‘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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Death of Mullah Mansoor highlights Taliban’s links with Iran

The Guardian reports: The killing of the Taliban chief on the main highway leading from the Iranian border shines new light on the movement’s complicated relationship with Tehran.

Although it is Pakistan that has traditionally been condemned for secretly supporting Afghan insurgents, analysts say Iran also provides weapons, cash and sanctuary to the Taliban. Despite the deep ideological antipathy between a hardline Sunni group and cleric-run Shia state the two sides have proved themselves quite willing to cooperate where necessary against mutual enemies and in the pursuit of shared interests.

Mullah Mansoor first entered Iran almost two months ago, according to immigration stamps in a Pakistani passport found in a bag near the wreckage of the taxi he was travelling in when he was killed by a US drone strike.

The passport, in the name of Wali Muhammad, also showed he had only just returned to Pakistan from the border crossing of Taftan, some 280 miles (450km) away from the site where he was killed, an area called Ahmed Wal, where he had stopped for lunch. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan government secretly fosters Taliban splinter groups

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Afghan government is giving financial and military support to a breakaway Taliban faction, according to some Afghan and U.S. coalition officials, in an effort to sow rifts within the insurgency and nudge some of its leaders toward peace talks.

The effort comes as the U.S. military conducted an airstrike inside Pakistan that American officials said likely killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, potentially setting the stage for another leadership struggle that could fragment the group further in the coming days. The Taliban, which usually respond promptly to requests for comment, hadn’t issued a statement by late Sunday.

Senior Afghan and U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence officials, including several who had roles in creating the program, described its details and said that resources provided by the U.S. were used to support it.

The Afghan intelligence agency is leading the drive to recruit new Taliban assets, Afghan and U.S. officials said. The agency relies on the U.S. for most of its funding and is still mentored by the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA declined to comment for this article.

Despite billions invested in reconstruction, Afghanistan still relies on aid for most of its funding and the U.S. pays more than $4 billion a year for its security forces.

The program’s goal, Afghan and U.S. officials said, is to exploit divisions that emerged after the Taliban’s longtime leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was revealed last July to have been dead for years, a disclosure that stunned local Taliban leaders and threw the group into disarray.

It targets southern Zabul, Helmand, eastern Paktika and western Farah and Herat provinces, where groups of insurgents and their commanders, unhappy with the Taliban’s leadership, have defected to a commander named Mullah Mohammad Rasool.

Afghan and U.S. officials said Mullah Rasool’s faction and other fractious Taliban groups have been receiving cash, ammunition and weapons from the Afghan government. [Continue reading…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan: The world’s most-needed hospitals are under attack

The Washington Post reports: The al-Quds hospital in Aleppo targeted in Wednesday night’s attacks was one of 150 hospitals supported by Doctors Without Borders in Syria. The organization directly runs six in the country, but provides funding and medical supplies to other medical facilities.

The international charity group, also referred to as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in French, said the medical facility was directly hit and reduced to “rubble.” The organization has condemned the overnight attack, which also claimed the life of one of the area’s last pediatricians.

“Where is the outrage among those with the power and obligation to stop this carnage?” said Muskilda Zancada, the MSF head in Syria, in an online statement.

The United Nations estimates that at least half of Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed, and the spark of attacks on hospitals is an especially disturbing trend. In armed conflict, hospitals are protected by international law. Yet the facilities supported and run by the Nobel Prize-winning organization have frequently come under attack. And it’s not only medical structures. The group said five rescue workers from the Syrian Civil Defense organization have also been killed. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan president puts aside peace bids and vows harsher fight against Taliban

The Washington Post reports: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stepped back Monday from attempts to engage Taliban insurgents in peace talks, vowing that Afghanistan will instead “execute” enemies of the state and undertake preparations for an extended war.

In a speech that signaled a significant shift in policies, Ghani left open the prospect of dialogue with Taliban fighters who put down their weapons. But he labeled the broader Taliban organization and its Pakistan-based offshoot, the Haqqani network, as “terrorists” and promised expanded attacks by the Afghan military.

Ghani’s remarks are a setback for the Obama administration’s hopes that the 14-year Taliban insurgency could be ended through a negotiated settlement. Back-channel discussions have been held for the past three years to try to establish a framework for such talks. [Continue reading…]

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How Iran coerced Afghan refugees to fight in Syria for Assad

BBC News reports: As the five-year conflict in Syria grinds on, BBC Persian has found evidence that Iran is sending thousands of Afghan men to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

The men, who are mainly ethnic Hazaras, are recruited from impoverished and vulnerable migrant communities in Iran, and sent to join a multi-national Shia Muslim militia – in effect a “Foreign Legion” – that Iran has mobilised to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Many have since fled the battlefield and joined the refugee trail to Europe.

In a small town in Germany, we meet “Amir”, an Afghan man in his early twenties.

He was born to refugee parents in Isfahan, Iran, and is now himself an asylum seeker in Europe.

Like most of the almost three million Afghans in Iran, he lived as a second-class citizen.

Without legal residency or identity documents, he found it hard to get an education or a job. Fear of arrest and deportation was a daily reality.

It was difficult to move around freely, get a driving license or even buy a Sim card for his mobile phone.
But one day, Amir received an offer that changed everything.

“Some Afghans, who were close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, approached me and my mates at the mosque,” he said.

“They suggested we go to Syria to help defend the Shia holy shrines from Daesh,” he added, using an acronym for the previous name of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS).

“They said we’d get passports and have an easy life afterwards. We’d be like Iranian citizens and could buy cars, houses…” [Continue reading…]

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Afghan spy agency arms villagers to hold off ISIS

The Wall Street Journal reports: n Afghan spy agency is recruiting villagers for militias to hold back Islamic State fighters seeking to expand their foothold in this opium heartland in eastern Afghanistan.

The program, which one top official says the government hopes to roll out across the country and may later use against the Taliban, is President Ashraf Ghani ’s riskiest attempt to defend rural villages—and also a part of his much larger counterinsurgency strategy.

The government has closely guarded the program, and news of it essentially hasn’t been reported since its establishment in August 2015. Details of the program came from Afghan government officials, local village leaders and Western officials who have been monitoring its progress.

The militia groups that are part of the pilot project, known as the People’s Uprising Program, are being called on to hold territory the army has recaptured from Islamic State in three districts.

More than a thousand men, mostly village farmers who turned against the extremist group’s harsh rule in areas it seized in the past year, are on the payroll of the spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, which receives funding from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. So far, the militias in Kot, with the backing of the army and police, have repelled six Islamic State attacks. [Continue reading…]

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How Shakespeare lives now

Stephen Greenblatt writes: A few years ago, during a merciful remission in the bloodshed and mayhem that has for so many years afflicted Afghanistan, a young Afghan poet, Qais Akbar Omar, had an idea. It was, he brooded, not only lives and livelihood that had been ruthlessly attacked by the Taliban, it was also culture. The international emblem of that cultural assault was the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas, but the damage extended to painting, music, dance, fiction, film, and poetry. It extended as well to the subtle web of relations that link one culture to another across boundaries and make us, each in our provincial worlds, feel that we are part of a larger humanity. This web is not only a contemporary phenomenon, the result of modern technology; it is as old as culture itself, and it has been particularly dense and vital in Afghanistan with its ancient trade routes and its endless succession of would-be conquerors.

Omar thought that the time was ripe to mark the restoration of civil society and repair some of the cultural damage. He wanted to stage a play with both men and women actors performing in public in an old garden in Kabul. He chose a Shakespeare play. No doubt the choice had something to do with the old imperial presence of the British in Afghanistan, but it was not only this particular history that was at work. Shakespeare is the embodiment worldwide of a creative achievement that does not remain within narrow boundaries of the nation-state or lend itself to the secure possession of a particular faction or speak only for this or that chosen group. He is the antithesis of intolerant provinciality and fanaticism. He could make with effortless grace the leap from Stratford to Kabul, from English to Dari.

Omar did not wish to put on a tragedy; his country, he thought, had suffered through quite enough tragedy of its own. Considering possible comedies, he shied away from those that involved cross-dressing. It was risky enough simply to have men and women perform together on stage. In the end he chose Love’s Labour’s Lost, a comedy that arranged the sexes in distinct male and female groups, had relatively few openly transgressive or explicitly erotic moments, and decorously deferred the final consummation of desire into an unstaged future. As a poet, Omar was charmed by the play’s gorgeous language, language that he felt could be rendered successfully in Dari.

The complex story of the mounting of the play is told in semifictionalized form in a 2015 book Omar coauthored with Stephen Landrigan, A Night in the Emperor’s Garden. Measured by the excitement it generated, this production of Love’s Labor’s Lost was a great success. The overflow crowds on the opening night gave way to ever-larger crowds clamoring to get in, along with worldwide press coverage.

But the attention came at a high price. The Taliban took note of Shakespeare in Kabul and what it signified. In the wake of the production, virtually everyone involved in it began to receive menacing messages. Spouses, children, and the extended families of the actors were not exempt from harrassment and warnings. The threats were not idle. The husband of one of the performers answered a loud knock on the door one night and did not return. His mutilated body was found the next morning.

What had seemed like a vigorous cultural renaissance in Afghanistan quickly faded and died. In the wake of the resurgence of the Taliban, Qais Akbar Omar and all the others who had had the temerity to mount Shakespeare’s delicious comedy of love were in terrible trouble. They are now, every one of them, in exile in different parts of the world.

Love’s labors lost indeed. But the subtitle of Omar’s account—“A True Story of Hope and Resilience in Afghanistan”—is not or at least not only ironic. The humane, inexhaustible imaginative enterprise that Shakespeare launched more than four hundred years ago in one small corner of the world is more powerful than all the oppressive forces that can be gathered against it. [Continue reading…]

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Brussels terror suspect was jailed over Ahmad Shah Massoud assassination, just before 9/11

Khamma Press reports: The coordinated terror attacks in Brussels has unveiled new information regarding the assassination of a key jiahdi leader in Afghanistan as a terror suspect who was arrested by police in Brussels after a dramatic stand-off at a tram stop is believed to have previously been jailed for helping to assassinate an Afghan leader just days before 9/11.

The suspect has been identified as Abderaman A who was shot in the leg at the tram stop in Schaerbeek because he was carrying a rucksack police believed contained a bomb.

Massoud was the arch rival of the Taliban group and was holding the last strategic stronghold in northern Panjsher province as he was assassinated in a suicide attack during an interview by militants who had disguised themselves as journalists.

He was killed shortly before the deadly terrorist attack on New York and Washington and shortly after he paid a visit to Brussels where he issued warnings regarding the terror attack plots by al-Qaeda terrorist network.

In his speech in European Pearliament in April 2001 Massoud “warned the US government” about bin Laden as he was on a diplomatic trip to Europe seeking financial support for his cause from the EU and individual countries. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Mail reports: Osama bin Laden is widely believed to have ordered Massoud’s killing as a favour to the Taliban, whose protection would be critical after the 9/11 attacks.

Passports found on Mr Masood’s killers were linked to a Brussels-based militant cell run by Tarek Maaroufi.

Ameroud was handed a sentence of seven years when he went on trial for his part in the assassination at a court in Paris in 2005. [Continue reading…]

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China offers Afghanistan army expanded military aid

The Wall Street Journal reports: China has offered the Afghanistan army expanded military aid to combat the Taliban, according to the Afghan Defense Ministry, a move that reflects Beijing’s readiness to deepen its engagement with the war-torn country.

The offer was made during a rare, high-level visit at the end of February by a Chinese military delegation headed by General Fang Fenghui, chief of the Joint Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army, Afghan officials said.

China has been wary of publicly supporting the Afghan military against the Taliban, as it nurtures relations with the militant group in an effort to be seen as a neutral party in the conflict and help the peace process. However, deteriorating security and the emergence of Islamic State has prompted China to take a more active role in Afghanistan.

The timing of General Fang’s recent trip was seen as a strong show of support for the Afghan government at a time when it is losing control over parts of the country following the withdrawal of most foreign troops in 2014. The Taliban now control nearly a third of the country, according to U.S. and allied officials. [Continue reading…]

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‘I never heard from them again’: An Afghan family’s doomed journey

The Observer reports: n the early morning on 8 February, before setting off from the Turkish coast with his family, Firooz Mozafari was on the phone to his brother Farid in Kabul. They had spoken every day since Firooz left Afghanistan 48 days earlier, and Farid asked him to keep his phone on during this last stretch of the journey to Europe.

“I can’t, I’m running out of battery,” Firooz said, hung up, and climbed aboard a small speedboat with 11 relatives, including his wife and two children.

After two hours without word from his brother, Farid began to worry. The trip across the Aegean should take 40 minutes. A friend reassured him nothing was wrong. “It takes a couple of hours to get through immigration,” Farid remembered him saying. So he waited.

But later he received the terrible news: Firooz’s boat had sunk 15 minutes after leaving Izmir, with 24 people on board.

As a journalist Firooz had known the hazards of the journey but, weighing his options, he thought it worth spending his savings on plane tickets to Iran and smuggler fees to escape the never-ending war in his homeland.

Afghans make up a large proportion of the migrants and refugees who are arriving in Europe. Last year more than 210,000 Afghans arrived, 21% of the total, according to the UN. It is a staggering number, fully 15 years after the Taliban were driven out of Kabul. During that time, Afghanistan has received aid greater in value than the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after the second world war. [Continue reading…]

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Refugee arrivals in Greece exceed 100,000 in less than two months

The Guardian reports: More than 100,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe so far this year, at triple the rate of arrivals over the first half of 2015.

At least 102,500 have arrived on the Greek islands of Samos, Kos and Lesbos, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Another 7,500 have reached Italy, and in the first six weeks of the year 411 people are known to have died attempting to make the journey.

In 2015 the threshold of 100,000 arrivals was not reached until the end of June. As spring approaches and the weather improves, the rate of arrivals this year is expected to climb further.

The IOM said 20% of the arrivals were from Afghanistan and nearly half were Syrians. On Monday the US and Russia agreed to organise a partial truce involving the Assad regime and most of the Syrian armed opposition, but not Islamic State or the Nusra Front. There are widespread doubts about how effective the ceasefire will be and how long it will last. [Continue reading…]

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