Carlotta Gall writes from Kabul: There is an end-of-an-era feel here these days. Military helicopters rattle overhead, ferrying American and Afghan officials by air rather than risk cars bombs in the streets. The concrete barriers, guarding against suicide attacks, have grown taller and stronger around every embassy and government building, and whole streets are blocked off from the public.
It has been 15 years since American forces began their bombing campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on Oct. 7, 2001, and sometimes it feels as if we are back to square one, that there is nothing to show for it.
The recent American military drawdown has been drastic — from over 100,000 troops a few years ago to a force of 8,500 today. Thousands of Afghans have been made jobless as bases and assistance programs have closed. Meanwhile tens of thousands of Taliban are on the offensive in the countryside, threatening to overrun several provincial towns and staging huge bombings here in the capital.
Afghan forces have been bearing the brunt, suffering unsustainable casualties. Communities talk of hundreds of coffins returning from the front line. Civilians have suffered no less — thousands of families have been displaced anew by fighting, and aid workers warn that their access is deteriorating. Business executives have been leaving, selling off their property, and whole families have swelled the refugee columns heading to Europe.
The political mood is shifting, too, as Afghans sense the declining American influence and start casting around for new patrons or renewing old alliances. The politicking is intense: “Hot, very hot,” as a former minister described the political climate.
For Afghans, and for many of us who have followed Afghanistan for decades — I have been visiting the country since the early 1990s — the times are reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989 after a 10-year occupation. The Communist government and army that the Soviets left behind survived only three years before they were overthrown by the mujahedeen in 1992. [Continue reading…]
Frud Bezhan writes: Resistance fighter and anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Masud was killed by Al-Qaeda assassins on September 9, 2001, ushering in a chain of events that would place Afghanistan at the center of the global war on terrorism.
Two days after his death, Al-Qaeda operatives would carry out the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Within a month, the United States military was leading a bombing campaign and invasion of Afghanistan with the intention of overthrowing the Taliban and capturing Al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 orchestrator Osama Bin Laden.
In life and as in death, the military strategist who had made his name as a commander of anti-Taliban forces would have a significant impact on life in Afghanistan. Here are some stories behind the man whose battlefield exploits earned him the moniker “The Lion of Panjshir.” [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: While Americans savored the last moments of summer this Labor Day weekend, the U.S. military was busy overseas as warplanes conducted strikes in six countries in a flurry of attacks. The bombing runs across Asia, Africa and the Middle East spotlighted the diffuse terrorist threats that have persisted into the final days of the Obama presidency — conflicts that the next president is now certain to inherit.
In Iraq and Syria, between Saturday and Monday, the United States conducted about 45 strikes against Islamic State targets. On the other side of the Mediterranean, in the Libyan city of Sirte, U.S. forces also hit fighters with the militant group. On Sunday in Yemen, a U.S. drone strike killed six suspected members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The following day, just across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, the Pentagon targeted al-Shabab, another group aligned with al-Qaeda. The military also conducted several counterterrorism strikes over the weekend in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and the Islamic State are on the offensive.
Militants in each of those countries have been attacked before, but the convergence of so many strikes on so many fronts in such a short period served as a reminder of the endurance and geographic spread of al-Qaeda and its mutations.
“This administration really wanted to end these wars,” said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official now at the Center for a New American Security. “Now, we’ve got U.S. combat operations on multiple fronts and we’re dropping bombs in six countries. That’s just the unfortunate reality of the terrorism threat today.”
In meeting those threats, Obama has sought to limit the large-scale deployments of the past, instead relying on air power, including drones; isolated Special Operations raids; and support for foreign forces.
But militant groups have defied eight years of these sustained counterterrorism efforts.
Nowhere are the unexpected turns of Obama’s foreign-policy record more visible than in Iraq, where thousands of U.S. troops returned after the 2011 withdrawal to support local forces’ battle against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]
Natalie Nougayrède writes: A few days after Russia launched its military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Barack Obama said it would “get stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work”. Ten months on, that has yet to come to pass. As Russia helps its ally Bashar al-Assad try to retake Aleppo, the last strategic urban stronghold of the Syrian opposition, there aren’t many signs of the Kremlin’s war machine being either hamstrung or stuck. Indeed Russia seems to have registered more victories than setbacks in Syria. Hardly anyone remembers that, just last March, Vladimir Putin had announced he would begin withdrawing his forces. The withdrawal turned out to be as theoretical as Obama’s quagmire.
Most attempts to explain Putin’s military operation in Syria have focused on the following: 1) allergic to popular uprisings, he wants to prevent regime change in Damascus of the sort that happened in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; 2) he wants to secure Russia’s last foothold in the Arab world; 3) he wants to demonstrate Russia will do what it takes to defend an ally; 4) he wishes to divert attention from Ukraine as well as extract western concessions such as the easing of sanctions; 5) he is opportunistic and has capitalised on American unwillingness to get further involved in the Middle East; 6) he believes that by creating chaos, even if there is no clear endgame, Russia shows it can overturn western plans ; 7) it’s all about Russian domestic politics: nationalism and military assertiveness go hand in hand with Putin’s need to safeguard his own power structure.
There is probably truth to all of the above. But as Russia’s bombers hammer Aleppo’s besieged population in what could be the most decisive battle of Syria’s civil war, consider this as another piece to the puzzle of Putin’s mind: Syria is where Russia wants to erase the humiliation of the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s. [Continue reading…]
We continue to witness violent attacks – bombings and murders in France, Germany, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq; fighting in South Sudan and the continued civil war in Syria. These conflicts have renewed interest in the global refugee crisis and the movements of displaced persons around the globe.
The United Nations Human Rights Council announced in June that 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2015. This is a record number and is equal in population to the U.K. or France.
People who have been forced to leave their homes, their nations and occupation against their will are often referred to as “displaced.” And 65.3 million is a lot of displaced people. They are found across the globe in response to crises that range from the social to the environmental, and include Syrian refugees fleeing civil war, Central American children crossing international borders to reach family and security in the U.S., Colombians moving internally to avoid warfare and violence and Filipinos who are forced to relocate in response to changing climates and environmental disasters.
The UNHRC’s report identifies important global patterns that we must acknowledge. But, the overwhelming size of the displaced population reported confounds a complex issue and creates new fears. The numbers overwhelm and make it difficult to define potential solutions.
Rafia Zakaria writes: By the year 1871, British officials stationed in India had learned to ride elephants. This was in fact exactly what Sir Henry Durand, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, was doing when he fell to his death. In the sad record of the event, Sir Henry is described riding in a howdah atop an elephant while traveling through the North-West Frontier Province, ‘which was in his charge’. The elephant, which belonged to an Indian chief, was led through a covered gateway that was ‘too low for it to pass through’. As a result, Durand the younger writes: ‘My father, a man of great height, was forced backward and thrown out across a low wall, which so injured his spine that he died the same day.’
The unceremonious death of Durand the elder, the ‘man of great height’, can well be a study of the British in India at the time. They had quashed a mutiny in 1857, and conquered both the fertile province of Punjab and the southern province of Sindh. Yet they remained curiously vulnerable to surprises on the wild edge of the northwestern corner of their empire. Mortimer Durand, then in his 20s, would attempt to tame the frontier which had taken his father. It was Mortimer, and not the elephant-riding Sir Henry, who would be the architect, and namesake, of a border that remains a frontline for battles between superpowers to this day.
Durand the son arrived in India not long after his father’s death. He was searching not simply for accolades as a diplomat and colonial administrator, but also for a connection with his much adored but distant, and now late, father. Durand left his mark on the land, literally carving a border where there was none. [Continue reading…]
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 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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]