Afghan president, U.S. general vow to unleash ‘a tidal wave of air power’ to defeat Taliban

The Washington Post reports: With a just-delivered Black Hawk helicopter sitting on a military runway behind him, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, vowed Saturday that “a tidal wave of air power is on the horizon” in the war against Taliban insurgents and that “this is the beginning of the end for the Taliban.”

Moments later, a second new Black Hawk descended and hovered over the runway as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani praised the nation’s air force pilots as “the real champions” of the 16-year conflict. Now that a new Afghan-U. S. military effort will triple the country’s air force capacity and double its special operations forces, he declared, “terrorists will not triumph here.”

The elaborately staged ceremony at Kandahar Air Base marked the formal launch of an ambitious plan to modernize and expand the Afghan air force over the next five years. A variety of U.S. military aircraft including 159 UH-60 Black Hawks are being supplied by the United States, and a new cohort of Afghan combat pilots are being trained — or retrained after years of flying Soviet-era choppers — by American military and civilian advisers. [Continue reading…]

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Afghanistan: What troops can’t fix

Ahmed Rashid writes: For Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Afghanistan was “the just war,” but for President Donald Trump it is just a war he didn’t want to deal with. Reluctant from the start of his term to send more US troops to Afghanistan, after taking eight months to decide what to do, Trump has finally been persuaded to send 3,900 more troops by a military high command that is getting anxious about the possibility of failure. There is no timeline for American troops to come home.

The war has gone on for sixteen years, and as recent meetings at the United Nations General Assembly demonstrated, it has become even more complicated than the one fought by Bush or Obama. Afghanistan faces a number of growing internal threats: terrorist attacks, loss of territory to the Taliban, economic collapse, corruption, growing public disenchantment, and an internal political crisis as warlords and ethnic politicians challenge the government of President Ashraf Ghani. But the gravest new threat is regional. At least three nearby states—Pakistan, Iran, and Russia—are now helping the Taliban, according to US generals, Western diplomats, and Afghan officials I have spoken to.

Yet there appears to be little awareness of these threats in Washington. Trump’s policy statement on Afghanistan on August 21 and his address to the UN on September 19 talked up the US military deployment, and his language was a smokescreen of “winning” and “victory” that gave no hint as to what these troops would do differently to gain back ground lost to the Taliban. In a further military escalation, the Trump administration is also preparing to dismantle limits set by Obama on drone strikes. The CIA, rather than just the Defense Department, will now be authorized to carry out drone attacks, which in the future will not require high-level vetting and will be allowed to target the foot soldiers of militant groups, as well as specified leaders. [Continue reading…]

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As Trump predicts victory, the Taliban are prepared to fight for another 16 years

The New York Times reports: The retired Afghan general is no friend of the Taliban: He is a Parliament member, an adviser to the Afghan president and a combat veteran. But he is also from Helmand Province, the heart of the Taliban insurgency, and knows people on the other side.

After President Trump’s speech, the general recalled a Taliban fighter who had taken up arms after six of his sons were killed, one by one. The same AK-47 was handed down to each. Then the father was killed.

“You don’t make peace with people like that,” said the general, Abdul Jabbar Qahraman. “You also don’t win by killing them, there are always more.”

After nearly 16 years of war, America’s longest, the Taliban are not only far from defeated, they are gaining ground. They also have evolved into a more tenacious foe than the one routed in 2001, making a United States military triumph seem more remote.

Ever since 2008, when Adm. Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “we can’t kill our way to victory,” the cornerstone of American policy in Afghanistan has been not about obliterating the Taliban but pummeling them toward peace talks. President Barack Obama’s Afghan surge of 100,000 American troops failed to do this.

Now, President Trump has asserted that the United States would yet achieve peace through victory. Despite that assertion, and far more modest troop commitments this time, the hope of tiring the Taliban remains the mantra repeated by American diplomats and the generals whom the president has empowered to execute his policy.

They have quietly repeated that hope even in the absence of any visible peace process since the latest serious effort at talks collapsed last year. Within hours of President Trump’s speech, the American military commander in Kabul made that clear.

“This new strategy means the Taliban cannot win militarily,” said the commander, Gen. John W. Nicholson. “Now is the time to renounce violence and reconcile. A peaceful, stable Afghanistan is victory for the Afghan people and the goal of the Coalition.”

As might be expected, the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, scoffed at President Trump’s speech as “nothing new.” But many Afghans on the government side had a similar take.

“That’s the same strategy going on the last two decades,” said Jamaluddin Badr, a member of the Afghan High Peace Council. “He said we’re going to win, but he didn’t make it clear how we’re going to win.” [Continue reading…]

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The war America can’t win: How the Taliban is regaining control in Afghanistan

Sune Engel Rasmussen reports: In a rocky graveyard at the edge of Lashkar Gah, a local police commander was digging his sister’s grave.

Her name was Salima, but it was never uttered at her funeral. As is custom in rural Afghanistan, no women attended the ceremony, and of the dozens of men gathered to pay their respects, few had known the deceased.

Salima, like almost all women in Helmand province, had spent most of her life after puberty cloistered in her family home.

Her family said she accidentally shot herself in the face when she came across a Kalashnikov hidden under some blankets while cleaning.

In town – Helmand’s provincial capital – the story was regarded with suspicion, if not surprise. Salima died 10 days before an arranged marriage, but nobody asked any questions: it would be improper to scrutinise a woman’s death.

Her body was lowered into the hole, wrapped in a thin, black shroud. She had lived unseen, and was buried by strangers.

For more than 15 years, women’s empowerment has been claimed as a central pillar of western efforts in Afghanistan. Yet in Helmand, adult women are almost entirely invisible, even in the city. They are the property of their family, and few are able to work or seek higher education, independent medical care or justice.

And if the advancement of women’s rights has moved at a glacial pace in places such as Helmand, the process toward peace has slid backwards. Helmand’s two main towns, Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, are among a handful of places in the province not under Taliban control.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has yet to define a strategy for Afghanistan.

The US was expected to have approved the deployment of about 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan by now – the first surge since the withdrawal began in 2011.

Yet the administration is torn. The president himself has wondered aloud “why we’ve been there for 17 years”, and recent reports even suggest that the White House is considering scaling back instead. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan Taliban: Qatar plays major role in peace talks

Al Jazeera reports: Qatar played a major role in facilitating peace talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban by opening an office for the group in Doha, a senior Taliban offical told Al Jazeera.

The Taliban official’s comments on Tuesday come as a series of leaked emails from UAE diplomats suggest the Emirati foreign minister was disappointed that US officials had chosen Doha over Abu Dhabi to host the office.

The June 2013 opening of the unofficial embassy allowed for talks to develop, said the Taliban official, who is based in the Qatari capital.

“We got a chance to discuss with Afghan diplomats, journalists and analysts face-to-face on how peace can be achieved in Afghanistan,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In 2016, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an international crisis group, organised a meeting in Doha bringing Afghan diplomats, analysts and journalists to the table with the Taliban to discuss how to achieve peace. [Continue reading…]

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Deadly bombing in Kabul is one of the Afghan war’s worst strikes

The New York Times reports: A truck bomb devastated a central area of Kabul near the presidential palace and foreign embassies on Wednesday, one of the deadliest strikes in the long Afghan war and a reminder of how the capital itself has become a lethal battlefield.

In one moment, more than 80 lives ended, hundreds of people were wounded and many more were traumatized, in the heart of a city defined by constant checkpoints and the densest concentration of Afghan and international forces.

President Ashraf Ghani, whose palace windows were shattered in the blast just as he had finished his morning briefing, called it “a crime against humanity.” President Trump called him to offer condolences.

The bombing happened just as the United States is weighing sending more troops, deepening its entanglement, to try to slow or reverse government losses to the Taliban insurgency this year. [Continue reading…]

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Trump wants a new Afghan surge. That’s a terrible idea

Douglas Wissing writes: Afghanistan today remains the largest U.S. military foreign engagement. From the peak of about 100,000 boots on the ground during the Obama-era surge, there are still almost 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, plus up to 26,000 highly paid contractors for the Department of Defense and other agencies. Each soldier costs about a million dollars a year. Economists estimate the Afghan war has already cost U.S. taxpayers around a trillion dollars. For the 2017 fiscal year, U.S. military and State Department operations in Afghanistan are costing about $50 billion—almost a billion dollars a week. (As a reference, the initial budget request for operations against ISIS in Syria was only $5 billion.)

Now the U.S. military is re-escalating in Afghanistan. The Marines are back in Helmand Province. In April, the Pentagon requested “a few thousand” more troops, since upped to 5,000. The booms are getting bigger, too. On April 15th, U.S. forces dropped the 22,000-pound MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the arsenal, on ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan. It is Surge 2.0.

As the Pentagon requests more troops and drops more and bigger bombs, it’s important to assess the dangers of another surge. And to consider whether another U.S. escalation can turn around an unwinnable war. Will Surge 2.0 be consequential, relevant, sustainable? Or will it be another futile chapter in an unwinnable war? [Continue reading…]

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Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar calls on Taliban to end ‘this pointless holy war’

The Washington Post reports: Fugitive warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on Saturday made his first public appearance in Afghanistan after nearly two decades underground, calling on Taliban insurgents to “join the peace caravan and stop this pointless holy war.” He also urged all political parties to reconcile and seek change “without bloodshed.”

The return of Hekmatyar, 69, who spoke at an outdoor ceremony in a government compound in Laghman province, represented a sorely needed success for the beleaguered government of President Ashraf Ghani, who invited him to return home peacefully last fall in hopes it would encourage the Taliban to follow suit.

A brief statement from the presidential palace said Ghani “welcomes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s return to Afghanistan as a result of the Afghan-led peace process. The deal shows that Afghans have the capacity to resolve the conflict through dialogue.”

But Hekmatyar’s homecoming was fraught with tension, and his ­expected arrival in Kabul was ­delayed by disputes over the ­release of prisoners from his former antigovernment militia. Also, his remarks had a strong anti-Western theme and were critical of the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban, which he compared to the Vietnam War and the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

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Russia is sending weapons to Taliban, top U.S. general confirms

The Washington Post reports: The general in charge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan appeared to confirm Monday that Russia is sending weapons to the Taliban, an intervention that will likely further complicate the 15-year-old war here and the Kremlin’s relations with the United States.

When asked by reporters, Gen. John Nicholson did not dispute claims that the Taliban is receiving weapons and other supplies from the Russians.

“We continue to get reports of this assistance,” Nicholson said, speaking to reporters alongside Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “We support anyone who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process, but anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.” [Continue reading…]

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On rampage inside military base, Taliban slaughter at least 140 Afghan army soldiers

The New York Times reports: They looked like Afghan Army soldiers returning from the front lines, carrying the bodies of wounded comrades as part of the ruse.

Dressed in military uniforms, a squad of 10 Taliban militants drove in two army Ford Ranger trucks past seven checkpoints. They arrived inside northern Afghanistan’s largest military installation just as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed soldiers were emerging from Friday Prayers and preparing for lunch.

For the next five hours, the militants went on a rampage, killing at least 140 soldiers and officers in what is emerging as the single deadliest known attack on an Afghan military base in the country’s 16-year war. Some assailants blew themselves up among the soldiers fleeing for their lives, according to survivors, witnesses and officials.

“Today, there was even a shortage of coffins,” said Ibrahim Khairandish, a member of the provincial council in Balkh Province, where the attack took place. Other officials feared that the death toll could exceed 200.

The attack punctuated the dismal outlook for Afghanistan, where much of the population of 34 million has known only war.

Over the last two years, Taliban fighters have gained more territory in the countryside and now threaten several cities. Afghanistan’s forces, suffering enormous casualties and grappling with a leadership marred by indecision and corruption, have struggled to put up a defense.

More than 6,700 members of the Afghan security forces lost their lives in 2016, a record high that is nearly three times the total American casualties for the war. [Continue reading…]

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Russia backs Afghan Taliban demand to withdraw foreign troops

Bloomberg reports: Russia said it supports the Taliban’s demand for foreign troops to leave Afghanistan as it criticized agreements that allow U.S. and NATO forces to remain for the long term in the war-torn country.

“Of course it’s justified” for the Taliban to oppose the foreign military presence, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said in an interview in Moscow. “Who’s in favor? Name me one neighboring state that supports it.”

Russia and the U.S. are increasingly at odds over Afghanistan. Officials in Moscow disclosed at the end of last year that they’ve been having contacts with the fundamentalist Islamic movement that ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, when it was overthrown in a U.S.-led invasion to destroy terrorist training camps run by Osama Bin Laden. U.S. generals say Russia may be supplying weapons to the Taliban, which is waging an expanding insurgency against the pro-Western Afghan government. Moscow denies the allegation. [Continue reading…]

The Hill reports: The relationship between the U.S. and Russia may be more antagonistic now than it was during the decades-long Cold War, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top spokesman said Friday.

Asked by ABC’s “Good Morning America” host George Stephanopoulos if the U.S. and Russia were in a “new Cold War,” Dmitry Peskov said the current situation may be worse, blaming the U.S. for disintegrating cooperation between the two countries.

“New Cold War? Well, maybe even worse. Maybe even worse, taking into account actions of the present presidential administration in Washington,” Peskov told Stephanopoulos. [Continue reading…]

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The art of a deal with the Taliban

Richard G. Olson writes: This year, America’s war in Afghanistan will pass a grim milestone as it surpasses the Civil War in duration, as measured against the final withdrawal of Union forces from the South. Only the conflict in Vietnam lasted longer. United States troops have been in Afghanistan since October 2001 as part of a force that peaked at nearly 140,000 troops (of which about 100,000 were American) and is estimated to have cost the taxpayers at least $783 billion.

Despite this heavy expenditure, the United States commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., recently called for a modest troop increase to prevent a deteriorating stalemate. The fall of Sangin in Helmand Province to the Taliban this month is a tactical loss that may be reversed, but it certainly suggests the situation is getting worse. With the Trump administration’s plan to increase the military budget while slashing the diplomatic one, there is a risk that American policy toward Afghanistan will be defined in purely military terms.

Absent from the current debate is a clear statement of our objectives — and a way to end the Afghan war while preserving the investment and the gains we have made, at the cost of some 2,350 American lives. It has always been clear to senior military officers like Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was the American commander in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, as well as to diplomats like me, that the war could end only through a political settlement, a process through which the Afghan government and the Taliban would reconcile their differences in an agreement also acceptable to the international community.

The challenges of bringing about such a reconciliation are formidable, but the basic outline of a deal is tantalizingly obvious. Despite more than 15 years of warfare, the United States has never had a fundamental quarrel with the Taliban per se; it was the group’s hosting of Al Qaeda that drove our intervention after the Sept. 11 attacks. For its part, the Taliban has never expressed any desire to impose its medieval ideology outside of Afghanistan, and certainly not in the United States.

The core Afghan government requirements for a settlement are that the Taliban ceases violence, breaks with international terrorism and accepts the Afghan Constitution. The Taliban, for its part, insists that all foreign forces withdraw. No doubt, both sides have additional desiderata, but the basic positions do not seem unbridgeable. This is particularly the case now that the Islamic State has emerged in Afghanistan, in conflict with both the government and the Taliban. [Continue reading…]

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The blood-drenched return of Pakistan’s Taliban

The Daily Beast reports: Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, Gen. H. R. McMaster, will be seeing some familiar names and some familiar problems coming across his desk in the next few days, and months, and very likely years. And they’re not good news.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are coming back into view as centers of terror and unrest potentially every bit as dangerous to the United States as the so-called Islamic State that operates in Iraq and Syria. And Afghanistan’s a part of the world where McMaster discovered his hard charging left him with limp results.

In 2010 his mission was to curb corruption in the U.S.-backed Afghan government — graft, bribery, and theft that undermined everything Washington thought it was trying to do. But some of the people that the United States sent out to build the Afghan nation turned out to be just as corrupt as the locals. And McMaster, even though he worked to understand the Afghan culture, sometimes lost patience.

Asked at a teleconference what he thought Afghans saw as an acceptable level of corruption, McMaster shut down the questioner, acting as if the inquiry made no sense at all and was, indeed, completely unacceptable.

Of course, the problem continued. And what we see now confirms what Af/Pak hands have known all along: the corruption is not just about money, it’s about the whole record of the Afghanistan and Pakistan conflict. You can’t trust the governments you support, not when they are talking about money, and much less when they talk about peace or about “victory.” [Continue reading…]

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Time to leave Afghanistan, Taliban tell Trump

Al Jazeera reports: The Taliban has called on President Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from the “quagmire” of Afghanistan, saying nothing has been achieved in 15 years of war except bloodshed and destruction.

In an open letter to the new US president published on one of its official web pages, the Taliban said the US had lost credibility after spending a trillion dollars on a fruitless entanglement.

“So, the responsibility to bring to an end this war also rests on your [Trump’s] shoulders,” it said.

Afghanistan was invaded by the US in 2001 and has become Washington’s longest military intervention since Vietnam.

The Taliban justify their ongoing insurgency in the letter, claiming that the group’s “Jihad and struggle was legitimate religiously, intellectually, nationally and conforming to all other lawful standards”.

So far, Trump has had little to say publicly about Afghanistan, where around 8,400 US troops remain as part of the NATO-led coalition’s training mission to support local forces as well as a separate US counterterrorism mission. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Over the past eight years, Afghans have become increasingly disillusioned with the American role in their country. Many blamed President Barack Obama’s policies for an increase in Afghan corruption, for air attacks that killed civilians, and for a foreign troop presence that failed to stop Taliban insurgents and was pulled out too quickly.

So it is not surprising that, like American voters who supported Donald Trump out of a longing for change, many Afghans are looking to his presidency as a chance for a fresh start. Most know little about Trump except that he may do something bold and unexpected. For now, that sounds appealing.

“Obama was too predictable. Sometimes a small dose of madness can be good,” said Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. He suggested that Trump’s bluntness and “masculine” approach may be useful for deterring the insurgencies that are thwarting Afghanistan’s path to stability and development. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s new favorite jihadis: the Taliban

The Daily Beast reports: More than 15 years into America’s war in Afghanistan, the Russian government is openly advocating on behalf of the Taliban.

Last week, Moscow hosted Chinese and Pakistani emissaries to discuss the war. Tellingly, no Afghan officials were invited. However, the trio of nations urged the world to be “flexible” in dealing with the Taliban, which remains the Afghan government’s most dangerous foe. Russia even argued that the Taliban is a necessary bulwark in the war against the so-called Islamic State.

For its part, the American military sees Moscow’s embrace of the Taliban as yet another move intended to undermine NATO, which fights the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State every day.

After Moscow’s conference, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova spoke with reporters and noted that “the three countries expressed particular concern about the rising activity in the country of extremist groups, including the Afghan branch of IS [the Islamic State, or ISIS].”

According to Reuters, Zakharova added that China, Pakistan, and Russia agreed upon a “flexible approach to remove certain [Taliban] figures from [United Nations] sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.”

The Taliban, which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, quickly praised the “Moscow tripartite” in a statement posted online on Dec. 29. [Continue reading…]

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Russia, Iran ties with Taliban stoke Afghan anxiety

AFP reports: Allegations over Russia and Iran’s deepening ties with the Taliban have ignited concerns of a renewed “Great Game” of proxy warfare in Afghanistan that could undermine US-backed troops and push the country deeper into turmoil.

Moscow and Tehran insist their contact with insurgents is aimed at promoting regional security, but local and US officials who are already frustrated with Pakistan’s perceived double-dealing in Afghanistan have expressed bitter scepticism.

Washington’s long-time nemesis Iran is accused of covertly aiding the Taliban, and Russia is back to what observers call Cold War shenanigans to derail US gains at a time when uncertainty reigns over President-elect Donald Trump’s Afghanistan policy.

“(Russia’s) narrative goes something like this: that the Taliban are the ones fighting Islamic State,” top US commander in Afghanistan John Nicholson said recently, denouncing the “malign influence” of external powers.

“This public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents.

“Shifting to Iran, you have a similar situation. There have been linkages between the Iranians and the Taliban.” [Continue reading…]

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Taliban seeks recognition for Qatar office, direct talks with U.S.

VOA reports: Afghanistan’s Taliban has demanded official recognition for its political office in Qatar, direct talks with the United States and removal of senior members from a U.N. blacklist, describing these as preliminary steps to peacefully ending its insurgency.

A Qatar-based Taliban spokesman, Sohail Shaheen, has asserted the presence of U.S.-led foreign troops in Afghanistan is the “root cause” of war and its continuation.

The “foreign occupation forces” are undermining the country’s sovereignty and freedom of its politics as well as the government, he added.

“That is why there is need for America and its allies to come to the table for direct talks with the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban) for negotiating an end to the occupation,” Shaheen said.

If peace is the objective of the other side, he asserted, then the Taliban must be allowed to open its “Political Office” in Qatar and names of its senior members be removed from the U.N. black list. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS commander says Trump’s ‘utter hate towards Muslims will make our job much easier because we can recruit thousands’

Reuters reports: From Afghanistan to Algeria, jihadists plan to use Donald Trump’s shock U.S. presidential victory as a propaganda tool to bring new fighters to their battlefields.

Taliban commanders and Islamic State supporters say Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric against Muslims – at one point calling for a total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States – will play perfectly in their recruitment efforts, especially for disaffected youth in the West.

“This guy is a complete maniac. His utter hate towards Muslims will make our job much easier because we can recruit thousands,” Abu Omar Khorasani, a top IS commander in Afghanistan, told Reuters.

Trump has talked tough against militant groups on the campaign trail, promising to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism just as we won the Cold War.” [Continue reading…]

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Taliban envoy breaks silence to urge group to reshape itself and consider peace

The New York Times reports: The Taliban’s internal debate over whether and how to negotiate with the Afghan government is playing out in the open, even as there have been renewed attempts to restart talks.

Breaking with nearly 15 years of public silence, Sayed Muhammad Tayeb Agha, who until recently was the Taliban’s chief negotiator and head of their political commission, issued a letter about peace talks to the insurgency’s supreme leader over the summer and discussed reconciliation efforts in an interview with The New York Times in recent days, his first on the record with a Western publication in years.

In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times and appeared in the Afghan news media, Mr. Agha supported the idea of talks, and said the insurgency should be urgently trying to position itself as an Afghan political movement independent from the influence of Pakistani intelligence officials who have sheltered, and at times manipulated, the Taliban since 2001.

Mr. Agha led efforts to open the Taliban’s political office in Qatar in 2011, and he was instrumental in negotiations that led to the release of the last known American prisoner of war held by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for the release of five Taliban detainees from the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. But he became disgruntled over the internal power struggle that broke out in 2015 after the death of the movement’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, for whom he was a trusted aide. He remains in exile abroad. [Continue reading…]

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