As U.S. focuses on ISIS and the Taliban, Al Qaeda re-emerges

The New York Times reports: Even as the Obama administration scrambles to confront the Islamic State and a resurgent Taliban, an old enemy seems to be reappearing in Afghanistan: Qaeda training camps are sprouting up there, forcing the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies to assess whether they could again become a breeding ground for attacks on the United States.

Most of the handful of camps are not as big as those that Osama bin Laden built before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But had they re-emerged several years ago, they would have rocketed to the top of potential threats presented to President Obama in his daily intelligence briefing. Now, they are just one of many — and perhaps, American officials say, not even the most urgent on the Pentagon’s list in Afghanistan.

The scope of Al Qaeda’s deadly resilience in Afghanistan appears to have caught American and Afghan officials by surprise. Until this fall, American officials had largely focused on targeting the last remaining senior Qaeda leaders hiding along Afghanistan’s rugged, mountainous border with Pakistan.

At least in public, the administration has said little about the new challenge or its strategy for confronting the threat from Al Qaeda, even as it rushes to help the Afghan government confront what has been viewed as the more imminent threat, the surge in violent attacks from the Taliban, the Haqqani network and a new offshoot of the Islamic State. Former administration officials have been more outspoken — especially those who were on the front lines of the original battle to destroy Al Qaeda’s central leadership. [Continue reading…]

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A year of Taliban gains shows that ‘we haven’t delivered,’ top Afghan official says

The Washington Post reports: As the Afghan convoy entered the battered village, Taliban fighters opened fire. U.S.-trained Afghan policemen poured out of their Humvees and began wildly shooting their AK-47 rifles in every direction.

“The enemy is firing one bullet, and you are responding with dozens!” their commander, Col. Khalil Jawad, screamed into his radio in frustration. “Aim, then fire!”

A minute later, the militants melted away. On this day in early December in the southern province of Helmand, they had delivered their message: The Taliban is back, its fighters showing a battle discipline and initiative far superior to the Afghan security forces trained and equipped by the United States.

In private, top Afghan and American officials have begun to voice increasingly grim assessments of the resurgent Taliban threat, most notably in a previously undisclosed transcript of a late-October meeting of the Afghan National Security Council. [Continue reading…]

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The Taliban winter offensive bodes ill for Afghanistan’s future

By Amalendu Misra, Lancaster University

The world will mark the 15th anniversary of its military operations in Afghanistan under a dark cloud. After all the efforts of a coalition of 40 powerful countries, over US$1 trillion spent and thousands of uniformed lives lost, the primary objective of the mission undertaken in 2001 has not been met – and war has become the seemingly insurmountable status quo for Afghanistan.

And as the UK announced it was deploying personnel to help try and save the troubled Helmand province and the town of Sangin, one cannot but accept the fact that the dreaded Taliban is back with a bang – and that the rest of the world is nowhere near defeating it. The Taliban would appear to be in a resurgent mode across the country, and many Afghans now believe it’s winning. How did we get it so horribly wrong? Who screwed it up?

A chorus of events has helped the Taliban’s consolidation in recent years. While the end of NATO-led combat operations in 2014 removed any large strategic challenges, it is the fact that Afghanistan is a dysfunctional state, which has proved to be the biggest boon to the Taliban’s revival.

[Read more…]

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Russia gives intelligence to Taliban and weapons to their enemy, the Afghan government

The Washington Post reports: A Kremlin official said Wednesday that Russia was exchanging information with the Taliban, the Islamist insurgency that the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001, as a bulwark against the spread of the Islamic State militant group in that country.

Zamir Kabulov, a Foreign Ministry department head and President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan, told the Interfax news agency that “the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours” in the fight against the Islamic State, which has captured broad swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

“I have already said earlier that we and the Taliban have channels for exchanging information,” Kabulov added, in remarks reported by Interfax and confirmed to The Washington Post by a ministry spokesman.

A limited partnership with the Taliban, which announced last week that it would send “special forces” to fight the Islamic State, is a striking, and somewhat confusing, twist in Russia’s war on terror. Although Russia plunged enthusiastically into its airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in Syria in September (critics say Russia is mainly there to prop up President Bashar al-Assad), Moscow has opposed the Taliban for more than a decade as a potential vehicle for terror and instability in the former Soviet Union. [Continue reading…]

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Refugees in a world in which the stranger’s welcome is in doubt

Richmond Eustis writes: In my first class on “The Odyssey” at the University of Jordan, my students surprised me with readings far darker than any I’d encountered in my classes in the U.S. I have taught this work in translation perhaps a dozen times. In teaching the work, I like to focus on depictions of terrain: lush Ogygia, rocky Ithaka, the perilous wilderness of the wine-dark sea. And still smoldering on the shore behind them, the ruins of Troy. There are nymphs and witches, seduction and intrigues, gruesome violence and angry gods. There is an awkward adolescent becoming a man, a clever hero taking vengeance on his enemies, and a crafty wife thwarting the designs of boorish suitors. There is the joyful reunion of a loving, long-parted couple, and the restoration of order to a troubled oikos. “The Odyssey” is romance and comedy.

But that’s not how my students in Jordan read it at all. Many of them are Syrian, or Iraqi, or Palestinian refugees. In their written responses to the first three books, much of the class wrote some variation of: “We know this story. We know what it is to be unable to go home, to show up with nothing at the door of strangers and hope they greet us with kindness instead of anger. We know what it’s like to wonder about the fate of family members, caught up in wars that seem to go on forever, and to hope that one day we will see them again.”

In its depiction of Odysseus’ journey, “The Odyssey” is a survey of the Ancient Greek practice of xenia—reciprocal hospitality. But for my students, it depicts the exile’s anxiety in a world in which the principle of xenia is threatened, in which the stranger’s welcome is in doubt. Odysseus asks himself many times about the inhabitants of the unknown islands: “Savages are they, strangers to courtesy? Or gentle folk who know and fear the gods?” Today, this set of questions from an ancient work has surfaced again in the political debates in the U.S. and the rest of the world: What is the morally appropriate way to respond to a stranger in need, a person from a distant land who arrives on your shore in need of aid and shelter? What obligations do civilized people owe to the destitute stranger in a world aflame with slaughter and destruction? And how are we to think about those who refuse to acknowledge any such obligations? [Continue reading…]

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Beheadings trigger largest demonstration Kabul may have seen this century

Yesterday, BBC News reported: About 2,000 people have protested in the eastern Afghan city of Ghazni against the killing of seven civilians by militants.

The murdered Hazaras included four men, one woman and two girls. Some had their throats slit – it is not clear by whom.

Their bodies were found at the weekend in southern Zabul province where fighting between rival Taliban factions has escalated over the last few days.

The seven Hazaras were killed after fighting erupted between two factions of the Taliban. It is not clear who murdered the abductees.

Some reports point the finger at foreign fighters, possibly from Uzbekistan, who are said to have joined a Taliban splinter group. But the deputy head of the breakaway faction denied any involvement in a phone call to the BBC.

However two days after the killings, eight other Hazara hostages were freed.

One of those released told the BBC that they had been held by foreign fighters who were speaking Uzbek. [Continue reading…]

TOLOnews reports: Thousands of women joined the protest march in the streets of Kabul on Wednesday morning which saw numbers swell by mid-morning to around 20,000.

Despite the cold and rain, demonstrators took to the streets over the beheading of seven Zabul residents who were kidnapped last month and killed by alleged Daesh militants a few days ago. [Continue reading…]

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The Taliban turn on each other, but that may not be good news

The Daily Beast reports: Fierce fighting reportedly broke out over the weekend between rival Taliban groups, raising concerns that no faction will be strong enough to make a peace deal, even if it were inclined to do so, and possibly opening the way to more recruitment by the growing forces in Afghanistan of the so-called Islamic State.

While the United States and the Kabul government previously sought to “divide and conquer” the group, under the current circumstances in Afghanistan, this latest development may only heighten the fracturing of society and the chaos of war.

Throughout most of the two decades the group has existed, under the leadership of the one-eyed Mullah Omar the Taliban showed remarkable unity. They took power in the mid-1990s, then were ousted by the American-led invasion in 2001 for protecting Osama bin Laden, and in the years since they’ve struggled to retake the government — but, still, they stuck together.

Almost as soon as the death of Mullah Omar was confirmed last July — and revealed to have taken place two years earlier — the cracks began to show. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan refugees in Iran being sent to fight and die for Assad in Syria

The Guardian reports: Iran is recruiting Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, promising a monthly salary and residence permits in exchange for what it claims to be a sacred endeavour to save Shia shrines in Damascus.

The Fatemioun military division of Afghan refugees living in Iran and Syria is now the second largest foreign military contingent fighting in support of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, after the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

Iranian state-affiliated agencies reported in May that at least 200 Fatemioun members had been killed in Syria since the beginning of the war. How many more have died since is not clear.

Iran has always claimed it is participating in an advisory capacity in Syria, dispatching senior commanders to plan and oversee operations, but the Afghan involvement shows it is using other methods.

Recruitment is taking place on a daily basis in Mashhad and Qom, two Iranian cities with the largest population of Afghan refugees. Mashhad, the second most populous city in Iran, is only three hours’ drive from the country’s border with Afghanistan.

Iran is also accepting Afghans below the age of 18 provided they have written permission from their parents, the Guardian has learned. At least one 16-year-old Iran-based Afghan refugee was killed in Syria earlier this autumn. The rising number of funerals in Iran is a tangible sign revealing a greater involvement in the Syrian conflict in the wake of the Russian airstrikes. [Continue reading…]

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Refugees: ‘No one puts children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land’

The New York Times reports: The rubber dinghy rolled perilously on the waves and twisted sideways, nearly flipping, as more than three dozen passengers wrapped in orange life vests screamed, wept and cried frantically to God and the volunteers waiting on the rocky beach.

Khalid Ahmed, 35, slipped over the side into the numbing waist-high water, struggled to shore and fell to his knees, bowing toward the eastern horizon and praying while tears poured into his salt-stiff beard.

“I know it is almost winter,” he said. “We knew the seas would be rough. But please, you must believe me, whatever will happen to us, it will be better than what we left behind.”

The great flood of humanity pouring out of Turkey from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other roiling nations shows little sign of stopping, despite the plummeting temperatures, the increasingly turbulent seas and the rising number of drownings along the coast.

If anything, there has been a greater gush of people in recent weeks, driven by increased fighting in their homelands — including the arrival of Russian airstrikes in Syria — and the gnawing fear that the path into the heart of Europe will snap shut as bickering governments tighten their borders.

“Coming in the winter like this is unprecedented,” said Alessandra Morelli, the director of emergency operations in Greece for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “But it makes sense if you understand the logic of ‘now or never.’ That is the logic that has taken hold among these people. They believe this opportunity will not come again, so they must risk it, despite the dangers.”

The surge means that countries throughout the Balkans and Central Europe already under intense logistical and political strain will not find relief — especially Germany, the destination of choice for many of the refugees.

Hopes that weather and diplomacy would ease the emergency are unfounded so far, putting more pressure on financially strapped and emotionally overwhelmed governments to quickly find more winterized shelter.

The influx also underscores the European Union’s failure to reach a unified solution to the crisis, leaving places like this, on the Greek island of Lesbos in the northern Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey, struggling to deal with huge numbers of desperate people and raising questions about what will happen not just this winter, but in the spring and beyond. [Continue reading…]

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Médecins Sans Frontières releases internal review of Kunduz hospital attack

Médecins Sans Frontières reports: The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today released an internal document reviewing the October 3 airstrikes by US forces on its hospital in northern Afghanistan. The chronological review of the events leading up to, during, and immediately following the airstrikes reveal no reason why the hospital should have come under attack. There were no armed combatants or fighting within or from the hospital grounds.

The document, part of an ongoing review of events undertaken by MSF, is based upon sixty debriefings of MSF national and international employees who worked at the 140-bed trauma center, internal and public information, before and after photographs of the hospital, email correspondence, and telephone call records. At least thirty people were killed in the airstrikes, including 13 staff members, 10 patients and 7 unrecognizable bodies yet to be identified.

“The view from inside the hospital is that this attack was conducted with a purpose to kill and destroy,” said Christopher Stokes, MSF general director. “But we don’t know why. We neither have the view from the cockpit, nor the knowledge of what happened within the US and Afghan military chains of command.”

The initial findings of the MSF review firmly establish the facts from inside the hospital in the days leading up to and during the attack. The review includes the details of the provision of the GPS coordinates and the log of phone calls from MSF to military authorities in attempt to stop the airstrikes. MSF had reached an agreement with all parties to the conflict to respect the neutrality of the hospital, based on international humanitarian law.

“We held up our end of the agreement — the MSF trauma center in Kunduz was fully functioning as a hospital with surgeries ongoing at the time of the US airstrikes,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of MSF. “MSF’s no-weapons policy was respected and hospital staff were in full control of the facility prior to and at the time of the airstrikes.”

Among the 105 patients at the time of the airstrikes, MSF was treating wounded combatants from both sides of the conflict in Kunduz, as well as women and children.

“Some public reports are circulating that the attack on our hospital could be justified because we were treating Taliban,” said Stokes. “Wounded combatants are patients under international law, and must be free from attack and treated without discrimination. Medical staff should never be punished or attacked for providing treatment to wounded combatants.”

The MSF internal review describes patients burning in their beds, medical staff that were decapitated and had lost limbs, and others who were shot from the air while they fled the burning building.

“The attack destroyed our ability to treat patients at a time of their greatest need,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of MSF. “A functioning hospital caring for patients cannot simply lose its protected status and be attacked.”

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Ann Jones: The never-ending war

In an effort to attack Taliban fighters, an air strike by a U.S. plane killed dozens of civilians in Kunduz, Afghanistan. In the wake of the attack, an American general responded in unequivocal fashion. “I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously,” he said. “I have ordered a complete investigation into the reasons and results of this attack, which I will share with the Afghan people.”

In an effort to attack Taliban fighters, an air strike by a U.S. plane killed dozens of civilians in Kunduz, Afghanistan. In the wake of the attack, an American general responded in unequivocal fashion. “I want to offer my deepest condolences to those innocent civilians who were harmed and killed on Saturday,” he said. “I’ve ordered a thorough investigation into this tragic incident… we will share the results of the investigation once it is complete.”

The first of those air strikes took place in 2009 and targeted fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban. The second took place last month and targeted a hospital that Afghan officials say was used as a safe haven by the Taliban. The striking similarities between the two attacks are rooted not in uncanny coincidence but in the law of averages. Bomb a country long enough and such echoes are bound to occur.

Of course, U.S. planes have been carrying out attacks and terrorizing innocent Afghans in and around Kunduz (and elsewhere in the country) since 2001. This is, after all, America’s war in Afghanistan, which has produced eerily repetitive tragedies; a war that’s also seen almost endless announcements of achievements, improvements, and progress; a war that seems to regularly circle back on itself.

“The Taliban is gone,” Army General Tommy Franks, the chief of U.S. Central Command, announced in 2002. “Afghanistan is rising from the oppression of the Taliban into an independent, democratic nation.” Six years later, the Taliban was, oddly enough, still around. But things were still going well. “We’re clearly not done… But I do know that we’re making good progress, and each and every day we’re making a difference in the Afghan people’s lives,” said Army Major General Jeffrey Schloesser. In 2010, Army General David Petraeus offered his unique assessment of the war. “We’re making progress, and progress is winning, if you will,” he insisted. This summer, another five years having passed, Army General John Campbell weighed in: “We have done a great job, both from both a conventional perspective and our special operating forces, and from the Afghan security forces… I see [the Afghans] continue to progress and continue to be very resilient.”

There have been so many claims of “progress” these last 14 years (and so many air strike apologies as well) and yet each announcement of further success seems to signal the very opposite. Days after Campbell spoke, for instance, Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, the U.S. deputy chief of staff for communications in Afghanistan, told reporters, “Kunduz is — is not now, and has not been in danger of being overrun by the Taliban… that’s sort of how we see it.” Just over a month later, Kunduz fell to the Taliban.

This is the war that TomDispatch regular Ann Jones has monitored, analyzed, and covered since its opening stages, first as a humanitarian worker and then as a reporter. While the military was spinning tales of progress, Jones had a far more realistic assessment. “The story of success in Afghanistan was always more fairy tale than fact — one scam used to sell another,” she wrote at this site in 2006, drawing attention to “a threefold failure: no peace, no democracy, and no reconstruction.” After embedding with U.S. troops in 2010 she said all the things America’s generals never did. “I’d been ‘on the front’ of this war for less than two weeks, and I already needed a vacation,” she wrote. “Being outside the wire had filled me with sorrow as I watched earnest, heavily armed and armored boys try to win over white-bearded Afghans — men of extraordinary dignity — who have seen all this before and know the outcome.”

All this is to say Jones has been remarkably, consistently, undeniably ahead of the curve on the conflict, a reality reflected in her revelatory look at the deeply personal costs of America’s second Afghan War in her now-classic book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story. She’s done what billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, the finest officers produced by America’s premier military academies, and untold numbers of analysts with access to highly classified information, have failed to do: accurately assess the situation in a country the U.S. has been intimately enmeshed in, on and off now, for the better part of four decades. With that in mind, let Jones give you the lowdown on the current state of “progress” there. When you’re through, chances are — even if you lack a top-secret clearance and have never set foot in the Greater Middle East — you’ll have a better grasp of the reality of the war than either the Pentagon or the president has ever had. Nick Turse

Afghanistan “after” the American war
Once more down the rabbit hole
By Ann Jones

Ten months ago, on December 28, 2014, a ceremony in Kabul officially marked the conclusion of America’s very long war in Afghanistan. President Obama called that day “a milestone for our country.” After more than 13 years, he said, “our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”

That was then. This is now. In between, on September 28, 2015, came another milestone: the Taliban takeover of Kunduz, the capital of the province of the same name in northern Afghanistan, and with a population of about 270,000, the country’s fifth-largest city.

[Read more…]

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Watchdog accuses Pentagon of evading questions on $800 million Afghanistan program

By Megan McCloskey, ProPublica, November 2, 2015

This story has been updated.

The watchdog charged with overseeing U.S. spending in Afghanistan says the Pentagon is dodging his inquiries about an $800 million program that was supposed to energize the Afghan economy.

John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said the military is restricting access to some documents in violation of law and has claimed there are no Defense Department personnel who can answer questions about the Task Force for Business Stability Operations, or TFBSO, which operated for five years.

“Frankly, I find it both shocking and incredible that DOD asserts that it no longer has any knowledge about TFBSO, an $800 million program that reported directly to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and only shut down a little over six months ago,” Sopko wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter released today.

The Pentagon’s claims are particularly surprising since Joseph Catalino, the former acting director of the task force who was with the program for two years, is still employed by the Pentagon as Senior Advisor for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism.

[Read more…]

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Organized crime: Pentagon blows $43 million on useless Afghan gas station

USA Today reports: U.S. taxpayers footed the bill for a $42 million natural-gas filling station in Afghanistan, a boondoggle that should have cost $500,000 and has virtually no value to average Afghans, the government watchdog for reconstruction in Afghanistan announced Monday.

A Pentagon task force awarded a $3 million contract to build the station in Sheberghan, Afghanistan, but ended up spending $12 million in construction costs and $30 million in “overhead” between 2011 and 2014, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found. Meanwhile, similar gas station was built in neighboring Pakistan cost $500,000.

“It’s hard to imagine a more outrageous waste of money than building an alternative fuel station in a war-torn country that costs 8,000% more than it should, and is too dangerous for a watchdog to verify whether it is even operational,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a statement. “Perhaps equally outrageous however, is that the Pentagon has apparently shirked its responsibility to fully account for the taxpayer money that’s been wasted — an unacceptable lack of transparency that I’ll be thoroughly investigating.” [Continue reading…]

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Selective anti-imperialism: Why some bombings provoke more outrage than others

Sam Charles Hamad writes: Earlier this month in the Afghan city of Kunduz, the U.S. committed an apparent war crime. At some point in the early hours of Oct. 3, a U.S. gunship fired on a hospital run by Medicins Sans Frontieres, destroying the facility, killing 22 people and injuring over 30. There is no doubt of the criminality of this act — even if, as the U.S. and Afghani governments have suggested, the attack occurred due to Taliban militants having some presence within the hospital compound (a claim vigorously denied by eyewitnesses and victims), it was still a crime.

In the hours following the attack, many people of all political persuasions from around the world rightfully condemned it, but perhaps most vocal were those on the political left. Public outrage over war crimes is of course not just to be welcomed passively, but it can be actively useful in terms of demanding accountability from those who committed the crimes, while giving a voice to its victims. All too often, when it comes to activity against these acts of criminality, it is organizations, political parties, and individuals who identify with the left that lead the charge on these matters — the consequences of this can be impressive.

And the left are no longer marginal. The so-called “alternative media” is catching up with the mainstream media in terms of its reach, while political forces that identify as left-wing are now once again in the mainstream of politics, whether it’s forces like SYRIZA in Greece or Jeremy Corbyn’s new role as the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition in the U.K. What these people do and say now matters on a global scale. Millions of politically-aware people from around the world hang on every word that prominent leftists write and say, whether it’s a figure such as Glenn Greenwald, whose news site The Intercept has become the go-to place for so-called “anti-imperialists,” or a leading politician such as Corbyn.

For a self-identified leftist like me, you might think I’d be over the moon at the way things were steadily — or exponentially, if you consider the rise of the left in this era relative to its fate in the past two decades — developing for the global left, but you’d be wrong. For there’s a bitter catch to all this. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban and Russian interests may converge in fight against ISIS

The Daily Beast reports: The Taliban are not as lonely as they once were. The pariahs who protected Osama bin Laden and quickly collapsed when the U.S. counter-attacked after September 11, 2001, have been developing contacts with neighboring states and even with Russia, driven out of Afghanistan in 1989.

There’s nothing simple about this picture, and, interestingly, it appears partly tied to Russian efforts to oppose the spread in Afghanistan of groups pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. That same concern has helped to forge links between the Taliban and their longtime enemies in Iran.

And the Russian connection is emerging, ironically, at the same time that Afghanistan’s Uzbek warlord and vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, has openly warmed to his onetime allies in Russia and tried to strengthen ties to the former Soviet states on Afghan frontier.

Dostum visited Moscow and Grozny this month and launched an offensive just last week in provinces near the Turkmenistan border. Dostum lumped the Taliban together with Daesh, a common Arabic acronym for the Islamic state, on his enemies list.

“The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States from Russia to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all these states are willing to stand with us against Daesh [one of the acronyms for the so-called Islamic State], against extremism, against the bloodthirsty Taliban,” Dostum declared.

But The Daily Beast has learned that Russia and some of these neighboring states may be playing a double game, or, at the very least keeping their options open if the Taliban manage to retake power. [Continue reading…]

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