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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Exodus: The stories of the global migration crisis as told and filmed by refugees themselves

 

The first-person stories of refugees and migrants fleeing war, persecution and hardship — drawing on footage filmed by the families themselves as they leave their homes on dangerous journeys in search of safety and refuge in Europe. Watch the complete Frontline report here.

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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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Doors slam shut for Afghan refugees

In an editorial, the New York Times says: Pakistan is turning them back. Thousands who spent their life savings on a bid to resettle in Europe are being told it’s time to head home. Inside Afghanistan, tens of thousands have become internally displaced in recent months as fighting between the Taliban and government security forces rages in several provinces. The refugee crisis could reach unprecedented numbers, with as many as 1.5 million returning home, many involuntarily, by the end of the year, according to humanitarian organizations.

Yet, there is no plan to adequately address this humanitarian emergency. Its scale and the international community’s dismissive attitude toward the plight of vulnerable Afghans is shameful. Pakistan, home to 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees and some 700,000 undocumented Afghans, has begun to crack down on those refugees living in the country without permission. By the end of this year, as many as 360,000 could be forced to return to Afghanistan, if current rates hold, according to the United Nations refugee agency. This year’s number of returnees is about four times higher than last year’s.

Among those caught in Pakistan’s toughening stance is Sharbat Gula, the subject of a famous photo that was published on a cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985. That photo was taken at a refugee camp in Pakistan when she was about 12. Ms. Gula, now in her 40s, was recently arrested and deported back to Afghanistan because she had been living in Pakistan without legitimate papers.

As Afghans become ever more hopeless about the future of their country, a rising number have set out on long and perilous journeys to Europe. Last year, 213,000 Afghans made it to Europe, where leaders have been grappling with the even larger influx of Syrians. While Syrians are not being forced to return home, European leaders last month struck a deal with the government of Afghanistan to establish a mechanism for the return of tens of thousands of Afghans who have failed to get asylum or legal residency in Europe. Under the deal, the Afghan government agreed to accept even citizens who fear for their safety if they were to return home.

Those who go back home, often having spent all their money on smugglers, face grinding poverty and violence. Within the country, about 221,000 Afghans fled their homes between January and August, according to the United Nations. For many, the only option is to pitch a tent in one of the country’s bulging and poorly serviced refugee camps.

The United Nations refugee agency has been making desperate pleas to donors for more assistance as winter approaches. Last month, it said it needed $181 million to cover basic operations in the months ahead. Fulfilling that need immediately is the least the international community can do. Beyond that, it will need to rethink its long-term approach to Afghan refugees and how to resettle more abroad in the years ahead. [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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What defined Ahmad Shah Massoud

ahmed-shah-massoud2Frud Bezhan writes: Resistance fighter and anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Masud was killed by Al-Qaeda assassins on September 9, 2001, ushering in a chain of events that would place Afghanistan at the center of the global war on terrorism.

Two days after his death, Al-Qaeda operatives would carry out the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Within a month, the United States military was leading a bombing campaign and invasion of Afghanistan with the intention of overthrowing the Taliban and capturing Al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 orchestrator Osama Bin Laden.

In life and as in death, the military strategist who had made his name as a commander of anti-Taliban forces would have a significant impact on life in Afghanistan. Here are some stories behind the man whose battlefield exploits earned him the moniker “The Lion of Panjshir.” [Continue reading…]

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A reminder of the permanent wars: Dozens of U.S. airstrikes in six countries

The Washington Post reports: While Americans savored the last moments of summer this Labor Day weekend, the U.S. military was busy overseas as warplanes conducted strikes in six countries in a flurry of attacks. The bombing runs across Asia, Africa and the Middle East spotlighted the diffuse terrorist threats that have persisted into the final days of the Obama presidency — conflicts that the next president is now certain to inherit.

In Iraq and Syria, between Saturday and Monday, the United States conducted about 45 strikes against Islamic State targets. On the other side of the Mediterranean, in the Libyan city of Sirte, U.S. forces also hit fighters with the militant group. On Sunday in Yemen, a U.S. drone strike killed six suspected members of ­al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The following day, just across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, the Pentagon targeted al-Shabab, another group aligned with ­al-Qaeda. The military also conducted several counterterrorism strikes over the weekend in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and the Islamic State are on the offensive.

Militants in each of those countries have been attacked before, but the convergence of so many strikes on so many fronts in such a short period served as a reminder of the endurance and geographic spread of al-Qaeda and its mutations.

“This administration really wanted to end these wars,” said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official now at the Center for a New American Security. “Now, we’ve got U.S. combat operations on multiple fronts and we’re dropping bombs in six countries. That’s just the unfortunate reality of the terrorism threat today.”

In meeting those threats, Obama has sought to limit the large-scale deployments of the past, instead relying on air power, including drones; isolated Special Operations raids; and support for foreign forces.

But militant groups have defied eight years of these sustained counterterrorism efforts.

Nowhere are the unexpected turns of Obama’s foreign-policy record more visible than in Iraq, where thousands of U.S. troops returned after the 2011 withdrawal to support local forces’ battle against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Pity Aleppo as Putin drops his bombs to salvage Russia’s pride

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Natalie Nougayrède writes: A few days after Russia launched its military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Barack Obama said it would “get stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work”. Ten months on, that has yet to come to pass. As Russia helps its ally Bashar al-Assad try to retake Aleppo, the last strategic urban stronghold of the Syrian opposition, there aren’t many signs of the Kremlin’s war machine being either hamstrung or stuck. Indeed Russia seems to have registered more victories than setbacks in Syria. Hardly anyone remembers that, just last March, Vladimir Putin had announced he would begin withdrawing his forces. The withdrawal turned out to be as theoretical as Obama’s quagmire.

Most attempts to explain Putin’s military operation in Syria have focused on the following: 1) allergic to popular uprisings, he wants to prevent regime change in Damascus of the sort that happened in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; 2) he wants to secure Russia’s last foothold in the Arab world; 3) he wants to demonstrate Russia will do what it takes to defend an ally; 4) he wishes to divert attention from Ukraine as well as extract western concessions such as the easing of sanctions; 5) he is opportunistic and has capitalised on American unwillingness to get further involved in the Middle East; 6) he believes that by creating chaos, even if there is no clear endgame, Russia shows it can overturn western plans ; 7) it’s all about Russian domestic politics: nationalism and military assertiveness go hand in hand with Putin’s need to safeguard his own power structure.

There is probably truth to all of the above. But as Russia’s bombers hammer Aleppo’s besieged population in what could be the most decisive battle of Syria’s civil war, consider this as another piece to the puzzle of Putin’s mind: Syria is where Russia wants to erase the humiliation of the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s. [Continue reading…]

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A record 65.3 million people were displaced last year: What does that number actually mean?

By Jeffrey H. Cohen, The Ohio State University and Ibrahim Sirkeci, Regent’s University London

We continue to witness violent attacks – bombings and murders in France, Germany, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq; fighting in South Sudan and the continued civil war in Syria. These conflicts have renewed interest in the global refugee crisis and the movements of displaced persons around the globe.

The United Nations Human Rights Council announced in June that 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2015. This is a record number and is equal in population to the U.K. or France.

People who have been forced to leave their homes, their nations and occupation against their will are often referred to as “displaced.” And 65.3 million is a lot of displaced people. They are found across the globe in response to crises that range from the social to the environmental, and include Syrian refugees fleeing civil war, Central American children crossing international borders to reach family and security in the U.S., Colombians moving internally to avoid warfare and violence and Filipinos who are forced to relocate in response to changing climates and environmental disasters.

The UNHRC’s report identifies important global patterns that we must acknowledge. But, the overwhelming size of the displaced population reported confounds a complex issue and creates new fears. The numbers overwhelm and make it difficult to define potential solutions.

[Read more…]

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The consequences of Durand’s border blunder continue to shape world politics

Rafia Zakaria writes: By the year 1871, British officials stationed in India had learned to ride elephants. This was in fact exactly what Sir Henry Durand, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, was doing when he fell to his death. In the sad record of the event, Sir Henry is described riding in a howdah atop an elephant while traveling through the North-West Frontier Province, ‘which was in his charge’. The elephant, which belonged to an Indian chief, was led through a covered gateway that was ‘too low for it to pass through’. As a result, Durand the younger writes: ‘My father, a man of great height, was forced backward and thrown out across a low wall, which so injured his spine that he died the same day.’

The unceremonious death of Durand the elder, the ‘man of great height’, can well be a study of the British in India at the time. They had quashed a mutiny in 1857, and conquered both the fertile province of Punjab and the southern province of Sindh. Yet they remained curiously vulnerable to surprises on the wild edge of the northwestern corner of their empire. Mortimer Durand, then in his 20s, would attempt to tame the frontier which had taken his father. It was Mortimer, and not the elephant-riding Sir Henry, who would be the architect, and namesake, of a border that remains a frontline for battles between superpowers to this day.

Durand the son arrived in India not long after his father’s death. He was searching not simply for accolades as a diplomat and colonial administrator, but also for a connection with his much adored but distant, and now late, father. Durand left his mark on the land, literally carving a border where there was none. [Continue reading…]

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‘Iranians use Afghans as human shields’ in Syria

The Guardian reports: Iran is covertly recruiting hundreds of Afghan Shias in Afghanistan to fight for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, drawing them out of their own conflict-ridden country and into another war in which Afghanistan plays no official part.

The Afghan fighters are often impoverished, religiously devout or ostracised from society, looking for money, social acceptance and a sense of purpose that they are unable to find at home.

Iran’s recruitment of Afghan migrants and refugees within its own borders has been documented. But similar Iranian activities inside Afghanistan had previously gone unreported.

Iran denies using “any kind of allurement or coercion”, or to otherwise recruiting Afghans to fight in Syria, according to an embassy spokesman in Kabul. But a Guardian investigation can reveal both how Iran coaxes Afghan men into war, and the motives that prompt these men to travel thousands of miles to join a battle they might not return from.

Central in this recruitment are men such as Jawad. A police officer by day and self-declared “travel agent” when off-duty, Jawad said he acted for a year as middleman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) when in 2014 it formed an Afghan Shia militia, the Fatemiyoun Division, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

From his “travel agency” on the second floor of a non-descript office building, Jawad connected combat willing men with Iran’s embassy in Kabul. The embassy assisted with visas and travel, and paid Jawad a commission for his troubles.

In return for fighting, Afghans are offered a residence permit in Iran and about $500 monthly salary. “Most go to Syria for the money,” said Jawad, wearing stonewashed jeans and replica Ray-Bans. “Others go to defend the shrine.”

Syria is home to several holy Shia sites, above all the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in Damascus, which honours the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, and which has been a rallying point for Shias who want to defend it from Sunni militants such as Islamic State.

The first time the Guardian met Jawad, he was preparing to travel to Syria himself. Isis had abducted 12 Afghan fighters in a suburb of Damascus. It was Jawad who had recruited them, and their families now demanded that he help secure their release, he said.

When he returned from Syria a month later, he was clearly shaken. Showing photos from Damascus, he said he had negotiated the hostages’ freedom, but also seen first hand how “the Iranians use Afghans as human shields”. He said he would stop working as go-between for the Iranians. “I’m ashamed because I sent these people,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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Iran steps up recruitment of Shiite mercenaries for Syrian war

Christian Science Monitor reports: With gelled hair spiked high and wearing a Dolce & Gabbana shirt, the young Afghan man looks more like a fashionista than a religious warrior ready to give his life for jihad in Syria.

The man wanted to leave Afghanistan for personal reasons, but the Afghans and Iranians who facilitated his trip to Iran, and hosted him in Tehran, saw a recruiting opportunity. For two and a half months, an Iranian recruiter visited nearly every day to convince him to fight on the Syrian frontline with an all-Afghan unit in exchange for promises of a better life.

As he felt the pressure grow, he finally acquiesced.

“We will send you to Syria; when you come back we will give you an Iranian passport, a house, and money,” the 21-year-old Afghan was promised when he got to Tehran. He was told he would be fighting a “religious war” in Syria.

His is one of many stories heard here in Herat, an ancient and largely Shiite city in northwest Afghanistan, that gives rare insight into how far the Islamic Republic is going to deploy a largely Shiite mercenary force of Afghans in Syria alongside its own troops, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, and Shiites whom Iran has marshaled from Iraq and Pakistan. [Continue reading…]

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