The New York Times reports: Over the past year, as Afghanistan’s strained power-sharing government struggled in the face of intense criticism, Western officials repeatedly stepped in to urge patience.
American and European diplomats shuttled to the blast-wall-protected villas of the country’s political elite, asking them to give President Ashraf Ghani some space to keep pursuing the reforms that had rankled so many. In return, Mr. Ghani would finally deliver parliamentary elections (already delayed by two years) before the next presidential vote.
But the year is closing with little progress toward the elections, still scheduled for next July, although now almost certain not to occur then. Mr. Ghani’s critics — and there are more than ever — are losing patience, turning to public demonstrations, issuing ultimatums or threats, and joining in calls for a nationwide, traditional referendum on his authority.
The Afghan president, in return, has reacted in ways that many Western officials see as panicked. He has ordered sudden corruption investigations against critics, barred government employees from joining demonstrations and been accused of grounding the flight of a powerful northern governor to keep him from joining an opposition meeting.
One fear is that the rising factional animosity could lead to open mutiny — in the middle of a raging war against the Taliban and Islamic State loyalists — against a government that Western officials have gone all out to hold together. [Continue reading…]
BuzzFeed reports: Controversial private security tycoon Erik Prince has famously pitched an audacious plan to the Trump administration: Hire him to privatize the war in Afghanistan using squads of “security contractors.” Now, for the first time, Buzzfeed News is publishing that pitch, a presentation that lays out how Prince wanted to take over the war from the US military — and how he envisioned mining some of the most war-torn provinces in Afghanistan to help fund security operations and obtain strategic mineral resources for the US.
Prince, who founded the Blackwater security firm and testified last week to the House Intelligence Committee for its Russia investigation, has deep connections into the current White House: He’s friends with former presidential adviser Stephen Bannon, and he’s the brother of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary.
Prince briefed top Trump administration officials directly, talked up his plan publicly on the DC circuit, and published op-eds about it. He patterned the strategy he’s pitching on the historical model of the old British East India Company, which had its own army and colonized much of Britain’s empire in India. “An East India Company approach,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “would use cheaper private solutions to fill the gaps that plague the Afghan security forces, including reliable logistics and aviation support.”
But the details have never been made public. Here is the never-before-published slide presentation for his pitch, which a source familiar with the matter said was prepared for the Trump administration.
One surprising element is the commercial promise Prince envisions: that the US will get access to Afghanistan’s rich deposits of minerals such as lithium, used in batteries; uranium; magnesite; and “rare earth elements,” critical metals used in high technology from defense to electronics. One slide estimates the value of mineral deposits in Helmand province alone at $1 trillion. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: When Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a fugitive Afghan warlord and former ally of al-Qaida and the Taliban, returned this year to the city he had once showered with rockets, he was welcomed at the presidential palace.
Hekmatyar had been on lists of internationally wanted terrorists for years but, since his return to Kabul in May, he has met scores of high-ranking diplomats, including the US, EU and Nato ambassadors, as part of his assimilation into mainstream politics.
Hekmatyar, whose crimes were pardoned in a peace deal with the government, now himself calls for the prosecution of war criminals. In two interviews with the Guardian – the first with international media since his return – he said he could unite Afghans and help facilitate negotiations with the Taliban.
When the Guardian put to him allegations of war crimes and torture, he dismissed them as “lies”. He also denied he is reviled for his history of human rights abuse, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, targeted assassinations and disappearances of political opponents.
“If you have made a survey and found a lot of people who have this point of view, please present it to us,” he said.
His longtime aide, Amin Karim, said protests against Hekmatyar’s return had been negligible. “How many? We counted 43 people,” he said.
As the leader of one of Afghanistan’s main political parties, Hezb-i Islami, Hekmatyar does have supporters. But he remains notorious both at home and abroad.
Now, however, he has joined a roster of ageing warlords in powerful positions inside and outside government whose main leverage is their potentially disruptive power bases, and who appear to contribute little to policymaking or state-building. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: President Trump, searching for a reason to keep the United States in Afghanistan after 16 years of war, has latched on to a prospect that tantalized previous administrations: Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, which his advisers and Afghan officials have told him could be profitably extracted by Western companies.
Mr. Trump has discussed the country’s mineral deposits with President Ashraf Ghani, who promoted mining as an economic opportunity in one of their first conversations. Mr. Trump, who is deeply skeptical about sending more American troops to Afghanistan, has suggested that this could be one justification for the United States to stay engaged in the country.
To explore the possibilities, the White House is considering sending an envoy to Afghanistan to meet with mining officials. Last week, as the White House fell into an increasingly fractious debate over Afghanistan policy, three of Mr. Trump’s senior aides met with a chemical executive, Michael N. Silver, to discuss the potential for extracting rare-earth minerals. Mr. Silver’s firm, American Elements, specializes in these minerals, which are used in a range of high-tech products.
Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who is informally advising Mr. Trump on Afghanistan, is also looking into ways to exploit the country’s minerals, according to a person who has briefed him. Mr. Feinberg owns a large military contracting firm, DynCorp International, which could play a role in guarding mines — a major concern, given that some of Afghanistan’s richest deposits are in areas controlled by the Taliban. [Continue reading…]
Ali M. Latifi writes: War and poverty have scattered Afghans across the globe like pieces of shrapnel. Millions of Afghans came of age in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran or as workers in the Persian Gulf nations. The migration continues. The past few years have added a new lethal geography to the Afghan diaspora: the battlefields of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.
Two years ago, Abdol Amin, 19, left his home in the Foladi Valley in Bamian, one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces, to find work in Iran. Two million undocumented Afghans and a million Afghans with refugee status already lived in Iran. His sister and brother-in-law lived in Isfahan. He hoped to improve on his life of subsistence farming in impoverished Bamian.
Two-thirds of the population in Bamian Province lives on less than $25 a month. The intense poverty and the absence of opportunity forces thousands of young Afghans from Bamian to travel illegally to Iran in search of work. Many, like Mr. Amin, end up fighting other people’s wars.
Mr. Amin managed to earn a meager wage, about $200 a month, as a bricklayer in Isfahan. Last year, he used his modest savings and went to Iraq with a group of fellow Afghan refugees for a pilgrimage to Karbala, the city where Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed in A.D. 680.
Elated after his pilgrimage, Mr. Amin returned to Iran but couldn’t find any work for three months. As often happens with Afghan refugees in Iran, Mr. Amin was humiliated and discriminated against. He lived with the constant fear of being deported. “Iran isn’t our country. It belongs to strangers,” Mr. Amin said. “Either you suffer and try to make some money or you die.”
Last winter Iranian authorities presented Mr. Amin with a proposition. He could gain legal status in Iran and be free of the fear of deportation. The Iranians offered him a 10-year residency permit and $800 a month if he would go to Syria to “fight to protect” the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.
Around 2013, when Mr. Assad’s military was losing ground to the rebels, Iran poured billions of dollars into Syria, brought in Hezbollah fighters and began raising Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places with significant Shiite populations. Iran does want to protect the major Shiite shrines in Damascus, Aleppo and Raqqa, but the use of foreign Shiite militias in the Syria war was simply another element in the larger battle for control and influence in the Middle East run by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Tora Bora, the mountain redoubt that was once Osama bin Laden’s fortress, fell to the Islamic State early Wednesday, handing the extremists a significant strategic and symbolic victory, according to Afghan officials and local elders and residents.
Taliban fighters who had previously controlled the extensive cave and tunnel complex fled overnight after a determined, weeklong assault by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, according to villagers fleeing the area on Wednesday.
Hazrat Ali, a member of Parliament and a prominent warlord from the area who helped the Americans capture Tora Bora from Al Qaeda in 2001, said that the offensive was prompted by the American decision to drop the so-called mother of all bombs on an Islamic State network of tunnels in Achin District in April. The 20,000-pound bomb was thought to be the largest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed.
The Islamic State then decided to shift its refuge to the Tora Bora caves and tunnels, Mr. Ali said. “Some 1,000 ISIS militants were gathered close to Tora Bora, to capture the area,” Mr. Ali said. “I informed government forces to target them, and I told them they are trying to capture Tora Bora, but they did not pay attention.” [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: A truck bomb devastated a central area of Kabul near the presidential palace and foreign embassies on Wednesday, one of the deadliest strikes in the long Afghan war and a reminder of how the capital itself has become a lethal battlefield.
In one moment, more than 80 lives ended, hundreds of people were wounded and many more were traumatized, in the heart of a city defined by constant checkpoints and the densest concentration of Afghan and international forces.
President Ashraf Ghani, whose palace windows were shattered in the blast just as he had finished his morning briefing, called it “a crime against humanity.” President Trump called him to offer condolences.
The bombing happened just as the United States is weighing sending more troops, deepening its entanglement, to try to slow or reverse government losses to the Taliban insurgency this year. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The United States launched more airstrikes in Yemen this month than during all of last year. In Syria, it has airlifted local forces to front-line positions and has been accused of killing civilians in airstrikes. In Iraq, American troops and aircraft are central in supporting an urban offensive in Mosul, where airstrikes killed scores of people on March 17.
Two months after the inauguration of President Trump, indications are mounting that the United States military is deepening its involvement in a string of complex wars in the Middle East that lack clear endgames.
Rather than representing any formal new Trump doctrine on military action, however, American officials say that what is happening is a shift in military decision-making that began under President Barack Obama. On display are some of the first indications of how complicated military operations are continuing under a president who has vowed to make the military “fight to win.” [Continue reading…]
Lauren Collins writes: Wasil awoke to the sound of a knife ripping through nylon. Although he was only twelve years old, he was living alone in a small tent at a refugee camp in Calais, France, known as the Jungle. Men entered his tent; he couldn’t tell how many. A pair of hands gripped his throat. He shouted. It was raining, and the clatter of the drops muffled his cries, so he shouted louder. At last, people from neighboring tents came running, and the assailants disappeared.
Wasil had left his mother and younger siblings in Kunduz, Afghanistan, ten months earlier, in December, 2015. His father, an interpreter for nato forces, had fled the country after receiving death threats from the Taliban. Later, Wasil, as the eldest son, became the Taliban’s surrogate target. Wasil was close to his mother, but she decided to send him away as the situation became increasingly dangerous. Her brother lived in England, and she hoped that Wasil could join him there. To get to Calais, Wasil had travelled almost four thousand miles, across much of Asia and Europe, by himself. Along the way, he had survived for ten days in a forest with only two bottles of water, two biscuits, and a packet of dates to sustain him. Before leaving home, he hadn’t even known how to prepare a meal.
Wasil was stunned by the conditions of the Jungle. The camp, a forty-acre assemblage of tents, situated on a vast windswept sandlot that had formerly served as a landfill, didn’t seem fit for human habitation. “I did not come here for luxury,” Wasil told me, in excellent English, which he had learned from his father. “But I can’t believe this is happening in Europe.” A chemical plant loomed nearby. There was no running water, and when it rained the refugees’ tents filled with mud and the camp’s rudimentary roads became impassable.
The Jungle had one thing to recommend it: its proximity to the thirty-mile-long Channel Tunnel, which connects France and England at the Strait of Dover. Thousands of refugees and migrants from all over the world congregated at the camp, amid rats and burning trash, with the sole objective of making it, whether by truck, train, or ferry, onto British soil. On one of Wasil’s first days at the camp, he called his mother on his cell phone. “Are you safe?” she asked. “I was saying to her, ‘I’m in a good condition, I am too safe. I’m going to school and learning French. . . . I can touch the water that one side is here and the other side is England,’ ” Wasil recalled. “I’m not telling her the real situation.” [Continue reading…]
David Miliband, president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, writes: President Trump’s executive order suspending the entire resettlement program for 120 days and banning indefinitely the arrival of Syrian refugees is a repudiation of fundamental American values, an abandonment of the United States’ role as a humanitarian leader and, far from protecting the country from extremism, a propaganda gift to those who would plot harm to America.
The order also cuts the number of refugees scheduled for resettlement in the United States in the fiscal year 2017 from a planned total of about 110,000 to just 50,000. Founded on the myth that there is no proper security screening for refugees, the order thus thrusts into limbo an estimated 60,000 vulnerable refugees, most of whom have already been vetted and cleared for resettlement here. The new policy urgently needs rethinking.
Refugees coming to the United States are fleeing the same violent extremism that this country and its allies are fighting in the Middle East and elsewhere. Based on recent data, a majority of those selected for resettlement in America are women and children. Since the start of the war, millions of Syrians have fled not just the military of President Bashar al-Assad but also the forces of Russia, Iranian militias and the Islamic State.
There are also thousands of Afghans and Iraqis whose lives are at risk because of assistance they offered American troops stationed in their countries. Of all the refugees that my organization, the International Rescue Committee, would be helping to resettle this year, this group, the Special Immigrant Visa population, makes up a fourth. [Continue reading…]
AFP reports: Allegations over Russia and Iran’s deepening ties with the Taliban have ignited concerns of a renewed “Great Game” of proxy warfare in Afghanistan that could undermine US-backed troops and push the country deeper into turmoil.
Moscow and Tehran insist their contact with insurgents is aimed at promoting regional security, but local and US officials who are already frustrated with Pakistan’s perceived double-dealing in Afghanistan have expressed bitter scepticism.
Washington’s long-time nemesis Iran is accused of covertly aiding the Taliban, and Russia is back to what observers call Cold War shenanigans to derail US gains at a time when uncertainty reigns over President-elect Donald Trump’s Afghanistan policy.
“(Russia’s) narrative goes something like this: that the Taliban are the ones fighting Islamic State,” top US commander in Afghanistan John Nicholson said recently, denouncing the “malign influence” of external powers.
“This public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents.
“Shifting to Iran, you have a similar situation. There have been linkages between the Iranians and the Taliban.” [Continue reading…]
The first-person stories of refugees and migrants fleeing war, persecution and hardship — drawing on footage filmed by the families themselves as they leave their homes on dangerous journeys in search of safety and refuge in Europe. Watch the complete Frontline report here.
VOA reports: Afghanistan’s Taliban has demanded official recognition for its political office in Qatar, direct talks with the United States and removal of senior members from a U.N. blacklist, describing these as preliminary steps to peacefully ending its insurgency.
A Qatar-based Taliban spokesman, Sohail Shaheen, has asserted the presence of U.S.-led foreign troops in Afghanistan is the “root cause” of war and its continuation.
The “foreign occupation forces” are undermining the country’s sovereignty and freedom of its politics as well as the government, he added.
“That is why there is need for America and its allies to come to the table for direct talks with the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban) for negotiating an end to the occupation,” Shaheen said.
If peace is the objective of the other side, he asserted, then the Taliban must be allowed to open its “Political Office” in Qatar and names of its senior members be removed from the U.N. black list. [Continue reading…]
In an editorial, the New York Times says: Pakistan is turning them back. Thousands who spent their life savings on a bid to resettle in Europe are being told it’s time to head home. Inside Afghanistan, tens of thousands have become internally displaced in recent months as fighting between the Taliban and government security forces rages in several provinces. The refugee crisis could reach unprecedented numbers, with as many as 1.5 million returning home, many involuntarily, by the end of the year, according to humanitarian organizations.
Yet, there is no plan to adequately address this humanitarian emergency. Its scale and the international community’s dismissive attitude toward the plight of vulnerable Afghans is shameful. Pakistan, home to 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees and some 700,000 undocumented Afghans, has begun to crack down on those refugees living in the country without permission. By the end of this year, as many as 360,000 could be forced to return to Afghanistan, if current rates hold, according to the United Nations refugee agency. This year’s number of returnees is about four times higher than last year’s.
Among those caught in Pakistan’s toughening stance is Sharbat Gula, the subject of a famous photo that was published on a cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985. That photo was taken at a refugee camp in Pakistan when she was about 12. Ms. Gula, now in her 40s, was recently arrested and deported back to Afghanistan because she had been living in Pakistan without legitimate papers.
As Afghans become ever more hopeless about the future of their country, a rising number have set out on long and perilous journeys to Europe. Last year, 213,000 Afghans made it to Europe, where leaders have been grappling with the even larger influx of Syrians. While Syrians are not being forced to return home, European leaders last month struck a deal with the government of Afghanistan to establish a mechanism for the return of tens of thousands of Afghans who have failed to get asylum or legal residency in Europe. Under the deal, the Afghan government agreed to accept even citizens who fear for their safety if they were to return home.
Those who go back home, often having spent all their money on smugglers, face grinding poverty and violence. Within the country, about 221,000 Afghans fled their homes between January and August, according to the United Nations. For many, the only option is to pitch a tent in one of the country’s bulging and poorly serviced refugee camps.
The United Nations refugee agency has been making desperate pleas to donors for more assistance as winter approaches. Last month, it said it needed $181 million to cover basic operations in the months ahead. Fulfilling that need immediately is the least the international community can do. Beyond that, it will need to rethink its long-term approach to Afghan refugees and how to resettle more abroad in the years ahead. [Continue reading…]
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…]