Afghanistan paid 11,000 militants to lay down their arms. Now the money has run out

The Washington Post reports: Faridoon Hanafi says he probably killed American soldiers as a Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan from 2009 through 2014. And he’s certainly killed some Afghan troops.

But since then, Hanafi has joined a rare demographic here: reformed, de-radicalized Islamist militants.

After he handed over his assault rifles and grenade launchers to intelligence agents, Hanafi settled into a safe house and started collecting $200 a month. In return for those payments, funded with foreign aid, Hanafi worked with local officials in Nangahar province to try to lure other militants away from the fight.

Now, the money is drying up, and a central goal of the U.S.-led effort to rebuild Afghanistan — that Islamist militants can be rehabilitated or paid to reintegrate into the law-abiding public — is at a crossroads as the war drags into its 15th year.

“If the government stops paying, these people will find another way to get money, and negotiations will fail,” Hanafi said in an interview. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Afghanistan’s ‘ghost soldiers’: Thousands enlisted to fight Taliban don’t exist

The Guardian reports: From about 8.30pm until well after midnight, the dark blue sky above Babaji lit up, as rockets and flares crisscrossed above this cluster of villages close to Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

At a mud fortress beyond a river bridge painted in the tricolours of the Afghan flag, 24 members of the Afghan border police dug in. They were not supposed to be there.

“We were not trained to fight on the front line,” said Cpt Ghulam Wali Afghan, the commander, when the Guardian visited the post.

As their name suggests, Wali Afghan’s men are meant to protect Afghanistan’s porous border, where smugglers cross with copious drugs, weapons and people.

But seven months ago, the captain and 122 other ABP men were relocated to Babaji, some 300km from the frontier with Pakistan in an effort to bolster the defence against the Taliban, who continue to capture territory the international coalition spent years getting little more than a slippery grip on.

On their first day on the front line, three border police were killed, said Raz Mohammad, a soldier stationed in Babaji. “For two months, we had trouble getting to know the area,” he said.

The police eventually repelled the Taliban assault. But with the calm of the poppy harvest over, and the fighting season just beginning, it is unlikely that the ABP officers will return to the border anytime soon.

With an estimated 25,000 troops officially based in Helmand, the government should have enough muscle to confront the Taliban.

The problem is many of those troops don’t exist.

Across Afghanistan, lists of troops and police officers are filled with fake names, or the names of men killed in the fighting, but not officially declared dead. Captain Wali and his men are in Babaji to fill the void of these “ghost soldiers”.

A recent investigation by Helmand’s provincial council found that approximately 40% of enlisted troops did not exist. The authors of an analysis commissioned by the Afghan government – and obtained by the Guardian – said the share might be even higher. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Afghan president inching closer to peace deal which could later serve as a blueprint for a deal with the Taliban

The Washington Post reports: President Ashraf Ghani is inching closer to a peace deal with the leader of a militant group that, though largely inactive now, was a powerful force during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s.

But a spokesman for the president said Sunday that Ghani has held off on finalizing the 25-point peace plan with warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami group because of “minor differences.”

Dawa Khan Menapal, the spokesman, said: “This is a process. There are some minor differences. It may take one day, maybe weeks or even longer.” The talks began in 2014.

Hekmatyar has been a thorn in the government’s side since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. But his group has been only marginally active in recent years. Its last major attack occurred in 2013, when a suicide bombing killed 15 people, including six U.S. soldiers.

Still, Ghani has been pursuing a peace plan with Hekmatyar, one that political analysts say would serve as a potential blueprint for a far more complicated deal with Taliban insurgents. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

U.S. troops confused about their mission in Afghanistan

Reuters reports: Amid fierce fighting after the Taliban captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz last year, U.S. special forces advisers repeatedly asked their commanders how far they were allowed to go to help local troops retake the city.

They got no answer, according to witnesses interviewed in a recently declassified, heavily redacted Pentagon report that lays bare the confusion over rules of engagement governing the mission in Afghanistan.

As the Taliban insurgency gathers strength, avoiding enemy fire has become increasingly difficult for advisers, who have been acting as consultants rather than combatants since NATO forces formally ceased fighting at the end of 2014.

In the heat of the battle, lines can be blurred, and the problem is not exclusive to Afghanistan: questions have arisen over the role of U.S. troops in Iraq after a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed by Islamic State this month.

“‘How far do you want to go?’ is not a proper response to ‘How far do you want us to go?'” one special forces member told investigators in a report into the U.S. air strikes on a hospital in Kunduz that killed 42 medical staff, patients and caretakers. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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.

[Read more…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail