afghan rivals to meet in bid for peace

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news agencies

aljazeera

1 Jul 2019

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Rival Afghans will meet starting on Sunday in Qatar, officials said, in a fresh attempt to make political headway as the United States seeks a peace deal with the Taliban within three months.

The international efforts to bring warring Afghan sides to the negotiating table comes as the Taliban, which has been fighting the West-backed Kabul government, killed 16 in the latest attack in the capital.

The US special peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been holding a seventh round of peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, aimed at bringing the 18-year-old war to an end.

On Monday, US President Donald Trump said in an interview that he wants to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, but will leave a strong intelligence presence in the country to counter what he termed the “Harvard of terrorists.”

The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani. A previous attempt to bring the armed group together with government officials in Doha collapsed in April in a dispute over attendees.

Germany, a key player in international support for the post-Taliban government, and Qatar, which maintains contacts with the armed group, said that they jointly extended invitations for a dialogue in Doha on Sunday and Monday.

‘Direct engagement between Afghans’

The Afghans “will participate only in their personal capacity and on an equal footing,” Markus Potzel, Germany’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in a statement released on Monday by the US.

“Afghanistan stands at a critical moment of opportunity for progress towards peace,” he said.

“An essential component of any process leading to this objective will be direct engagement between Afghans,” he said.

But the Taliban spokesman insisted that they would not to talk to the Kabul government.

The meeting comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a previously unannounced visit last week to Kabul where he voiced hope for a peace deal with the Taliban “before September 1.”

The ambitious time frame would allow a deal before Afghanistan holds elections in September, which Western officials fear could inject a new dose of instability.

Trump wants to pull all US troops from Afghanistan, believing that the US’s longest war – launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks – no longer makes military or financial sense.

But he said the US will “be leaving very strong intelligence, far more than you would normally think,” in an interview with the Fox New Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

“It just seems to be a lab for terrorists … I call it the Harvard of terrorists,” Trump said.

The Taliban have refused to halt their violence, believing that they have an upper hand as the US is eager to leave.

On Monday, at least 16 people were killed and dozens wounded – including 50 children – after the Taliban hit the defence ministry with a powerful bomb.

Gunmen then stormed a nearby building, triggering a gun battle with special forces. Most of the injured children were hurt by flying glass, officials said.

‘Seeking consensus’

Save the Children branded the attack “utterly deplorable,” warning that “children’s smaller bodies sustain more serious injuries than adults” and that the trauma of such attacks can stay with them for years.

Washington condemned the “brazen” and “callous” attack, but continued the seventh round of talks with the Taliban in Doha that started on Saturday.

“Once the timeline for the withdrawal of foreign forces is set in the presence of international observers, then we will begin the talks to the Afghan sides, but we will not talk to the Kabul administration as a government,” tweeted Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman of the Taliban’s office in Qatar.

Under a peace deal, the US plans to pull its roughly 14,000 troops from Afghanistan.

In return, the Taliban would provide assurances that they would never allow their territory to be a base for foreign attacks – the primary reason for the US invasion in 2001.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator with the Taliban, said that dialogue among Afghans was an essential part of a peace deal.

“Mutual acceptance, seeking consensus, and agreeing to resolve political differences without force is what is needed to learn from the tragedy of the last 40 years,” Khalilzad said, referring to Afghanistan’s nearly incessant conflict since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

“I wish participants success,” he tweeted.

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https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/taliban-afghan-rivals-set-meet-fresh-bid-peace-190702021725938.html

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a synopsis of the u.s./taliban peace talks

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by Shereena Qazi

Aljazeera

29 June 2019

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United States officials and Taliban representatives are meeting in Qatar’s capital for a seventh time since October in a bid to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan.

The latest round of direct talks, which got under way in Doha on Saturday, is focused on four key issues: a Taliban guarantee that it will not allow fighters to use Afghanistan to launch attacks outside the country, the withdrawal of US and NATO forces, an intra-Afghan dialogue and a permanent ceasefire.

The Taliban government was overthrown in 2001 by a US-led military coalition for sheltering al-Qaeda, the group blamed for the 9/11 attacks in the US.

The Afghan government, however, is not involved in the talks as the Taliban has refused to negotiate with it, deeming it illegitimate and a “puppet” of the US.

Following the end of the sixth round of negotiations with the Taliban in May, the US special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced that “faster progress” was needed as “the conflict rages” and “innocent people die”.

But analysts say peace has never been closer in Afghanistan since the talks between the US and the Taliban began.

Separately, three meetings have been held since 2017 in Moscow between the Taliban and senior Afghan politicians, including former President Hamid Karzai.

Last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani held a grand council in Kabul with politicians and tribal, ethnic and religious leaders to discuss the talks between the US and the Taliban in Doha.

But as these initiatives remain in the spotlight, deep divisions among the Afghan government and politicians complicate efforts to establish peace in Afghanistan.

What has been agreed to so far in US-Taliban talks?

Khalilzad, an Afghan-American diplomat who served as US ambassador to the United Nations (2007-2009), Iraq (2005-2007) and Afghanistan (2003-2005), is leading the US side in the Doha talks.

The Taliban is represented by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the group’s office chief, and cofounder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was released in October last year from a Pakistani prison.

The Taliban has long demanded the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which has been a sticking point in the meetings between the US and the group in Doha.

In previous rounds of talks, the two sides had agreed on a “draft framework” that included the withdrawal of US troops, a discussion on Taliban’s commitment that the Afghan territory would not be used by international “terror” groups, and that a ceasefire would be implemented across the country.

But the Taliban insists it will not commit to any of these things until the US announces a withdrawal timeline.

The sixth round of talks last month ended with “some progress” on a draft agreement on the withdrawal of foreign troops, according to a Taliban official.

Khalilzad said at the time the talks with the Taliban on ending Afghanistan’s war were making slow but steady progress, while signalling a growing frustration with deadly attacks in the country.

“We made steady but slow progress on aspects of the framework for ending the Afghan war. We are getting into the nitty-gritty. The devil is always in the details,” Khalilzad said.

“However, the current pace of talks isn’t sufficient when so much conflict rages and innocent people die. We need more and faster progress. Our proposal for all sides to reduce violence also remains on the table.”

In June, both sides said there was an understanding on the withdrawal but the details, including a timeline, had not been worked out yet.

This week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a trip to Kabul that the US was close to wrapping up the draft agreement with the Taliban on counterterrorism. He hoped a peace agreement could be reached by Sept 1.

Why is the Afghan government excluded?

The Taliban has long refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which has repeatedly invited the group for talks with no success.

Washington also initially tried to get the Taliban to agree to talking with Kabul. When the Taliban refused to budge, the US was left with no option but to enter into the talks.

The group has given several reasons on why it is not willing to talk to the Afghan government.

Since the Taliban was overthrown by the US-led military intervention in 2001, the Taliban maintains that the country has been occupied by foreign forces.

It says the Kabul government has no real power and considers it a “puppet regime”. The group says any engagement with the government would grant it legitimacy.

In June, Ghani decreed the formation of a peace ministry, headed by his top aide, Abdul Salam Rahimi, to encourage direct talks with the Taliban.

What can cause US-Taliban talks to collapse?

Dawood Azami, an academic and journalist who works as a multimedia editor at BBC World Service in London, said a peace deal could only be possible when both parties were flexible and willing to make concessions.

“The lack of consensus in Kabul, the failure of the Afghan government and the non-Taliban Afghans in general, to agree on the appointment of an inclusive and authoritative negotiating team able to negotiate with the Taliban will prove a major challenge and could result in a breakdown,” he said.

“I think the next phase of talks among the Afghans [generally termed as intra-Afghan dialogue] will prove more challenging than the first [US-Taliban talks]”.

Peter Galbraith, former US diplomat and ex-UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan, said if any peace deal was to happen, there would be several hurdles before it was implemented, which he felt was a sign of its possible collapse.

“The deal-breakers are the possibility of exceptionally violent and gruesome Taliban attacks; the refusal of Afghan government to go along; a refusal of the Tajiks and Hazaras to accept a deal [even if approved by President Ashraf Ghani]; and a Taliban belief that it can prevail militarily without a deal,” he said.

“But the biggest deal-breaker may be an inability of the Taliban negotiators to get all the factions of the Taliban to follow any peace document that is signed.”

Galbraith said the US President Donald Trump administration’s determination to withdraw, regardless of the consequences, was probably the single most important factor in making a US-Taliban deal possible.

Why is Taliban refusing calls for ceasefire?

Intense fighting continues across the country even as the Taliban remains in talks with the US. The group now controls or holds influence over more Afghan territory than at any point since 2001.

“As the peace talks are entering an important phase, the Taliban want to maximize their leverage and speak from a position of strength at the negotiating table,” Azami said.

“In addition, the Taliban leadership is under pressure from their military commanders not to agree to a ceasefire before achieving a tangible goal.”

The armed group has also said on several occasions that there will be no ceasefire until the US troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

When the loya jirga (grand council) called for an immediate ceasefire between the government and Taliban during the holy month of Ramadan, Ghani agreed to a truce provided it was not “one-sided”.

However, the Taliban rejected the call for a ceasefire, saying waging a war during Ramadan had “even more rewards”.

In an interview with Tolo News, Afghanistan’s largest private television station, Khalilzad said last month that any peace agreement with the armed group would depend on the declaration of a permanent ceasefire and a commitment to end the war.

“If the Taliban insist on going back to the system they used to have, in my personal opinion it means the continuation of war, not peace,” Khalilzad said.

What is the Afghan president’s loya jirga?

Last month, the Afghan president held a loya jirga, a grand assembly which brought together more than 3,200 participants, including politicians, tribal elders and other prominent figures from across the country.

The council, which sought to hammer out a shared strategy for future negotiations with Taliban, ended with delegates demanding an “immediate and permanent” ceasefire.

The meeting, traditionally convened under extraordinary circumstances, was held in a bid to build consensus among various ethnic groups and tribal factions over restoring peace in Afghanistan.

However, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who shares power with Ghani, and Karzai, the former president, were among a number of senior figures who boycotted the gathering, accusing the president of using it for political ends ahead of presidential elections scheduled for September 28.

On its website, the Taliban said there had been progress in negotiations with the US and the loya jirga was an “obstacle for ending occupation” and was “sabotaging the authentic peace process”.

Moscow talks

In February this year, a two-day conference was held in the Russian capital between the Taliban and prominent Afghan politicians in a bid to lay down a plan for ending the war.

The meeting in Russia was the first public contact in years between the Taliban and prominent Afghans, including Karzai.

But Ghani dismissed the Moscow talks, saying those attending carried no negotiating authority.

In May, a delegation of Taliban negotiators, who met Afghan politicians in Moscow, said “decent progress” was made at talks but there was no breakthrough.

“The Islamic Emirate wants peace but the first step is to remove obstacles to peace and end the occupation of Afghanistan,” the Taliban’s Baradar said.

What if the peace talks collapse?

A United Nations report released earlier this year said that 2018 saw the highest number of civilians killed in Afghanistan’s war than any other year on record.

Civilian deaths jumped by 11 percent from 2017 to 3,804 people killed, including 927 children, and another 7,189 people wounded, according to the UN figures, as suicide attacks and bombings wreaked havoc across Afghanistan.

In another report released by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in May, Afghan and international forces, including NATO, killed more civilians in the first three months of this year than the Taliban or fighters from other armed groups.

At least 305 civilians were killed by pro-government forces between January and March, 52.5 percent of all deaths in that period.

With the spike in violence, there is a growing desperation for peace among ordinary Afghans. “If the talks collapse, fighting will further intensify and the Afghan people will suffer more,” Azami said.

“The Taliban would try to increase their territorial control and put maximum pressure on the Afghan government by attempting to capture cities, including provincial capitals and taking control of major highways,” he said.

Azami said the Afghans and the rest of the world would have to deal with a “possible security vacuum in which groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL found fertile ground”.

“Increased production of drugs and the overflow of refugees would pose serious challenges not only to Afghanistan but to the whole region and rest of the world,” he said.

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https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/taliban-talks-peace-afghanistan-190510062940394.html

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pilots complete training

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tolo news

may 18, 2019

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A group of Afghan pilots and door gunners this month completed their training for UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in southern Kandahar province. 

They received their graduation certificates during a ceremony which was attended by Air Force Commander Gen. Abdul Fahim Ramin, Kandahar Air Brigade Commander Gen. Abdul Raziq Shirzai as well as foreign partners, trainers and officers.
 
The majority of the 11 pilots had successfully completed a UH-60 Aircraft Qualification Training in a two-month course and then transited to a Mission Qualification Course at Kandahar, according to a report on Resolute Support website.  

Many of them already had previous experience with Mi-17 helicopters. Trainings were provided by American contract instructors and overseen and managed by advisors from various Resolute Support member states. 

They comprise currently of a mix of US Army, US Air Force, Australian Army and Swedish Air Force. Those same coalition advisors fly with and instruct the Afghan Air Force crews on mission tactics after they graduate from training.
 
The NATO-led Resolute Support mission remains committed to build-up a powerful Afghan Air force, the report says. “Thus we protect our homelands. Afghanistan must never again become a safe haven for terrorists,” reads the report.

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https://www.tolonews.com/index.php/afghanistan/11-afghan-pilots-complete-training-black-hawk-helicopters

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pentagon wants to help

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by ABC News Radio

May 17, 2019

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(WASHINGTON) — The Pentagon is requesting the ability to provide lodging and transportation to insurgent groups in Afghanistan that are looking to implement local ceasefires with the Afghan government, the Pentagon said recently.

The decision to request the authority came after a largely successful ceasefire was implemented between the Taliban and Afghan government last summer.

“Following the June 2018 ceasefire in Afghanistan, the Commander of U.S. Forces–Afghanistan requested the authority to use funds to facilitate meetings between the Afghan government and insurgent groups looking to implement local ceasefires in order to be poised to take advantage of further opportunities to reduce levels of violence in the country should such opportunities present themselves,” Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich told ABC News.

The funds could go to lodging and transportation for militants if that was required to get all parties to the negotiating table “in areas that are difficult to access otherwise,” Rebarich said, adding that no U.S. military vehicles or aircraft would be used.

No Pentagon funds have been used for such a purpose. Instead, the Pentagon made the request in anticipation of possible scenarios in the future, according to Rebarich.

The acknowledgement by the Pentagon follows an apparent miscommunication with the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, which appeared to interpret the request as related to the ongoing U.S.-Taliban reconciliation efforts led by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

In response to the perceived request from the Pentagon, the committee included language in its proposed defense spending bill released this week that states, “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to pay the expenses of any member of the Taliban to participate in any meeting that does not include the participation of members of the Government of Afghanistan or that restricts the participation of women” — two criticisms of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations that are not relevant to local ceasefire discussions between the Afghan government and insurgent groups.

Still, the miscommunication highlights the multiple tracks that the U.S. is pursuing to bring about a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan.

U.S. and Taliban representatives concluded the sixth and latest round of peace talks in Qatar earlier this month, which a Taliban spokesperson called “positive in total.”

Khalilzad tweeted that the two sides “made steady but slow progress on aspects of the framework for ending the Afghan war,” but added that “the current pace of talks isn’t sufficient when so much conflict rages and innocent people die.”

At the same time those talks were concluding, the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on a U.S. non-profit organization in Kabul that killed at least nine people. Meanwhile, seven U.S. service members have been killed in combat-related events in Afghanistan in 2019.

“A key priority for the administration is to end the war in Afghanistan through a negotiated peace settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and the U.S. is working to help facilitate such a settlement,” Rebarich said. “The United States also supports local peace initiatives between the Afghan government and insurgent groups looking to cease hostilities against the Afghan Government and coalition forces.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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http://kwbe.com/abc_world/pentagon-wants-to-help-afghan-insurgents-willing-to-enter-ceasefire-abcid36184979

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ANA Climbs Out Of Twilight Zone

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by Aref Musavi

TOLO news

18 September 2016

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The Afghan National Army (ANA) battling insurgency in the northern parts of the country has changed its war strategy from a defensive one to an offensive position and are systematically attacking insurgent strongholds, military officials confirmed.

“Now we are not in a defensive position, everyone knows that we attacked insurgents in Sar-e-Pul province and advanced up to Masjid-e-Sabz and Deh Mordeh villages. Also we attacked the Taliban in Baghlan and our operation is ongoing in Kunduz as well,” said General Mohmand Katawazai, a military official in the north.

Katawazai added that Afghan security forces are targeting the enemy but that they are having difficulties destroying Taliban strongholds in remote areas.

He said that the Afghan security forces are not afraid of the risks as they advance on the insurgents.

Meanwhile, military officials in the north have said the Taliban’s “Omari” operation – their summer offensive – has failed and that in the past five months a large number of insurgent have been killed in the north and south-east of the country.

“In the recent five months, 1,010 insurgents were killed and their bodies remained on the battlefields,” said General Hasibullha Quraishi, a special forces commander in northern Balkh province.

Quraishi added: “Around 405 wounded insurgents have been arrested by security forces. We can say that intelligence forces have confirmed this.”

He added that Afghan security forces also had sustained casualties, but their numbers were less.

However, the Kohistanat district in Sar-e-Pul province has been under Taliban control for the past year while a few other districts in the province are under serious threat.

Asked why an operation has not been launched to retake Kohistanat district from the Taliban, Mohammad Zahir Wahdat, governor of Sar-e-Pul, said: “The reason why a large-scale operation has not been launched in Kohistanat, I think is because security forces, the president, the chief executive, ministers and other security sectors are busy trying to solve the problems.”

However, he did not clarify what he meant by the word problems.

Officials have however urged the public to cooperate with security forces and to not listen to the propaganda of insurgents.

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http://www.tolonews.com/en/afghanistan/27314-ana-changes-war-strategy-in-northern-zone

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Daesh Won’t Leave Nangarhar Alone

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by Ziar Ya

TOLO news

16 September 2016

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A number of tribal elders and residents of Nangarhar said that despite of the ongoing military operations by Afghan security forces, Daesh insurgents have captured parts of the province once again.

They said that parts of Achin, Kot and Haska Mina districts have fallen to Daesh after security forces cleared the areas and were shifted to other parts of the province.

“Daesh has moved forward instead of moving back. They [Daesh militants] were in Mardana, Narai and Oba villages of Achin in the past, but now they have captured many areas in the district,” said Malik Osman, a tribal elder in Achin district.

Other tribal elder from the province, Jahanzeb Mohmand, said: “The sacrifices of the army, police and the NDS operatives did not help the province to be cleared of Daesh completely. There is no security in

Nangarhar and the reason is the poor management in relevant organizations.”

Meanwhile, a number of provincial council members of Nangarhar blamed local officials for insecurity in the province.

“Those who are working with government to suppress Daesh are following their own benefits. They used to get money for ‘Taliban project’ in the past and now they are taking money for ‘Daesh project’. Therefore, the presence of such figures is the main reason behind government’s failure in fight against Daesh,” said Ashab Wali Muslim, member of Nangarhar provincial council.

Member of Meshrano Jirga (Upper House of Parliament), Fraidoon Khan Mohmand, meanwhile said government does not have the will to destroy Daesh.

“We doubt government’s measures against Daesh, because we witnessed that President [Ashraf Ghani] and the NDS chief came here and vowed that they will eliminate Daesh with the help of foreign forces, but now we see that the local officials are deceiving us and they are not uprooting the militant group,” he said.

Despite repeated efforts, Nangarhar officials would not comment on the report.

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http://www.tolonews.com/en/afghanistan/27281-parts-of-nangarhar-fall-to-daesh-once-again-residents

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One Hundred U.S. Soldiers

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by Sune Engel Rasmussen

in Kabul for The Guardian

22 August 2016

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More than a hundred US troops have been sent to Lashkar Gah to help prevent the Taliban from overrunning the capital of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, in what is thought to be the first US deployment to the embattled city since foreign troops withdrew in 2014.

Since late July, the Taliban have seized new territory across Helmand, defying a series of about 30 US airstrikes, and raising concern of an attack on the capital. The militants have also stepped up attacks in the country’s north, closing in on Kunduz, which they briefly captured last year.

“This is a big effort by the Taliban. This is probably the most serious push we’ve seen of the season,” Brig Gen Charles Cleveland, spokesman for the coalition forces in Afghanistan, told reporters on Monday.

Cleveland called the US reinforcement in Helmand a “temporary effort” to advise the Afghan police, though he declined to say how long it was expected to last, citing “security reasons”.

“They’re not about to go out and conduct operations or something like that,” Cleveland said.

Neither did he specify the exact number of troops, but said they numbered “about a hundred”. Sources in Helmand believe about 130 US troops have arrived at the airport where they will be based.

The most significant Taliban advances have been Nawa and Nad Ali districts, a stone’s throw west of Lashkar Gah, where the government retain control of only a few administrative buildings.

The situation has become so bad that civilian elders of Nawa, traditionally one of Helmand’s most peaceful districts, have asked the provincial governor for weapons to join the fight, said Wali Mohammad, a villager from that district.

The Taliban also continue to block parts of the main highway leading north from Lashkar Gah, said Mohammad Rasoul Zazai, spokesman of the Afghan army’s 215th Corps. He said the road would take days to clear because it had been heavily mined.

In recent days, the Taliban have also closed in on Baghlan province, as well as Kunduz, the northern city they seized for two weeks last year, where a US airstrike destroyed a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) trauma centre.

On Saturday, government forces were briefly pushed out of the nearby Khanabad district. Fighting has already forced families to flee, as they did barely one year ago.

In Helmand, MSF has relocated part of its international staff from Lashkar Gah.

The uptick in violence has caused the Afghan army to send senior commanders around the country in a flurry to boost morale. Efforts have concentrated on Helmand, where government forces have reportedly fled the battlefield when faced with attacks, despite vastly outnumbering the Taliban.

Meanwhile, as soldiers and police are looking to commanders for military guidance, the political leadership in Kabul is on the brink of disaster as well.

In a rare public outburst, President Ashraf Ghani’s government partner, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, recently lashed out at the president for neglecting him, calling him “unfit” to rule the country.

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https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/22/us-troops-sent-afghanistan-taliban-lashkar-gah

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Airstrikes Assist in Helmand

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by Mujib Mashal & Taimoor Shah

New York Times

August 8, 2016

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan security forces are struggling to head off an intensified Taliban offensive in Helmand Province in recent weeks, heavily relying on American airstrikes as the insurgents have again tightened the noose around Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, according to officials and residents.

Even as Afghan and American officials insist that they will not allow another urban center to fall, concerned about the political ramifications for the struggling government in Kabul as well as the presidential campaign in the United States, residents and local officials describe Lashkar Gah as practically besieged.

The main road connecting the city and the highway to the southern commercial and military hub of Kandahar has been repeatedly blocked in recent days by the Taliban, who blew up several bridges. Civilian passengers can travel on an alternate dirt road, but have to pass through insurgent checkpoints. Many businesses and nongovernmental organizations based in Lashkar Gah are trying to evacuate, and the road blockages have added to their alarm.

The Afghan forces’ continuous failure to hold ground in a province that has seen the deployment of a large number of troops and resources, as well as hundreds of NATO military advisers, is taking a toll on the residents of Lashkar Gah. The city has long been a haven for people displaced from other areas of Helmand by the constant back and forth between the Taliban and the coalition and government forces.

Questions are also being raised about the sustainability of a military response that relies desperately on airstrikes against a guerrilla force.

“People are still coming from fighting areas to Lashkar Gah, but what if the Taliban enter Lashkar Gah?” said Ahmad Shirzad, a resident who said the sounds of distant shelling and aircraft had become constant. “We have witnessed fighting for so long that we are really fed up with this life and would be happy to be killed by the Taliban, or NATO to be done with this hardship.”

While the Taliban have held the Lashkar Gah suburb of Babaji for months, in recent weeks they have mounted offensives in Nad Ali District, overrunning a neighborhood there that is less than 10 miles from Lashkar Gah.

Since Sunday, the militants have also carried out attacks in Nawa District, the southern gate to Lashkar Gah. Nawa had remained one of only two safe districts in Helmand Province, according to internal Afghan government communications. Of Helmand’s 14 districts, the Afghan government considers four entirely under Taliban control, four facing a high threat of collapse, four with a medium threat but limited government activity, and only two as safe.

The tempo of fighting increased over the summer after a brief lull for the late-spring opium cultivation season. The escalation of the Taliban offensive this year was also slowed down by a leadership change after their supreme commander was killed by American drone strike in Pakistan.

But in that pattern, and in the intense escalation of fighting in recent weeks, this year looks much as last year did — a disastrous season of setbacks when the Taliban overran the northern provincial capital of Kunduz at the end of September and sent fear through other important cities. Also as they did last year, the insurgents are mounting offensives across several provinces to stretch the resources of an already struggling government and security establishment.

A report by ToloNews, Afghanistan’s largest news channel, found that insurgent attacks across the country had increased by 28 percent in July compared with the previous month, with Helmand Province remaining near the top. Over the same period, ground operations by Afghan forces decreased by 22 percent. But airstrikes conducted by United States and Afghan forces increased by more than 50 percent — including, for the first time in years, the reintroduction of American B-52 strategic bombers to the Afghan battlefield.

Officials said that most of those airstrikes were directed at Islamic State affiliates in eastern Afghanistan. But Afghan and American officials confirm that there has also been an increase in Helmand, where the Afghan forces have struggled to hold the line as the Taliban have drawn closer to Lashkar Gah.

Col. Mohammad Rasoul Zazai, the spokesman for the 215 Maiwand Corps of the Afghan Army, said, “We are going to weaken the enemy through airstrikes and then start ground offensives.”

Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, the main spokesman for the United States military command in Afghanistan, confirmed that there had been an escalation in airstrikes in Helmand — up to two or three each day, he said.

But Gen. Aqa Noor Kentoz, the police chief of Helmand, said that the average had actually been more like six or seven airstrikes a day in the past couple of weeks, and that they had been having an important effect.

“For example, 11 airstrikes have been carried out by NATO forces since yesterday, and the Afghan forces are also conducting strikes,” General Kentoz said. “The airstrikes have busted the momentum of the Taliban; otherwise Taliban would have control of the provincial capital.”

Even amid reports of insurgents sending special units to Helmand, and Afghan commanders’ claims that insurgents have amassed from neighboring areas, the Taliban numbers in the province do not exceed 2,000 fighters, with only about 500 active, according to Abdul Jabar Qahraman. Mr. Qahraman recently quit as President Ashraf Ghani’s envoy overseeing the Helmand battle and since then has publicly uttered harsh and repeated criticism of the Afghan military leadership.

That the Afghan forces, which Mr. Qahraman said numbered “20 times more than the Taliban,” have struggled so badly in Helmand despite repeated changes of leadership and scrutiny from Kabul does not bode well at a time when there is no political resolution to the conflict in sight.

Mr. Qahraman attributed the failure of the government forces mainly to the military leadership’s deep corruption and the local people’s loss of trust in them, with many feeling less harassed under Taliban rule. Many of the military leaders sent to Helmand over the years have returned richer, while the situation has only deteriorated.

Relying on airstrikes, a quick fix that is quickly becoming the main tactic of defense, is unsustainable in the face of a resilient guerrilla force, he said.

“The U.S. and Afghan air forces are increasing the bombing of areas — it is ineffective,” Mr. Qahraman said. “This is not a war of tanks and artillery. It is a guerrilla war, and the government should deal with it that way. “

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Copyright New York Times 2016

Taliban Dwelling in Kunduz

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by Najim Rahim & Mujib Mashal

New York Times

July 28, 2016

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KUNDUZ CITY, Afghanistan — When President Ashraf Ghani visited the northern provincial capital of Kunduz last fall, after the city had finally been reclaimed after falling to the Taliban, he promised improvements to make sure things never got out of hand again.

Among the changes was creating three new administrative districts to help improve government support in the province. But nearly eight months later, those three districts are firmly under the control of the Taliban — and, in fact, government forces were never able to clear them and install the new officials. It is the same story in much of the rest of Kunduz Province, where the Taliban control or have mined many roads and have enforced their ban on smoking and listening to music in several areas.

Even in some of the Kunduz districts nominally under government control, officials’ true reach remains limited to the bazaars and the administrative buildings, with the Taliban having free movement in the villages, according to local residents. And last week, the government all but lost control of another district in the province, Qala-i-Zal.

“The district administrative building is neither with us nor with the Taliban,” the provincial police chief, Gen. Qasim Jangalbagh, said in an interview in Kunduz on Wednesday. “We have planted mines, and they have planted mines. So, it’s back and forth like that.”

The situation in the northern province speaks to a broader struggle this year for the Afghan security forces, with months of the Taliban’s offensive still ahead. Although the Afghan forces have so far done better in defending territory this year after a disastrous 2015, they have seemed unable to turn back the insurgents’ gains.

Even the expansion of American powers to conduct airstrikes has not eased the concerns of local officials in a year in which both civilian casualties and Afghan security force losses are on pace for record highs.

Abdul Karim Khadimzai, the head of the provincial council in Uruzgan, expressed concern that the security situation was spiraling out of control. 

“Most of the districts are cut off by the Taliban and only the district centers are nominally controlled by the government,” Mr. Khadimzai said.

“There is nothing to eat and wear, our men are staying in the trenches for 14 months, and they are homesick and have not got a single day off to take rest or be out of danger,” said Anar Gul, a local police commander in Khas Uruzgan. “We are just counting days and night in this hardship, and any moment we are expecting death.”

In Helmand, officials said the government has been unable to regain the territories lost last year, although airstrikes have so far prevented further Taliban advances. The Babaji suburb of the provincial capital and many of the province’s northern districts remain controlled or contested by the Taliban.

Estimates differ about the amount of Afghanistan under insurgent control or threat this summer.

“As of May, our assessment was that approximately nine districts were under insurgent control and about 27 districts were under some level of insurgent influence,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, a spokesman for United States forces in Afghanistan.

Sediq Sediqqi, an Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman, said government forces did not have control over nine districts and faced threats in 40-45 other districts that they were working to repel.

Privately officials worry that the Taliban threat remains at least as high as it was last year.

The Taliban made another push around Kunduz City this spring. While officials said changes in the chain of command and improved discipline had helped fend off the offensive, they were quick to note that American airstrikes have been the most critical factor.

Just weeks before slowing down the withdrawel of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan, President Obama gave his commander here broader powers to use force — essentially drawing American forces deeper into a war in which the Taliban are not the government’s only enemy.

On Wednesday, the United States military announced for the first time that American troops had been wounded in combat with fighters for the Islamic State offshoot in eastern Afghanistan: Five soldiers were reported to have taken “nonlife-threatening” injuries during an offensive against the group in Nangarhar.

Mostly, though, the broader authority for American commanders has been a freer hand in using airstrikes to help the Afghan forces.

“As a commander, and working closely with my Afghan comrades every day, this is a big difference — it enables them to retain the initiative against the enemy,” Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of American and NATO forces, said in a recent briefing. “Whereas before we were preventing defeat, now we are able to help them gain and retain the initiative.”

One senior Western official in Kabul, however, said the loosening airstrike restrictions came out of a realization that losing more territory, particularly cities and district centers, could further destabilize the country as the fragile Afghan government is struggling to manage political and factional tensions.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private briefings, said that more intense airstrikes were crucial to trying to achieve some sort of stalemate with the Taliban that could eventually increase their interest in negotiating.

But in Kunduz right now, officials describe a situation in which district centers remain under government control, but the Taliban are just around the corner.

The main road from Gul Tepa, one of the areas Mr. Ghani declared a new district in November, to Kunduz City is cut off by Taliban mines, residents said. A trip to the city that once took 15 minutes, now rerouted, takes an hour. The road closures have also affected the region’s main agricultural produce: melons and watermelons.

“In Gul Tepa, it’s all Taliban — they treat us well, but they make every home serve them food every 10 days or so, and they have told people not to smoke cigarettes and hashish or listen to music,” said Zabihullah, a shopkeeper in the district who goes by one name. “Since the government said this place will be a new district, we haven’t seen the government carrying out an operation to come and help our pain.”

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Taimoor Shah & Mohammad Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kandahar & Kabul, Afghanistan

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Copyright New York Times 2016

Translators Plead for Delayed U.S. Visas

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by Emmarie Huetteman

New York Times

August 9,2016

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WASHINGTON — Zar Mohammad Stanikzai remembers the promise made to him when he became a translator supporting the United States military in 2012: Help us, and we will keep you safe. Four years later, his fear of Taliban reprisals has made him a prisoner in his Afghan home, he said, and he is still waiting for the Americans to honor their commitment.

Instead, Congress is bickering over the program meant to be his deliverance.

Republican infighting, infused with nativist tones, has left in question whether a special visa program for translators and interpreters who assisted the military during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will be renewed, a potentially devastating blow to approximately 12,000 Afghans whose immigration applications are in limbo.

“We’ve really been trying to reinforce the fact to Afghans that we are committed to you, and this gives the enemy some propaganda to say, ‘Hey, these people really aren’t committed to you,’ ” said Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland, spokesman for the American command in Afghanistan.

“It’s our credibility that is on the line,” he added.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a longtime champion of the visa program, was blunt. “People are going to die,” Mr. McCain said on the Senate floor, challenging a fellow Republican who was blocking more visas. “Don’t you understand the gravity of that?”

For more than eight years, the State Department has offered a visa program designated for many of those who face an “ongoing serious threat” as a result of having provided critical linguistic support — whether in oral interpretation or written translation — in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the last two and a half years, officials say, they have issued visas to more than 8,000 Afghans and their immediate families through the program, which members of the armed services, military officials and lawmakers from both parties have hailed as indispensable to national security.

Then this year, something changed: A few Republicans said no, asking whether more visas were necessary when the State Department still had visas from previous years that could be distributed.

Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — which has jurisdiction over immigration matters — also questioned the cost of adding the 4,000 visas that the Obama administration requested this year, pointing to a Congressional Budget Office estimate of $446 million over the next 10 years.

After Congress failed to approve more visas in the House and Senate defense bills, a bipartisan group of senators tried again last month with a compromise that would have added 2,500 visas — only to be blocked by Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, who said his quarrel was not with the visa program but rather with the fact that it was getting a vote while one of his own, unrelated measures was not.

Mr. McCain responded by accusing Mr. Lee of “signing the death warrants” of people who had put their lives on the line to help the United States.

Mr. Stanikzai would agree. Now 24, he first applied in 2013 for one of the visas, writing to American officials later that year that an imam had warned his father that his son must stop working for the Americans or be killed. He then described how he came under fire as he drove home from his mosque, his car hit by three rounds from an AK-47, he said.

If the Taliban find him — or any of the Afghans hoping the United States will grant them visas — “they will kill us,” he said in an interview.

Yet with neither the House nor the Senate approving more visas in their competing defense policy bills, lawmakers hashing out a compromise this fall may be unlikely to step in.

Much of the resistance seems to stem from a growing discomfort with immigrants, said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire and one of the visa program’s most active supporters. One Republican counterproposal this year would have offset each special visa by deducting one green-card visa from the 50,000 allocated every year to ordinary immigrants. “What that said to me is that the issue here is not really the special immigrant visas for our interpreters,” she said. “It was, ‘How do we keep from allowing more people into the United States?’ ”

In an election year in which many voters have cheered Donald J. Trump’s call to keep out migrants from Muslim countries, Ryan C. Crocker, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, saw more troubling motivations.

“I haven’t heard members say that openly, but I sometimes wonder if behind a reluctance to move in a positive fashion lurks that anti-Muslim sentiment,” he said.

John Kirby, the State Department’s spokesman, said the vetting of applicants included fingerprint and facial recognition checks as part of a full counterterrorism screening.

The government has struggled to keep pace with the influx of Afghan and Iraqi applications for special visas and changes to the eligibility rules made by lawmakers, mistakenly disqualifying some applicants and trapping others in a holding pattern that lasts months or even years. That is time, several translators and interpreters said, that the applicants cannot afford to waste as they face serious threats to their lives every day.

As the Obama administration works out those problems, congressional inaction would turn off the spigot at the end of the year and shut out any new applications. 

That has horrified program supporters, including many military officers. Gen. David H. Petraeus and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, former commanders of the United States forces in Afghanistan, as well as Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the current commander, have pressed Congress to renew the program.

Simply debating whether to help those who helped the United States is damaging, Mr. Crocker said, because it leaves people wondering, as he put it, “What kind of people are those Americans?”

Mohammad Nasim Hashimyar, 29, said he worked with the American Special Forces in Afghanistan for a little more than a year, but his visa was rejected because of a “lack of faithful and valuable service,” according to the letter he received from the American Embassy. He kept it along with a handful of certificates of appreciation and letters of recommendation from soldiers he helped, including one who wrote that Mr. Hashimyar was “the key to success” in many of their efforts. He has appealed his rejection.

Facing threats to him and his family, he said he avoided leaving his home when possible, and he carried a gun. 

“I wish I have never worked with them,” he said. “I destroyed my life.”

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Mohammad Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan

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Copyright New York Times 2016

IS Comes Back To Nangarhar

Afghan policemen leap into position on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border…

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by Abubakar Siddique & Shah Mahmood Shinwari

Gandhara News

June 28, 2016

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KOT, Afghanistan — As heavy gunfire and artillery shelling ring out in the mountains, the residents of a remote region in eastern Afghanistan fled their homes in haste.

Most adults were observing the dawn-till-dusk Ramadan fasts as they left their mud houses on foot or in tractors. They are among the hundreds of residents of Kot district of Nangarhar Province — along Afghanistan’s eastern volatile border with Pakistan. All trying to escape the much-feared militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Everyone on the move in the scorching heat spoke of great suffering at the hands of the ultra-radical fighters. “They began stabbing our children to terrorize us,” said Mohammad Din, a young farmer while fleeing his village, Said Ahmad Khel in Kot, on May 26. “They prevented us from taking our belongings and even burned some homes.”

Another Kot resident, who refused to give his name, said IS militants beat him and that he barely survived by running away.

“They tortured me, stepped on me when I fell to the ground and then hit me with the butts of their machine guns,” he said. “They confiscated all our belongings, and I barely escaped with my life.”

The ongoing fighting in Kot marks the return of IS to Nangarhar, where it was thought to have been defeated after a yearlong campaign. The hard-line militants swiftly overran large swaths of rural Nangarhar. By August last year, they were in charge of Kot and five neighboring mountainous districts bordering Pakistan.

Their atrocities, however, provoked a local tribal rebellion that helped government troops reclaim lost territory. The IS stranglehold in Nangarhar crumbled this spring after the Taliban, the Afghan Army, NATO troops, and a host of regional countries contributed to their defeat in what appeared to be uncoordinated efforts aimed at denying IS an Afghan foothold.

The hard-line militants now seem to be have made a limited comeback in Nangarhar by attacking Afghan forces in Kot late last week and swiftly overrunning parts of the rural region.

Nuroz, a middle-aged man, also fled his village, Lagharjoo, on May 26. He blamed Pakistan for his suffering. “Most of these [IS] militants are Punjabis from Pakistan who are now fighting against us,” he said.

Jandad, a farmer, hastily loaded everything he could on to his tractor and left his home amid an Afghan Army counteroffensive against IS.

“We fled because the [artillery] shells and [machine-gun] bullets were hitting our homes,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Daesh (eds: an Arabic language term for IS) was committing unspeakable atrocities against us. It was impossible to leave our women and children behind in the areas they controlled.”

Afghan officials say scores of civilians, at least a dozen Afghan security forces, and more than 100 IS fighters have been killed in the fighting in Kot since it broke out on June 23.

Zar Mohammad Tarakhel, a local police official, said the IS use of civilian mud houses as hideouts and trenches has complicated their efforts to clear the region.

For Kot’s civilians, this means more weeks and months of displacement and misery.

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http://gandhara.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-is-atrocities-nangarhar/27825695.html

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Helmand Out Of Taliban Danger

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by Ayesha Tanzeem

Voice of America

June 3, 2016

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After days of heavy fighting, Afghan forces have regained control of parts of Helmand province previously in the Taliban hands.  Neither the province of Helmand, nor its capital, Lashkar Gah, was in danger of falling to the Taliban, according to the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

General Daulat Waziri, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense, told reporters in Kabul Friday that the Taliban suffered heavy casualties during recent clashes, with 160 insurgents killed and 65 others wounded in several districts.

He said Afghan forces managed to break the Taliban hold of Marja, the district that had fallen into insurgent hands last year.

He also said Afghan forces managed to reopen a 10-kilometer stretch of road between Lashkar Gah and Marja that the Taliban had blocked for months.

Taliban militants overran several security checkpoints and killed dozens of police officers in Helmand late last month. Heavy fighting in multiple districts including Gereshk, Nad Ali, Sangeen and Marja led to fears that Lashkar Gah would fall to the Taliban.

Fighting in the province was so fierce last year that NATO-led forces had to send hundreds of additional troops in support of Afghan forces.

General Waziri said Afghan forces also reopened another key highway between Kandahar and Terenkot, the provincial capital of Uruzgan province.

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http://www.voanews.com/content/afghan-defense-official-helmand-province-out-taliban-danger/3360849.html

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