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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Alfred McCoy: Washington’s twenty-first-century opium wars

In October 2001, the U.S. launched its invasion of Afghanistan largely through proxy Afghan fighters with the help of Special Operations forces, American air power, and CIA dollars.  The results were swift and stunning. The Taliban was whipped, a new government headed by Hamid Karzai soon installed in Kabul, and the country declared “liberated.”

More than 14 years later, how’d it go? What’s “liberated” Afghanistan like and, if you were making a list, what would be the accomplishments of Washington all these years later?  Hmm… at this very moment, according to the latest reports, the Taliban control more territory than at any moment since December 2001.  Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces that the U.S. built up and funded to the tune of more than $65 billion are experiencing “unsustainable” casualties, their ranks evidently filled with “ghost” soldiers and policemen — up to 40% in some places — whose salaries, often paid by the U.S., are being pocketed by their commanders and other officials.  In 2015, according to the U.N., Afghan civilian casualties were, for the seventh year in a row, at record levels.  Add to all this the fact that American soldiers, their “combat mission” officially concluded in 2014, are now being sent by the hundreds back into the fray (along with the U.S. Air Force) to support hard-pressed Afghan troops in a situation which seems to be fast “deteriorating.”

Oh, and economically speaking, how did the “reconstruction” of the country work out, given that Washington pumped more money (in real dollars) into Afghanistan in these years than it did into the rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II?  Leaving aside the pit of official corruption into which many of those dollars disappeared, the country is today hemorrhaging desperate young people who can’t find jobs or make a living and now constitute what may be the second largest contingent of refugees heading for Europe.

As for that list of Washington’s accomplishments, it might be accurate to say that only one thing was “liberated” in Afghanistan over the last 14-plus years and that was, as TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy points out today, the opium poppy.  It might also be said that, with the opium trade now fully embedded in both the operations of the Afghan government and of the Taliban, Washington’s single and singular accomplishment in all its years there has been to oversee the country’s transformation into the planet’s number one narco-state.  McCoy, who began his career in the Vietnam War era by writing The Politics of Heroin, a now-classic book on the CIA and the heroin trade (that the Agency tried to suppress) and who has written on the subject of drugs and Afghanistan before for this site, now offers a truly monumental look at opium and the U.S. from the moment this country’s first Afghan War began in 1979 to late last night. Tom Engelhardt

How a pink flower defeated the world’s sole superpower
America’s opium war in Afghanistan
By Alfred W. McCoy

After fighting the longest war in its history, the United States stands at the brink of defeat in Afghanistan. How can this be possible? How could the world’s sole superpower have battled continuously for 15 years, deploying 100,000 of its finest troops, sacrificing the lives of 2,200 of those soldiers, spending more than a trillion dollars on its military operations, lavishing a record hundred billion more on “nation-building” and “reconstruction,” helping raise, fund, equip, and train an army of 350,000 Afghan allies, and still not be able to pacify one of the world’s most impoverished nations? So dismal is the prospect for stability in Afghanistan in 2016 that the Obama White House has recently cancelled a planned further withdrawal of its forces and will leave an estimated 10,000 troops in the country indefinitely.

Were you to cut through the Gordian knot of complexity that is the Afghan War, you would find that in the American failure there lies the greatest policy paradox of the century: Washington’s massive military juggernaut has been stopped dead in its steel tracks by a pink flower, the opium poppy.

[Read more…]

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Civilian casualties in Afghanistan hit record high

Reuters reports: Civilian casualties of the war in Afghanistan rose to record levels for the seventh year in row in 2015, as violence spread across the country in the wake of the withdrawal of most international troops, the United Nations reported on Sunday.

At least 3,545 noncombatants died and another 7,457 were injured by fighting last year in a 4-percent increase over 2014, the international organization said in its annual report on civilian casualties.

“The harm done to civilians is totally unacceptable,” Nicholas Haysom, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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Anywhere but home: An Afghan child labourer in Iran dreams of life in Sweden

The Guardian reports: Mohammad, 14, is an Afghan immigrant who recently joined the flow of refugees arriving in the holding centre for unaccompanied minors on the Greek island of Lesvos.

Leaving his parents behind in Iran, he crossed the Aegean Sea on an overcrowded rubber dinghy with 38 other passengers. Mohammad describes the nighttime crossing as the scariest moment in his life. But he would not allow himself to cry. Unlike the other children on the boat, his parents were not there to comfort him. He “needed to be brave” and “be a man,” he says. His family’s decision to send their eldest son on an uncertain journey to Europe was a difficult one – but it was the most promising option compared to returning to his homeland or staying in Iran.

Afghans account for the largest proportion of unaccompanied minors arriving in Lesvos. Over one-third of the 2,248 minors that passed through Lesvos last year hail from Afghanistan, according the Greek NGO Metadrasi.

Most Afghans fleeing war and economic strife in their homeland have spent time in Iran, which has hosted the second-largest population of Afghan refugees for over 30 years. But worsening living conditions in Iran are forcing young migrants like Mohammad to leave even their temporary homeland in search of yet another one.

An estimated 2.3-3 million Afghans now live inside Iran, of whom 800,000 are children. The first wave of Afghan refugees arrived in Iran following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent civil war. They had access to public education and opportunities to work. Some 97% of Afghans lived outside refugee camps, and were integrated into urban communities.

Since the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban, Iran began instituting increasingly restrictive laws on Afghans, including bureaucratic hurdles, limitations on movement, deportation of minors and separation of families, and reduced access to education. [Continue reading…]

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Danish migration law: A sign of things to come?

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Iran forcing Afghan refugees to fight in Syria

Human Rights Watch: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has recruited thousands of undocumented Afghans living there to fight in Syria since at least November 2013, Human Rights Watch said today, and a few have reported that Iranian authorities coerced them. Iran has urged the Afghans to defend Shia sacred sites and offered financial incentives and legal residence in Iran to encourage them to join pro-Syrian government militias.

Human Rights Watch in late 2015 interviewed more than two dozen Afghans who had lived in Iran about recruitment by Iranian officials of Afghans to fight in Syria. Some said they or their relatives had been coerced to fight in Syria and either had later fled and reached Greece, or had been deported to Afghanistan for refusing. One 17-year-old said he had been forced to fight without being given the opportunity to refuse. Others said they had volunteered to fight in Syria in Iranian-organized militias, either out of religious conviction or to regularize their residence status in Iran.

“Iran has not just offered Afghan refugees and migrants incentives to fight in Syria, but several said they were threatened with deportation back to Afghanistan unless they did,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Faced with this bleak choice, some of these Afghan men and boys fled Iran for Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Afghan forces struggle as ranks thinned by ‘ghost’ soldiers

The Associated Press reports: Afghan forces are struggling to man the front lines against a resurgent Taliban, in part because of untold numbers of “ghost” troops who are paid salaries but only exist on paper.

The nationwide problem has been particularly severe in the southern Helmand province, where the Taliban have seized vast tracts of territory in the 12 months since the U.S. and NATO formally ended their combat mission and switched to training and support.

“At checkpoints where 20 soldiers should be present, there are only eight or 10,” said Karim Atal, head of Helmand’s provincial council. “It’s because some people are getting paid a salary but not doing the job because they are related to someone important, like a local warlord.”

In some cases, the “ghost” designation is more literal — dead soldiers and police remain on the books, with senior police or army officials pocketing their salaries without replacing them, Atal said. [Continue reading…]

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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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