Afghan militia leaders, empowered by U.S. to fight Taliban, inspire fear in villages

The New York Times reports: Rahimullah used to be a farmer — just a “normal person living an ordinary life,” as he put it. Then he formed his own militia last year and found himself swept up in America’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.

With about 20 men loyal to him, Rahimullah, 56, soon discovered a patron in the United States Special Forces, who provided everything he needed: rifles, ammunition, cash, even sandbags for a guard post in Aghu Jan, a remote village in Ghazni Province.

Then the Americans pulled out, leaving Rahimullah behind as the local strongman, and as his village’s only defense against a Taliban takeover.

“We are shivering with fear,” said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimullah’s militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS fighters kill Taliban commander

Pajhwok: The administrative chief for Charkh district in central Logar province on Monday said Islamic State (IS) militants had killed a Taliban commander and ordered residents to stop watching TV programmes.

Khalilullah Kamal told Pajhwok Afghan News the Taliban commander was killed in an early morning clash between the two groups in the main district bazaar.

He said the masked gunmen, wearing black clothes, gunned down Abdul Ghani and wounded his three bodyguards. The Taliban have not yet spoken about the incident.

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A conversation with Adam Curtis

Jon Ronson writes: I’ve known Adam Curtis for nearly 20 years. We’re friends. We see movies together, and once even went to Romania on a mini-break to attend an auction of Nicolae Ceausescu’s belongings. But it would be wrong to characterise our friendship as frivolous. Most of the time when we’re together I’m just intensely cross-questioning him about some new book idea I have.

Sometimes Adam will say something that seems baffling and wrong at the time, but makes perfect sense a few years later. I could give you lots of examples, but here’s one: I’m about to publish a book – So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – about how social media is evolving into a cold and conservative place, a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing, and when people step out of line in the smallest ways we destroy them. Adam was warning me about Twitter’s propensity to turn this way six years ago, when it was still a Garden of Eden. Sometimes talking to Adam feels like finding the results of some horse race of the future, where the long-shot horse wins.

I suppose it’s no surprise that Adam would notice this stuff about social media so early on. It’s what his films are almost always about – power and social control. However, people don’t only enjoy them for the subject matter, but for how they look, too – his wonderful, strange use of archive.

His new film, Bitter Lake, is his most experimental yet. And I think it’s his best. It’s still journalism: it’s about our relationship with Afghanistan, and how we don’t know what to do, and so we just repeat the mistakes of the past. But he’s allowed his use of archive to blossom crazily. Fifty percent of the film has no commentary. Instead, he’s created this dreamlike, fantastical collage from historical footage and raw, unedited news footage. Sometimes it’s just a shot of a man walking down a road in some Afghan town, and you don’t know why he’s chosen it, and then something happens and you think, ‘Ah!’ (Or, more often, ‘Oh God.’) It might be something small and odd. Or it might be something huge and terrible.

Nightmarish things happen in Bitter Lake. There are shots of people dying. It’s a film that could never be on TV. It’s too disturbing. And it’s too long as well – nearly two and a half hours. And so he’s putting it straight onto BBC iPlayer. I think, with this film, he’s invented a whole new way of telling a nonfiction story.

VICE asked the two of us to have an email conversation about his work. We started just before Christmas, and carried on until after the New Year. [Continue reading…]

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Unruly factions hurt Taliban’s bid to capture Afghan hearts, and territory

The New York Times reports: A series of kidnappings and robberies struck northern Helmand Province this summer, paralyzing residents and embarrassing the Taliban leaders who controlled the area.

Responding to growing complaints, the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan ordered a hunt to find the criminals, but soon discovered an inconvenient truth: Their own people were behind the banditry, earning thousands of dollars in ransoms every month. Within a matter of days, the culprits had been captured and executed, including two notorious fighters known as Pickax and Shovel.

Though the episode went largely unnoticed outside the Taliban stronghold, it highlights a question that is on the minds of many: More than 13 years after the war here started, who exactly are the Taliban? Are they the bandits responsible for the abduction and killings of numerous villagers? Or are they the disciplined leaders who hanged the fighters who had taken to criminal tyranny?

Increasingly, it appears, they are both. [Continue reading…]

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Kabul was eerie and dangerous under the Taliban. It feels that way again

Pamela Constable reports: Many winters ago, I stood in a vast, empty intersection of central Kabul. The only sounds were the jingle of passing horse carts and the ticking spokes of old bicycles. There were no other Westerners on the streets, and all eyes were upon me. Despite being wrapped in many layers of modest clothing, I felt naked.

Much has changed in the Afghan capital since those haunted days under Taliban rule. Bombed-out ruins have been replaced by multi-story apartment buildings and ornate mansions. The populace has quintupled and traffic jams are constant. Cellphone and computer shops with picture windows line the streets, and beauty parlor signs feature women with pouting lips and geisha makeup.

But this winter, even as a frequent foreign visitor to Kabul, dressed modestly and with my head covered, I feel naked once again. Almost every Westerner I once knew here has left the country for good, their missions suspended or shut down, and several of my longtime Afghan acquaintances and colleagues have fled abroad and sought asylum. [Continue reading…]

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Jim Gant: ‘Lawrence of Afghanistan’

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ISIS targets Afghanistan just as the U.S. quits

The Daily Beast reports: Few sayings of the Prophet Mohammed have a stronger hold on the imagination of the world’s jihadists than his prophecy about the flags: “If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice,” he is supposed to have admonished the faithful. “No power will be able to stop them and they will finally reach Baitul Maqdisi”—Jerusalem— “where they will erect flags.”

And where was this magical land of Khorasan, whence the conquerors would come? Think Afghanistan and pieces of all the countries that surround it, including and especially Iran.

For the great ideologues of modern jihadist terror, Ayman al Zawahiri of al Qaeda and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi of the so-called Islamic State, the strategic and symbolic importance of Khorasan is huge, and there are already signs that they are competing for control there. Some factions of both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and some members of al Qaeda in the area have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Zawahiri’s most elite group of operatives, meanwhile, has become known as the Khorasan Group.

As terrorists compete for prestige and authority, they are under attack by the governments of the region. To make their mark on the minds of potential followers, they carry out ever more desperate and horrifying acts, like the slaughter of children at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, earlier this week.

A central figure in these dangerous wider developments is a soft-spoken scholar, journalist and poet, Sheikh Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who spent more than three years as a prisoner of the Americans at Guantanamo, then found himself imprisoned again by the Pakistanis. News reports in the region recently named his as the Islamic State-appointed governor or wali of Khorasan. [Continue reading…]

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Jihadi groups killed more than 5,000 people in November

The Guardian reports: Jihadi groups killed more than 5,000 people last month, with Iraq topping the league table of deaths, followed by Nigeria, Afghanistan and Syria.

In 664 incidents recorded in November by the BBC World Service and researched jointly with King’s College London, the overall death toll was 5,042, or an average of 168 deaths per day and nearly twice the number of people who were killed in the 11 September 2001 attacks on America.

After Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Syria, Yemen was fifth in the deadly league table, tying with Somalia, with 37 incidents each.

The data, shared with the Guardian, provides a unique insight into the human cost, intensity, scale and geographical distribution of a phenomenon that has captured headlines and driven political and security agendas across the world. [Continue reading…]

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Afghanistan: The making of a narco state

Matthieu Aikins reports: Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan is named for the wide river that runs through its provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, a low-slung city of shrubby roundabouts and glass-fronted market blocks. When I visited in April, there was an expectant atmosphere, like that of a whaling town waiting for the big ships to come in. In the bazaars, the shops were filled with dry goods, farming machinery and motorcycles. The teahouses, where a man could spend the night on the carpet for the price of his dinner, were packed with migrant laborers, or nishtgar, drawn from across the southern provinces, some coming from as far afield as Iran and Pakistan. The schools were empty; in war-torn districts, police and Taliban alike had put aside their arms. It was harvest time.

Across the province, hundreds of thousands of people were taking part in the largest opium harvest in Afghanistan’s history. With a record 224,000 hectares under cultivation this year, the country produced an estimated 6,400 tons of opium, or around 90 percent of the world’s supply. The drug is entwined with the highest levels of the Afghan government and the economy in a way that makes the cocaine business in Escobar-era Colombia look like a sideshow. The share of cocaine trafficking and production in Colombia’s GDP peaked at six percent in the late 1980s; in Afghanistan today, according to U.N. estimates, the opium industry accounts for 15 percent of the economy, a figure that is set to rise as the West withdraws. “Whatever the term narco state means, if there is a country to which it applies, it is Afghanistan,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies illicit economies in conflict zones. “It is unprecedented in history.”

Even more shocking is the fact that the Afghan narcotics trade has gotten undeniably worse since the U.S.-led invasion: The country produces twice as much opium as it did in 2000. How did all those poppy fields flower under the nose of one of the biggest international military and development missions of our time? The answer lies partly in the deeply cynical bargains struck by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in his bid to consolidate power, and partly in the way the U.S. military ignored the corruption of its allies in taking on the Taliban. It’s the story of how, in pursuit of the War on Terror, we lost the War on Drugs in Afghanistan by allying with many of the same people who turned the country into the world’s biggest source of heroin. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistani Taliban squeezed by Afghan revolt, U.S. drone strikes

Reuters reports: Pakistani Taliban militants holed up in Afghanistan are being squeezed by U.S. drone strikes and a revolt against them, a trend that could disrupt the insurgents’ capability to strike in Pakistan.

For years, Pakistani Taliban commanders fighting the Pakistani state have been hiding in remote areas of east Afghanistan, plotting attacks and recruiting.

But in recent weeks, officials say the insurgency has been weakened by a spate strikes by U.S. drones and a rebellion by tribesmen in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.

The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are allied and share the goal of toppling their respective governments and setting up an Islamist state across the region.

Their presence on both sides of the border has been a bone of contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the two trading accusations of sheltering insurgents.

But the ascent to power of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has raised hopes for more cooperation in tackling the insurgency.

Four Pakistani Taliban commanders told Reuters drone strikes and tension with tribesmen had forced them to move from small Afghan towns to mountainous border areas. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS ‘outbidding’ al Qaeda in South Asia

Karl Kaltenthaler writes: The landscape of violent extremist Islamism is changing in Asia. Al-Qaida, once a growing and potent threat, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is now a shadow of its former self.

In the late 1990s, al-Qaida co-ran Afghanistan with the Taliban. It also had a strong presence in Pakistan and close ties with many of that country’s myriad jihadi groups. Now al-Qaida’s core group is down to a few dozen members. Security operations against the group in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere have cut its numbers and operational capacity substantially. The organization is fighting for survival in Pakistan, its last real refuge in Asia.

The same cannot be said of the Islamic State group. The militant group, which has had spectacular success in Syria and Iraq, is now making inroads in many parts of Asia, but particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

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Afghanistan quietly lifts ban on nighttime raids

The New York Times reports: The government of the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has quietly lifted the ban on night raids by special forces troops that his predecessor had imposed.

Afghan National Army Special Forces units are planning to resume the raids in 2015, and in some cases the raids will include members of American Special Operations units in an advisory role, according to Afghan military officials as well as officials with the American-led military coalition.

That news comes after published accounts of an order by President Obama to allow the American military to continue some limited combat operations in 2015. That order allows for the sort of air support necessary for successful night raids. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan military welcomes expanded U.S. combat role as Taliban threat intensifies

The Washington Post reports: The 18 Afghan soldiers were trapped in a mountainous outpost about 50 miles south of the capital, running out of ammunition. Taliban insurgents had surrounded them. There was only one way out: the Americans.

So the Afghans made the call, and soon Apache attack helicopters, F-16 fighter jets and Predator drones were in the sky overhead. Not a single weapon was fired by U.S. forces, but their presence was enough to send the militants running for cover. That allowed the Afghan military to send in reinforcements.

“The Americans saved the lives of my soldiers,” said their brigade commander in recounting the incident, which he said happened two weeks ago. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. “They would have all died without the air support.”

The incident helps explains why Afghan military and police commanders in some of the most volatile areas of the country welcomed reports Saturday that the Obama administration plans to expand the U.S. military’s role here next year. [Continue reading…]

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In shift, Pakistanis fleeing war flow into beleaguered Afghanistan

The New York Times reports: Through three decades of war, waves of Afghans have fled their homes along the eastern border areas, many of them seeking shelter in the Pakistani tribal regions next door.

Last summer another wave of refugees surged through the area. But in a reversal, it is Pakistanis, not Afghans, who are fleeing war at home.

“There was fighting everywhere,” said Sadamullah, a laborer who fled with his family last month from Dattakhel, a district in Pakistan’s tribal areas. “There was shelling, and military forces were firing mortars on our villages. They carried out an operation in our area, and a woman was killed by them.”

Mr. Sadamullah, who like many tribesmen here has only one name, was speaking about the Pakistani military’s continuing offensive against Islamist militants in the North Waziristan region. The military has been clearing territory in the region since June, forcing an exodus of at least 1.5 million residents. As many as 250,000 of them have since crossed the border into Afghanistan, officials say. [Continue reading…]

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Afghanistan’s opium industry now employs more people than its military

Business Insider: Afghanistan’s opium economy provides more employment — “up to 411,000 full-time-equivalent jobs” — than even the country’s armed forces, according to a quarterly report released today by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

The country’s poppy cultivation is at an all-time high, covering more than 200,000 hectares, another SIGAR report found earlier this month.

Opium and its derivatives are the country’s largest export, worth $3 billion in 2013, an increase from $2 billion in the year before.

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Ann Jones: The missing women of Afghanistan

From the beginning, it was to be “Russia’s Vietnam.”  First the administration of President Jimmy Carter, then that of President Ronald Reagan was determined to give the Soviet Union a taste of what the U.S. had gone through in its disastrous 14-year war in Southeast Asia.  As National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski would later put it, “On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the [Afghan] border [in 1979], I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.'” And with that in mind, the CIA (aided by the Saudis and Pakistanis) would arm, train, and advise extreme Islamist factions in Pakistan and dispatch them across the border to give the Soviets a taste of what Washington considered their own medicine, Vietnam-style.

It worked in a major way. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would later call Afghanistan “the bleeding wound” and, in 1989, a decade after the Red Army had crossed that border, it would limp home to a fading empire on the edge of implosion.  It was a classic Cold War triumph for Washington, the last needed before the Soviet Union stepped off the edge of history and disappeared… oh, except for one small thing: those well-armed extremists didn’t conveniently go away.  It wasn’t mission accomplished.  Not by half.  A taste of Vietnam for the Russians turned out to be only the hors d’oeuvre for a main course still to come.  And the rest of the disastrous history of what Chalmers Johnson would term “blowback,” even before it fully blew back not just on devastated Afghanistan, but on New York City and Washington, is painfully well known and not yet over.  Not by half.

As a result, when the Bush administration launched America’s second Afghan war in October 2001, whether it knew it or not, it was prescribing for itself a taste of the medicine it had given the Soviets back in the 1980s.  Think of it as the worst possible version of do-it-yourself doctoring.  Now, another 13 years have passed.  We’re three and a half decades beyond Brzezinksi’s urge to Vietnamize the USSR in Afghanistan and that Central Asian country is a basket case.  The Taliban insurgency is back big time; the Afghan army and police are taking horrific casualties, and you can bet that, with one eye on the collapsed Iraqi army the U.S. trained and armed, there are plenty of anxious people in the Pentagon when it comes to those Afghan security forces into which the U.S. has sunk at least $60 billion.  In the meantime, the “democracy” that the U.S. promised to bring to the country has experienced a second deeply fraudulent presidential election, this time with a vote so contested and filled with questionable balloting practices that the final count couldn’t be released to the country.  A new government was instead cobbled together under Washington’s ministrations in a way that bears no relation to the country’s constitution.

In the meantime, Afghanistan is rife with corruption of every imaginable sort and, worst of all, its only real success story, its bumper crop, is once again the opium poppy.  In fact, last year the country raised a record opium crop, worth $3 billion, beating out the previous global record holder– Afghanistan — by 50%!  On America’s watch, it is the planet’s preeminent narco-state.  And keep in mind that, in line with the history of the last 13 years of the American occupation and garrisoning of the country (with a possible 10 more to go), the U.S. put $7.6 billion dollars into programs of every sort to eradicate poppy growing.  So, once again, mission accomplished!  Today, TomDispatch regular Ann Jones, author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, looks back at what those 13 years of “America’s Afghanistan” meant to the women whom the Bush administration so proudly “liberated” on invading the country.  And given its success in poppy eradication, how do you think Washington did on that one? Tom Engelhardt

The missing women of Afghanistan
After 13 years of war, the rule of men, not law
By Ann Jones

On September 29th, power in Afghanistan changed hands for the first time in 13 years. At the Arg, the presidential palace in Kabul, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as president, while the outgoing Hamid Karzai watched calmly from a front-row seat.  Washington, congratulating itself on this “peaceful transition,” quickly collected the new president’s autograph on a bilateral security agreement that assures the presence of American forces in Afghanistan for at least another decade. The big news of the day: the U.S. got what it wanted.  (Precisely why Americans should rejoice that our soldiers will stay in Afghanistan for another 10 years is never explained.)

The big news of the day for Afghans was quite different — not the long expected continuation of the American occupation but what the new president had to say in his inaugural speech about his wife, Rula Ghani. Gazing at her as she sat in the audience, he called her by name, praised her work with refugees, and announced that she would continue that work during his presidency.

[Read more…]

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ISIS ascent in Syria and Iraq weakening Pakistani Taliban

The Guardian reports: The dramatic rise of Islamic State (Isis) in Syria and Iraq is helping to tear apart the Pakistani Taliban, the beleaguered militant group beset by infighting and splits.

Once the country’s largest and most feared militant coalition, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been on the ropes since a US drone strike killed its charismatic leader Hakimullah Mehsud in 2013, a blow followed this summer by the launch of a military onslaught against the group’s sanctuaries.

But the latest challenge to the TTP has come from the startling military successes of Isis and its demand that all Muslims pledge allegiance to the new caliphate it announced in June.

The claim to global Islamic leadership by the self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi threatens to undermine the TTP, which draws considerable authority from the fact that its symbolic figurehead is Mullah Omar, the one-eyed village preacher who ruled the original Taliban “emirate” in Afghanistan prior to the US-led invasion of 2001.

This week the TTP’s beleaguered leadership announced it had sacked its spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, after the high profile militant announced he had pledged his personal allegiance to Baghdadi.

The statement published on the movement’s Facebook page said the spokesman had left the group some time before and reiterated that the TTP’s leader, Mullah Fazlullah, continued to back Mullah Omar, “the emir of believers”. [Continue reading…]

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The West made lots of promises to Afghan girls and now it’s breaking them

Heather Barr writes: The girls of Afghanistan have been betrayed. When Taliban rule ended almost 13 years ago, international donors rushed in to promise that young women would no longer be denied an education. Western governments spent a decade patting themselves on the back for what they touted as exceptional work supporting schools for the beleaguered girls of Afghanistan. They talked about bringing women out of purdah, literally as well as figuratively, so they could help their families and their country to prosper.

But the closing of one school after another exposes the hollowness of those promises. In fact, the state of education in Afghanistan is still so shaky that only about half of Afghan girls manage to go to school, and those numbers are set to decline.

In the volatile southern province of Kandahar, for instance, an innovative school for teenage girls will soon close its doors. The Kandahar Institute for Modern Studies, established in 2006 with funding and encouragement from the Canadian government, has run out of donors. And it is only one of a number of Afghan schools to face the budget axe swung by distant governments and cost-cutting politicians.

Other schools have been shuttered because of attacks and threats stemming from the war that continues to engulf the country. In July, girls’ schools closed in one entire district, depriving 40,000 girls of education.

The website of the U.S. development agency proudly proclaims, “In 2013, one million Afghan learners are enrolled in schools with USAID assistance, and over 5 million primary grade students benefitted from USAID assistance.” But in January 2014, the U.S. Congress cut the U.S. government’s allocation of development aid for Afghanistan by half. [Continue reading…]

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