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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Obama’s Afghanistan war strategy: Do ‘just enough to lose slowly’

The Washington Post reports from Camp Shorab: Earlier this month, a small district center just south of this desolate U.S. base came under attack from Taliban militants who threatened to overrun the local police. Frantic calls arrived from Afghan officials: They needed air support.

In a U.S. command center, a steel hut of plywood walls and a dozen video monitors piping in drone feeds and satellite imagery, soldiers began directing aircraft to the area. Redhanded 53, the call sign for a gun-metal-gray twin-engine propeller plane loaded with sensors, arrived overhead just in time to watch a truck loaded with explosives slam into the main police station.

Within an hour, the Americans had marshaled an armed Predator drone in the skies over the battle in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. But the commanding officer, Col. D.A. Sims, and his troops were unable to determine whether the men with guns on the ground were Taliban or Afghan soldiers. So Sims directed the Predator to fire one of its two hellfire missiles into an adjacent field — a $70,000 dollar warning shot just to let the militants know that the Americans had arrived.

The Oct. 3 battle is a microcosm of what is happening across Afghanistan: Taliban fighters that show enormous resilience despite being on the wrong side of a 15-year, $800 billion war; an Afghan army that still struggles with leadership, equipment, tactics and, in some units, an unwillingness to fight; and the world’s most sophisticated military reduced at times to pounding fields with its feared armaments.

The future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan after a decade and a half of war has received little attention in the presidential campaign and debates. But the next administration will be bequeathed a strategy that is doing “just enough to lose slowly,” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior national-security-studies fellow at the New America Foundation. [Continue reading…]

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If we don’t act now, all future wars may be as horrific as Aleppo

Paul Mason writes: To single day of fighting in June 1859, among the vineyards and villages near Lake Garda, left 40,000 Italian, French and Austrian soldiers dead or wounded. The Battle of Solferino might have been remembered simply for its carnage, but for the presence of Henry Dunant. Dunant, a Swiss traveller, spent days tending the wounded and wrote a memoir that led to the founding of the Red Cross and to the first Geneva convention, signed by Europe’s great powers in 1864.

Solferino inspired the principle that hospitals and army medical personnel are not a legitimate target in war. Today, with the bombing of hospitals by the Russians in Syria, the Saudis in Yemen and the Americans in Afghanistan, those who provide medical aid in war believe that principle is in ruins.

So far this year, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 21 of their supported medical facilities in Yemen and Syria have been attacked. Last year an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was destroyed by a US attack, in which those fleeing the building were reportedly gunned down from the air, and 42 patients and staff died.

A UN resolution in May urged combatants to refrain from bombing medical facilities. MSF says that the resolution “has made no difference on the ground”. Four out of the five permanent members of the UN security council, it says, are actively involved in coalitions whose troops have attacked hospitals.

To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military operations are biggest motivation for homegrown terrorism, FBI study finds

The Intercept reports: A secret FBI study found that anger over U.S. military operations abroad was the most commonly cited motivation for individuals involved in cases of “homegrown” terrorism. The report also identified no coherent pattern to “radicalization,” concluding that it remained near impossible to predict future violent acts.

The study, reviewed by The Intercept, was conducted in 2012 by a unit in the FBI’s counterterrorism division and surveyed intelligence analysts and FBI special agents across the United States who were responsible for nearly 200 cases, both open and closed, involving “homegrown violent extremists.” The survey responses reinforced the FBI’s conclusion that such individuals “frequently believe the U.S. military is committing atrocities in Muslim countries, thereby justifying their violent aspirations.”

Online relationships and exposure to English-language militant propaganda and “ideologues” like Anwar al-Awlaki are also cited as “key factors” driving extremism. But grievances over U.S. military action ranked far above any other factor, turning up in 18 percent of all cases, with additional cases citing a “perceived war against Islam,” “perceived discrimination,” or other more specific incidents. The report notes that between 2009 and 2012, 10 out of 16 attempted or successful terrorist attacks in the United States targeted military facilities or personnel. [Continue reading…]

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15 years in the Afghan crucible

Carlotta Gall writes from Kabul: There is an end-of-an-era feel here these days. Military helicopters rattle overhead, ferrying American and Afghan officials by air rather than risk cars bombs in the streets. The concrete barriers, guarding against suicide attacks, have grown taller and stronger around every embassy and government building, and whole streets are blocked off from the public.

It has been 15 years since American forces began their bombing campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on Oct. 7, 2001, and sometimes it feels as if we are back to square one, that there is nothing to show for it.

The recent American military drawdown has been drastic — from over 100,000 troops a few years ago to a force of 8,500 today. Thousands of Afghans have been made jobless as bases and assistance programs have closed. Meanwhile tens of thousands of Taliban are on the offensive in the countryside, threatening to overrun several provincial towns and staging huge bombings here in the capital.

Afghan forces have been bearing the brunt, suffering unsustainable casualties. Communities talk of hundreds of coffins returning from the front line. Civilians have suffered no less — thousands of families have been displaced anew by fighting, and aid workers warn that their access is deteriorating. Business executives have been leaving, selling off their property, and whole families have swelled the refugee columns heading to Europe.

The political mood is shifting, too, as Afghans sense the declining American influence and start casting around for new patrons or renewing old alliances. The politicking is intense: “Hot, very hot,” as a former minister described the political climate.

For Afghans, and for many of us who have followed Afghanistan for decades — I have been visiting the country since the early 1990s — the times are reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989 after a 10-year occupation. The Communist government and army that the Soviets left behind survived only three years before they were overthrown by the mujahedeen in 1992. [Continue reading…]

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America has spent almost $5 trillion on wars since 9/11

The Intercept reports: The total U.S. budgetary cost of war since 2001 is $4.79 trillion, according to a report released this week from Brown University’s Watson Institute. That’s the highest estimate yet.

Neta Crawford of Boston University, the author of the report, included interest on borrowing, future veterans needs, and the cost of homeland security in her calculations.

The amount of $4.79 trillion, “so large as to be almost incomprehensible,” she writes, adds up like this: [Continue reading…]

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How many guns did the U.S. lose track of in Iraq and Afghanistan? Hundreds of thousands

C.J. Chivers reports: Early this year, a Facebook user in Baghdad using the name Hussein Mahyawi posted a photograph of a slightly worn M4 assault rifle he was offering for sale. Veterans of the latest war in Iraq immediately recognized it. It was a standard American carbine equipped with a holographic sight, a foregrip that was military-issue during the occupation and a sticker bearing a digital QR code used by American forces for inventory control. Except for one detail — an aftermarket pistol grip, the sort of accessory with which combatants of the current generation often pimp their guns — it was a dead ringer for any of the tens of thousands of M4s the Pentagon handed out to Iraqi security forces and various armed militias after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003. And here it was on the open market, ready for bids.

Was this a surprise? No. A little more than four years after the United States withdrew all its military forces from Iraq, and not quite two years after a smaller number of American troops began returning to the country to help fight the Islamic State, the open sale of such an M4 was part of Iraq’s day-to-day arms-trafficking routine. Mahyawi’s carbine was another data point attesting to an extraordinary and dangerous failure of American arms-trafficking and public accountability and to a departure from a modern military’s most basic practice: keeping track of the guns.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States has handed out a vast but persistently uncountable quantity of military firearms to its many battlefield partners in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today the Pentagon has only a partial idea of how many weapons it issued, much less where these weapons are. Meanwhile, the effectively bottomless abundance of black-market weapons from American sources is one reason Iraq will not recover from its post-invasion woes anytime soon.

An inkling of just how expansive these arms transfers were, and how stubbornly resistant they are to precise measurement, is apparent in a new attempt at weapons-tallying compiled in a project led by Iain Overton. Overton is a former BBC journalist who is now the executive director of Action on Armed Violence, a charity based in London that researches and lobbies against weapons proliferation and violence against civilians; he is also the author of “The Way of the Gun,” a dark examination of some of the roles firearms play in modern society. With a string of Freedom of Information Act requests that began last year, he and his small team of researchers pooled 14 years’ worth of Pentagon contract information related to rifles, pistols, machine guns and their associated attachments and ammunition, both for American troops and for their partners and proxies. They then crosschecked the data against other public records. Overton is releasing the data and his analysis today. It covers 412 contracts and merits pause for reflection as the parties to the international Arms Trade Treaty gather this week in Geneva. The treaty, which took effect in 2014 and of which the United States is a signatory, is intended to promote transparency and responsible action in the transfer of conventional arms and to reduce their diversion to unintended hands — exactly what the United States often failed to do in recent wars. [Continue reading…]

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Kabul bombing adds new layers of agony for Afghanistan’s Hazaras

The New York Times reports: One after another, the bodies arrived on the steep hill in western Kabul.

For much of Sunday afternoon, an excavator was flattening the dusty area as men with shovels and pickaxes dug graves — four rows of 20 or so, packed so close that if the dead could stretch out their arms, they would touch those next to them.

In the hours that followed, nearly two dozen of the at least 80 protesters killed in a bombing claimed by the Islamic State on Saturday were buried here, in overlapping ceremonies that blurred into one large scene of public mourning. As the final prayer for one body lowered into a grave was being recited, dirt was shoveled onto another body at the next.

“Oh, brothers, slow! Slow!” one mourner at the grave of Muhammad Hassan, a 25-year-old construction worker killed in the bombing, urged the men piling dirt over the next grave. Dust covered the white turban of the mullah who crouched over Mr. Hassan’s headstone, reading from a little book of prayer.

The attack on peaceful protesters in Kabul — who were mostly from the Hazara ethnic minority — stirred an international outcry, in part because it was the first time that the Islamic State’s leadership in Syria had claimed responsibility for such a deadly strike in Afghanistan.

But some here voiced skepticism that the terrorist group, whose fighters in Afghanistan are concentrated in the east, was behind it. The detail hardly seemed to matter to others, who see the bombing as another in a long procession of attacks born of a chaotic and unending war. Many of the mourners burying their dead on the hill, or continuing their protest near a convention center, bitterly accused the Afghan government of failing to protect its people no matter the threat. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan teenager who attacked passengers on German train ‘wanted revenge’ for friend’s death

BBC News reports: Prosecutors in Germany say a teenager who attacked train passengers with an axe in Wuerzburg had learnt that a friend had been killed in Afghanistan, and wanted to get revenge.

The 17 year-old, who arrived in Germany a year ago as an unaccompanied refugee, injured four people, two critically, in the attack on Monday evening.

He was shot dead by police as he fled. [Continue reading…]

Deutsche Welle reports: The Afghan teenager, who travelled to Germany unaccompanied to seek asylum, had been staying with a foster family in the town of Ochsenfurt. The assault sparked concerns among other Afghan asylum seekers in Germany who now fear it could further delay their asylum application process.

“I condemn the incident in the strongest of words. I also want to stress that it is an act of an individual and it should be treated as such,” said 19-year-old Abdullah, who has been living in Germany for six months.

Abdullah is worried that the situation for Afghan asylum seekers could deteriorate even further following a series of attacks by radicalized Muslims across the world.

“It is becoming worse for Afghan asylum seekers, especially after what happened recently in the US and France. People in Europe will now have a more skeptical view of the refugees,” said 27-year-old Jawid, another asylum seeker.

Jawid, who like many other Afghans has only one name, was referring to the recent terrorist attacks in these countries – the Orlando shooting in the US which killed 49 people, and the truck attack in the French city of Nice that claimed 84 lives. The Orlando shooter was also of Afghan origin.

But these incidents are isolated cases and should not be attributed to all Afghan migrants, said Zargar Haroon, a refugee. “The German people should understand that it is the same violence that made us flee our own country,” he added. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Germany’s “welcoming culture” that defined 2015 has largely disappeared, and Monday’s attack could mark another significant new development in the country’s public debate about refugees.

Skepticism had particularly risen after the sexual assaults of about 1,200 women on New Year’s Eve, which put the country into a shock mode for weeks and sparked a backlash against refugees after authorities said that many of the suspects were asylum seekers from North Africa.

So far, concerns focused primarily on young male refugees who had come to the country alone. Monday’s axe-attack has raised new questions over whether German authorities are too overwhelmed to provide adequate support for those refugees, and particularly for unaccompanied minors.

Authorities in Bavaria, the southern German region where the attack occurred, said on Tuesday that they had put a particular focus on Salafist recruitment efforts of unaccompanied minors for months. It was unclear whether those efforts had been taken based on specific information indicating that recruiters were targeting minors, or whether they were part of more general precautions.

“Maybe we need to take care of unaccompanied minors even more so that they can overcome their trauma,” said Friedhelm Hofmann, the bishop of Würzburg, which is located in the proximity of where the attacker lived. Hofmann was quoted by local German newspapers as saying that it would be wrong to put all asylum seekers under general suspicion, following the attack. [Continue reading…]

At a time when there is a global refugee crisis — a crisis that has been exacerbated in the Middle East by Western interventionism and anti-interventionism — the Western attitude towards refugees fleeing conflict has ranged from compassionate, to charitable, to fearful.

There is a prevailing sentiment that to the extent that the needs of refugees are met, refugees themselves are expected to be grateful for whatever help they receive. No doubt, most are.

But suppose the Trump mentality — xenophobic, fearful, and mean-spirited — was applied to all people in need: to children with behavioral problems, teenagers in foster care, the homeless, drug addicts, victims of domestic violence, and so forth.

Suppose that whenever an individual from such a segment of the population committed an act of violence or other crime, the public and political response was to declare that we can’t help these people. There would be no social services. There would be no philosophy of care. The guiding principle upon which society would function would be that those in need should be shunned and cast aside. There would in effect be no such thing as society.

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With a hint of regret, Obama describes new kind of endless quasi-war

The Washington Post reports: President Obama, who had pledged to end America’s wars, described the landscape he was leaving to his successor as a state of quasi-war that could extend for years to come.

Obama, who was speaking Saturday to reporters at the NATO summit here, noted with pride that he has cut the size of the U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from 180,000 troops to fewer than 15,000.

But U.S. drones and fighter jets are striking targets in seven countries on a regular basis, a span of geography that is virtually unprecedented in American history outside of major wars. U.S. Special Operations forces are still conducting dangerous raids in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s latest move to delay end of war in Afghanistan

The Daily Beast reports: President Obama announced Wednesday yet another delay in his plan to wind down the war in Afghanistan, saying 8,400 troops would remain there for a list of enemies that has grown from al Qaeda to the Taliban and now to the so-called Islamic State.

But many in the Pentagon are concerned that the president’s new plan isn’t much of a strategy at all. It’s just a holding action, to hopefully keep a lid on Afghanistan until after the election.

“There is no desire to end the war in Afghanistan. There is a desire to keep it off the front pages and make it a problem for the next administration,” as one Pentagon official explained to The Daily Beast.

The U.S. had planned to keep 5,500 troops through the end of the year. At first glance, the change in number may not have seemed particularly significant; the president added only 2,400 troops to the number of forces that will be in Afghanistan by the end of his presidency. But the fact the U.S. had to slow down its withdrawal from its longest war ever was a major acknowledgement by the administration that the U.S. has yet to train local forces that can successfully stop a burgeoning Taliban and the jihadists protected by them. In other words, the cornerstone of the American effort in Afghanistan was still shaky, a decade and a half into the war. [Continue reading…]

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The graves of the Marines I lost

J. Kael Weston writes: Created after the Civil War, Memorial Day is an odd holiday, at once a solemn commemoration of those killed in war and a day of beach outings and backyard barbecues celebrating the start of summer. Rarely does it serve as a time to reflect on the policies that led to all those deaths.

While in Iraq and Afghanistan, I witnessed military officers and enlisted soldiers, at all ranks, being held accountable for their decisions. I have yet to see that happen with Washington policy makers who, far removed from the battlefields, benefit from our collective amnesia about past military and foreign policy failures.

The commander in chief and the senior military brass should leave the manicured grounds of Arlington and visit some of those places where most of America’s war dead are buried: farm towns, immigrant neighborhoods and working-class suburbs. At a time when fewer and fewer of us have any real ties to the military, how better to remind the nation that our troops are not just faceless volunteers, but people who live next door? [Continue reading…]

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