency has spread through more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001, according to data compiled by the United Nations as well as interviews with numerous local officials in areas under threat.

In addition, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan over the past two weeks has evacuated four of its 13 provincial offices around the country — the most it has ever done for security reasons — according to local officials in the affected areas.

The data, compiled in early September — even before the latest surge in violence in northern Afghanistan — showed that United Nations security officials had already rated the threat level in about half of the country’s administrative districts as either “high” or “extreme,” more than at any time since the American invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001.

That assessment, which has not been publicly released but is routinely shared by the United Nations with countries in the international coalition, appears at odds with the assessment of its American commander, Gen. John F. Campbell, in his testimony to Congress last week. [Continue reading…]

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For Afghans in Kunduz, Taliban assault is just the latest affront

The New York Times reports: From the early days of his presidency last year, President Ashraf Ghani knew he faced a national security threat in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. He installed a new governor, a new police chief and a new head of intelligence, and spoke of turning Kunduz into an example of what better governance could accomplish. Instead, it has become a sobering testament to the cost of failed governance.

The fall of the provincial capital, Kunduz City, to the Taliban nine days ago was partly born of years of disgust with and distrust in the main representatives of the central government there: a succession of corrupt or ineffective governors and aides, and a horde of Afghan Local Police militiamen who were more often abusive than responsible.

Interviews with officials and residents of Kunduz indicate that despite Mr. Ghani’s vow to improve things, frustrations in the province had been boiling even before the Taliban’s recent assault. [Continue reading…]

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Doctors Without Borders: Kunduz airstrike was ‘war crime’

NPR reports: NATO in Afghanistan says it will lead an investigation into an airstrike in Kunduz this weekend that hit a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, killing 22 people — an attack that the humanitarian organization, also known as Doctors Without Borders, has called “a war crime.”

A U.S.-led airstrike on the northern Afghan city was carried out on Saturday but the circumstances surrounding it remain murky. NATO acknowledges only that the raid occurred near the charity’s hospital.

The NATO coalition says it “has directed a preliminary multi-national investigation known as a Casualty Assessment Team.” It says that an initial investigation would be complete in “a matter of days.” [Continue reading…]

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A Taliban prize, won in a few hours after years of strategy

The New York Times reports: The Taliban’s largest strategic victory of its long insurgency seemed to unfold in a matter of hours: At dawn a few hundred insurgent fighters entered the northern provincial capital of Kunduz from three sides, and by afternoon they ruled it.

But even though it was a shocking victory, it hardly happened overnight. Signs of a determined and innovative Taliban campaign in the north, and Kunduz in particular, could be seen some two years ago.

Timed to the American withdrawal, a steady influx of insurgent fighters, a series of probing and patient territory grabs, and a hearts-and-minds campaign that took advantage of resentment of the government eventually delivered the Taliban’s biggest prize of the war.

Beyond questions about why American-trained forces collapsed so quickly, the issues raised by that long-term campaign of Taliban incursion illuminate a potentially grave threat to the American-backed Afghan government: The insurgents’ past aversion to all-out attacks against big cities may not have been because they never thought it possible, but merely because they weren’t ready until now. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban fighters overrun Kunduz as Afghan forces retreat

The New York Times reports: The Taliban were close to overrunning a major Afghan city for the first time in years on Monday, as their fighters took control of several government buildings in Kunduz, an important provincial capital in the north, and raised their flag in at least one neighborhood, officials and residents said.

The offensive was the second time this year that the insurgents have made a run for Kunduz in an effort to carve out more territory in the north and take a major city, which would be a huge blow to the struggling government of President Ashraf Ghani. The Afghan security forces, largely on their own this year, have been stretched thin across the country as they try to fend off Taliban assaults in several provinces.

Offices, schools and most of the roads out of Kunduz remained closed on Monday, with the Taliban setting up checkpoints on some roads. On Twitter, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, urged Kunduz residents to stay in their homes until the fighting was over. Still, families were seen fleeing the city via a thoroughfare that bypasses the airport, which remained open.

By early afternoon, the militants had taken control of several government buildings, including the compound of the provincial council, and the Departments of Agricultural and Rural Development, according to Amruddin Wali, the deputy head of the provincial council. Small groups of Taliban fighters could be seen in the west of the city walking around freely and interacting with residents. [Continue reading…]

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