Pakistan expert: Religiosity aiding spike in militancy

Pakistan expert: Religiosity aiding spike in militancy

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FILE – In this Aug. 5, 2012, file photo, Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan. Militant attacks are on the rise in Pakistan amid a growing religiosity that has brought greater … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Saturday, February 27, 2021

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Militant attacks are on the rise in Pakistan amid a growing religiosity that has brought greater intolerance, prompting one expert to voice concern the country could be overwhelmed by religious extremism.

Pakistani authorities are embracing strengthening religious belief among the population to bring the country closer together. But it’s doing just the opposite, creating intolerance and opening up space for a creeping resurgence in militancy, said Mohammad Amir Rana, executive director of the independent Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.

“Unfortunately, instead of helping to inculcate better ethics and integrity, this phenomenon is encouraging a tunnel vision” that encourages violence, intolerance and hate, he wrote recently in a local newspaper. “Religiosity has begun to define the Pakistani citizenry.”

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Militant violence in Pakistan has spiked: In the past week alone, four vocational school instructors who advocated for women’s rights were traveling together when they were gunned down in a Pakistan border region. A Twitter death threat against Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai attracted an avalanche of trolls. They heaped abuse on the young champion of girls education, who survived a Pakistani Taliban bullet to the head. A couple of men on a motorcycle opened fire on a police check-post not far from the Afghan border killing a young police constable.

In recent weeks, at least a dozen military and paramilitary men have been killed in ambushes, attacks and operations against militant hideouts, mostly in the western border regions.

A military spokesman this week said the rising violence is a response to an aggressive military assault on militant hideouts in regions bordering Afghanistan and the reunification of splintered and deeply violent anti-Pakistan terrorist groups, led by the Tehreek-e-Taliban. The group is driven by a radical religious ideology that espouses violence to enforce its extreme views.

Gen. Babar Ifitkar said the reunified Pakistani Taliban have found a headquarters in eastern Afghanistan. He also accused hostile neighbor India of financing and outfitting a reunified Taliban, providing them with equipment like night vision goggles, improvised explosive devises and small weapons.

India and Pakistan routinely trade allegations that the other is using militants to undermine stability and security at home.

Security analyst and fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Asfandyar Mir, said the reunification of a splintered militancy is dangerous news for Pakistan.

“The reunification of various splinters into the (Tehreek-e-Taliban) central organization is a major development, which makes the group very dangerous,” said Mir.

The TTP claimed responsibility for the 2012 shooting of Yousafzai. Its former spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, who mysteriously escaped Pakistan military custody to flee to the country, tweeted a promise that the Taliban would kill her if she returned home.

Iftikar, in a briefing of foreign journalists this week, said Pakistani military personnel aided Ehsan’s escape, without elaborating. He said the soldiers involved had been punished and efforts were being made to return Ehsan to custody.

The government reached out to Twitter to shut down Ehsan’s account after he threatened Yousafzai, although the military and government at first suggested it was a fake account.

But Rana, the commentator, said the official silence that greeted the threatening tweet encouraged religious intolerance to echo in Pakistani society unchecked.

“The problem is religiosity has very negative expression in Pakistan,” he said in an interview late Friday. “It hasn’t been utilized to promote the positive, inclusive tolerant religion.”

Instead, successive Pakistani governments as well as its security establishments have exploited extreme religious ideologies to garner votes, appease political religious groups, or target enemies, he said.

The 2018 general elections that brought cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan to power was mired in allegations of support from the powerful military for hard-line religious groups.

Those groups include the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, whose single-point agenda is maintaining and propagating the country’s deeply controversial blasphemy law. That law calls for the death penalty for anyone insulting Islam and is most often used to settle disputes. It often targets minorities, mostly Shiite Muslims, who makeup up about 15% of mostly Sunni Pakistan’s 220 million people.

Mir, the analyst, said the rise in militancy has benefited from state policies that have been either supportive or ambivalent toward militancy as well as from sustained exposure of the region to violence. Most notable are the protracted war in neighboring Afghanistan and the simmering tensions between hostile neighbors India and Pakistan, two countries that possess a nuclear weapons’ arsenal.

“More than extreme religious thought, the sustained exposure of the region to political violence, the power of militant organizations in the region, state policy which is either supportive or ambivalent towards various forms of militancy … and the influence of the politics of Afghanistan incubate militancy in the region,” he said.

Mir and Rana both pointed to the Pakistani government’s failure to draw radical thinkers away from militant organizations, as groups that seemed at least briefly to eschew a violent path have returned to violence and rejoined the TTP.

Iftikar said the military has stepped up assaults on the reunited Pakistani Taliban, pushing the militants to respond, but only targets they can manage, which are soft targets.

But Mir said the reunited militants pose a greater threat.

“With the addition of these powerful units, the TTP has major strength for operations across the former tribal areas, Swat, Baluchistan, and some in Punjab,” he said. “Taken together, they improve TTP’s ability to mount insurgent and mass-casualty attacks.”

Afghan peace talks resume, but path is anything but certain

Afghan peace talks resume, but path is anything but certain

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FILE – In this Sept. 12, 2020, file photo, Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, bottom right, speaks at the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. After more than a month … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

ISLAMABAD (AP) – With violence spiking, Afghanistan’s warring sides have returned to the negotiation table, ending more than a month of delays amid hopes that the two sides can agree on a reduction of violence – and eventually, an outright ceasefire.

Taliban spokesman Dr. Mohammad Naeem tweeted Monday night that talks had resumed in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar, where the insurgent movement maintains a political office. There were no details other than the atmosphere was “cordial”, a commitment that negotiations should continue and an announcement that the first item of business will be setting the agenda.

When talks ended abruptly in January, just days after beginning, both sides submitted their wish lists for agendas. The task now is for the two sides to sift through the respective wish lists, agree on items to negotiate and the order in which they will be tackled.

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The priority for the Afghan government, Washington and NATO is a serious reduction in violence leading to a cease fire. The Taliban have said it is negotiable, but until now have resisted any immediate cease fire.

Washington is reviewing the February 2020 peace deal the previous Trump administration signed with the Taliban that calls for the final withdrawal of international forces by May 1. The Taliban have resisted suggestions of even a brief extension, but a consensus is mounting in Washington for a delay in the withdrawal deadline.

There is even a suggestion of a smaller intelligence – based force staying behind that would focus almost exclusively on counter-terrorism and an increasingly active and deadly Islamic State affiliate, headquartered in eastern Afghanistan.

But neither Washington nor NATO has yet to announce a decision on the fate of an estimated 10,000 troops, including 2,500 American soldiers, still in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has emphasized a political solution to the protracted Afghan conflict, retained Zalmay Khalilzad, the man who negotiated the U.S. peace deal with the Taliban and until now avoided any definitive statements about the road forward.

The resumption in talks in Doha follows on the heels of a blizzard of diplomatic activity including a steady stream of officials to Pakistan and its powerful Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. Pakistan is seen as critical to getting the Taliban back to the table but also to pressing the insurgent movement __ whose leadership is headquartered in Pakistan __ to reduce violence in Afghanistan .

Just this past week the U.S. Central Command head Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie was in Islamabad, as was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Afghan envoy, Zamir Kabulov and Qatar’s foreign ministry’s special envoy Dr Mutlaq Bin Majed Al Qahtani. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s special envoy Umar Daudzai is expected in Islamabad on Wednesday.

While details of the meetings have been sketchy, Afghanistan featured prominently and officials familiar with the talks said a reduction of violence and eventual cease fire dominated discussions.

Pakistan, which also still hosts 1.5 million Afghan refugees has repeatedly said the only solution in Afghanistan is political and has previously been credited with getting the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The latest diplomatic activity in Islamabad also coincidentally comes as Pakistan is being discussed at a meeting underway this week in Paris of the Financial Action Task Force probing terrorism financing and money laundering. Pakistan is currently on a so-called grey list, the last step before a black listing which would seriously erode the country’s ability to borrow money.

Few analysts expect Pakistan to be blacklisted, which so far includes only Iran and North Korea, but Islamabad is pressing hard to be removed from the grey list. While Pakistan has allies, like China, among the 37-member countries that make up FATF, Russian and U.S. support is critical to being removed from the grey list.

Still the issues ahead for Taliban and Afghan government are thorny ones and it isn’t immediately clear whether any country has sufficient influence with either side to force a peace deal that will last.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has flatly refused an interim administration, and his critics accuse him of wanting to hold on to power. Meanwhile, a Taliban official says they want a “new Islamic government” that would not include Ghani, but refused to give details of this government and whether it would even include elections. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

In an open letter to the American people last week, the Taliban‘s lead negotiator in the U.S./Taliban deal, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar urged compliance with the deal, promised rights for men and women “based on Islamic law” without stipulating, vowed not to interfere in any other nation, and also vowed to end the world’s largest crop of poppies, which produces opium used in the production of heroin.

________

Associated Press Writer Tameem Akhgar in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report

Afghan police: 3 separate Kabul explosions kill 5, wound 2

Afghan police: 3 separate Kabul explosions kill 5, wound 2

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Security personnel inspect the site of a bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. Three separate explosions in the capital Kabul on Saturday killed and wounded numerous people an Afghan official said. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul) more >

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By TAMEEM AKHGAR

Associated Press

Saturday, February 20, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Three sticky bomb attacks in the Afghan capital Kabul on Saturday killed at least five people and wounded two others, a police official said, amid a surge in violence in the war-torn country.

Kabul police spokesman Ferdaws Faramarz said two explosions caused by sticky bombs attached to vehicles took place 15 minutes apart and a third targeting a police vehicle exploded about two hours later.

No group immediately claimed responsibility.

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The majority of bomb attacks in the capital Kabul in recent months have been sticky bombs – explosive devices with magnets that are attached to vehicles and detonated by remote control or timer.

The second explosion targeted a car in a northwestern Kabul neighborhood in which national army soldiers were traveling, killing two soldiers. A civilian passerby was also killed.

The third explosion destroyed a police car in western Kabul killing two police officers. Meanwhile, the first blast targeted a civilian car wounding both travelers inside the vehicle.

Kabul police said investigations were underway.

The Islamic State group’s local affiliate has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, but many go unclaimed, with the government putting the blame on the Taliban. The insurgents have denied responsibility for most of the attacks.

Afghanistan has seen a nationwide spike in bombings, targeted killings and violence on the battlefield as peace negotiations in Qatar between the Taliban and the Afghan government have stalled. It’s been over a month since the sides last met to discuss how to proceed.

Meanwhile, the new U.S. administration is reviewing the U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed Feb. 29 last year. A major part of the agreement was Washington’s commitment to a May 1 withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Russia has stepped up efforts to try and find a way forward, visiting with regional players and officials and senior Taliban figures.

Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Afghanistan, met with Pakistani officials, including army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, on Friday to discuss the peace process. Pakistan is seen as a key player in the Afghanistan peace process since Taliban leadership maintains homes and headquarters in Pakistan,

___

Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon contributed to this story.

UN envoy meets east-based Libya commander in push for unity

UN envoy meets east-based Libya commander in push for unity

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FILE – In this July 13, 2014 file photo, Jan Kubis, United Nation representative for Afghanistan speaks during a joint press conference at the Independent Election Commission office in Kabul, Afghanistan. Kubis, the U.N. special envoy to Libya on Friday, … more >

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By NOHA ELHENNAWY

Associated Press

Friday, February 19, 2021

CAIRO (AP) – The U.N. special envoy to Libya on Friday met with the country’s east-based military commander as part of efforts to unite rival factions in the war-torn North African nation ahead of elections in December.

During their meeting in the eastern city of Benghazi, U.N. envoy Jan Kubis and the Libyan commander, Khalifa Hifter, agreed on the importance for all Libyan parties to commit to and facilitate the Dec. 24 balloting, according to a statement for the U.N. mission in Libya.

The elections were laid out under a U.N.-backed political roadmap for the fractured country.

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Kubis‘ visit follows a key development earlier this month at U.N.-backed talks in Switzerland, when Libyan delegates chose a transitional government, with a prime minister and a three-member presidential council, meant to lead Libya through the elections. The election was a major step toward unifying Libya and ending one of the most intractable conflicts left behind by the Arab Spring.

For years, Libya’s influential east-based military commander, Khalifa Hifter, has been a controversial figure. In 2019, he launched an offensive to capture the capital, Tripoli, a campaign that ultimately failed the following year.

Kubis and Hifter also discussed ways to expedite the implementation of a cease-fire agreement signed last year and the withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries. According to the U.N. mission’s statement, they also discussed the opening of a key Libyan artery – the coastal road along the Mediterranean Sea that links Tripoli, to the west, with Benghazi.

Since 2015, Libya has been divided between two rival administrations: a U.N.-backed, but weak government in Tripoli – a city largely controlled by an array of armed factions – and an eastern-based government backed Hifter. Each is backed by different foreign governments.

This is Kubis’ first visit to Libya since his appointment to the post in January. Earlier, the former Slovak foreign minister served as U.N. envoy to Lebanon. A day before meeting Hifter, Kubis held talks in Tripoli with the president of the newly elected, three-member presidential council, Mohamed Menefi, and other Libyan politicians.

Libya descended into chaos after the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. It has since also become a haven for Islamic militants and armed groups that survive on looting and human trafficking.

NATO ministers’ summit punts on Afghan troop decision

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference, after a meeting of NATO defense ministers in video format, at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool) more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The U.S. and its NATO allies are deadlocked about their military future in Afghanistan, with a key May 1 withdrawal deadline fast approaching and no clear signals from either Washington or Brussels on the path forward.

Thursday’s meeting of NATO defense ministers, including new U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, was expected to offer some clues on how the Biden administration might handle one of its first major foreign policy decisions and whether it will abide by the terms of a historic deal former President Trump struck with the Taliban last year.

That pact calls for all U.S. troops to exit Afghanistan by May 1 if the Taliban fulfills its promises, including a permanent break from terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and tangible progress in direct peace talks with the Afghan government.

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While just 2,500 of the roughly 10,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan are Americans, Washington’s decision on whether to stick to the May 1 deadline will determine NATO’s fate as well. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and alliance defense chiefs seem to have received little clarity from the Pentagon on Thursday as to what Mr. Biden’s team intends to do.

“We are faced with many dilemmas and there are no easy options,” Mr. Stoltenberg said at a press conference immediately after the meeting. “At this stage, we have made no final decision on the future of our presence [in Afghanistan].”

A day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Mr. Austin told his fellow defense ministers Thursday that “the U.S. is conducting a thorough review of the conditions of the U.S.-Taliban agreement to determine whether all parties have adhered to those conditions.”

Mr. Biden as vice president expressed deep skepticism about the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, now entering its 20th year.

Now his options include following Mr. Trump’s lead despite continuing violence and instability in Kabul, or maintaining and even expanding the U.S. military footprint in one of his first major acts in office.

Much like his predecessor, Mr. Biden campaigned on stopping “forever wars” in the Middle East and bringing troops home — though the administration also has suggested it does not necessarily feel bound by the Trump deal and could keep troops in Afghanistan past May 1.

Foreign policy specialists say Thursday’s indecisive summit shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s clear the White House has yet to decide what to do and that Brussels is paralyzed until the U.S. acts.

“The danger here is that Biden, Blinken and [National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan] have no idea what to do but are setting the stage to simply blame the Trump plan should Afghanistan collapse,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “That might make good American politics, but it betrays an ally and is neither wise nor leadership.”

“NATO has zero options to diverge from the U.S.,” Mr. Rubin told The Washington Times. “They have essentially been window-dressing all along.”

The U.S.-led NATO mission is aimed at providing some semblance of security across the country while also training Afghan security forces, which would take on a significantly larger role in the absence of American troops.

Thursday brought yet another reminder of instability facing Afghanistan, with an explosion at Kabul University killing at least two university lecturers. Police in the Afghan capital said a bomb was attached to the vehicle of Mubasher Muslimyar and Marouf Rasikh, members of the university’s Islamic studies faculty, according to media reports.

No group has claimed responsibility for the assault. Over the past year, Taliban violence has mostly been directed at Afghan security forces, though other extremist groups — including the Islamic State — also operate inside the country and often carry out horrific attacks.

Meanwhile, few believe the Taliban has lived up to the commitments it made in its peace deal with the U.S.

Pentagon reports and international observers, for example, have said in recent months that the Taliban still associates with al Qaeda fighters. Taliban violence also remains unacceptably high.

The Taliban’s unwillingness or inability to fully live up to its end of the bargain has been a constant source of frustration for international leaders.

“I have many times made clear that the Taliban needs to negotiate in good faith, violence has to be reduced, and the Taliban has to stop cooperating with international terrorist groups that are planning terrorist attacks on our own countries, allied countries,” Mr. Stoltenberg said Thursday.

Officials: Separate attacks kill 9 people in Afghanistan

Officials: Separate attacks kill 9 people in Afghanistan

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Afghan security personnel remove a damaged vehicle from the site of a deadly bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. A string of attacks on Tuesday in Afghanistan killed several government employees and several policemen. No one immediately … more >

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By RAHIM FAIEZ

Associated Press

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – A string of attacks on Tuesday in Afghanistan killed five government employees and four policemen, officials said. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks.

In the capital, Kabul, gunmen opened fire in the Bagh-e Daud neighborhood and killed four employees of the ministry for rural development, according to Ferdaws Faramarz, spokesman for the city’s police chief.

Hours after the attack, the presidential palace in a statement said the target was Reyaz Ahmad Khalil, the acting provincial director of the department for rural development of Maidan Wardak province. He was among the fatalities in the attack.

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani strongly condemned the attack and accused the Taliban of stalling peace talks by once again escalating the violence. “They have show that they don’t believe in peace,” Ghani said.

Elsewhere in Kabul, a sticky bomb attached to a car exploded, killing another government employee, Faramarz later said. According to the foreign ministry, it was their car and one of the ministry’s drivers was killed in that attack in the Macrorayan neighborhood.

Also Tuesday, four police officers were killed and a fifth was wounded when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in western Herat province’s Zenda Jan district, said Wahid Qatali, the provincial governor.

At least 21 Taliban insurgents, including three key members of the group, were killed in a special operation conducted by Afghan security forces in northern Faryab province, the Ministry of Defense said. The statement added that another 18 Taliban fighters were wounded in the districts of Almar and Qaisar in Faryab.

The Taliban did not comment on the ministry’s statement.

Violence in Afghanistan has been relentless while peace talks between the Taliban and government representatives that have been underway in Qatar for months have now stalled. There has also been a nationwide spike in bombings, targeted killings and violence on the battlefield.

Najia Anwari, spokeswoman for the state ministry for peace, said Tuesday that several members of the government negotiating team have temporarily returned from Qatar, for personal issues. She did not elaborate.

The Islamic State group has also increased its attacks in Kabul lately. Most recently, it claimed responsibility for the bombing targeting minority Sikhs on Saturday in the Afghan capital. Two members of the Sikh community were killed in the blast, which struck a store in central Kabul.

With growing threats from IS, Afghanistan’s once-thriving community of Sikhs and Hindus has dwindled from as many as 250,000 members to fewer than 700. Last March, a lone IS gunman rampaged through a Sikh house of worship in the heart of Kabul, killing 25 worshippers and wounding eight.

Taliban visit Moscow, voice hope US will honor peace deal

Taliban visit Moscow, voice hope US will honor peace deal

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Friday, January 29, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – After a round of talks in Moscow, the Taliban said Friday they expect the United States to fulfill its pledge to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by May.

Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, who led the Taliban delegation that met with senior Russian diplomats during two days of talks, insisted that the movement has honored its end of the deal signed last year on Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office.

White House and U.S. State Department officials have said that Biden’s administration plans to take a new look at the peace agreement signed last February with Donald Trump’s White House.

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The Pentagon said on Thursday that the Taliban’s refusal to meet commitments to reduce violence in Afghanistan is raising questions about whether all U.S. troops will be able to leave by May as required under the peace deal.

In remarks carried by Russian news agencies, Stanikzai insisted that the Taliban have been abiding by the deal – despite relentless attacks and continued high levels of Taliban violence against Afghan forces.

“Ever since we signed the agreement with the American side, we haven’t been involved in any aggressive actions,” Stanikzai said. “We hope that the U.S. will continue to honor the agreement reached in Doha, it’s in its interests.”

The peace agreement called for the U.S. to reduce troop levels to 2,500, and then to remove all forces by May. Trump ordered U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan cut to 2,500 just days before he left office, presenting Biden with difficult decisions about how to retain leverage against the Taliban in support of peace talks.

Stanikzai warned that if the U.S. reneges on the deal, the Taliban will continue their fight against the government in Kabul. The insurgents are now at their strongest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime for harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban control or hold sway over nearly half of Afghanistan

“We hope that the U.S. will leave,” Stanikzai said. “But if it doesn’t, we would have no other choice but to defend ourselves and continue our struggle.”

He strongly rejected allegations that Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for killing American soldiers as “an absolute lie.”

U.S. officials have said they were analyzing intelligence about the bounties offered by Russia. Moscow has rejected the claim.

Stanikzai said that the Taliban and Russia “share a common understanding of various issues related to the peace process in Afghanistan,” voicing hope that Moscow will help the settlement. In particular, he added the Taliban expect Russia to support the lifting of the U.N. sanctions on the Taliban leaders.

Stanikzai also voiced hope that ongoing, stop-and-start peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government that began last year will produce results soon.

The peace talks, which are taking place in Qatar, resumed earlier this month but have been marred by the latest spike in violence, with both sides blaming each other.

Moscow, which fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan that ended with Soviet troops’ withdrawal in 1989, has made a diplomatic comeback as a power broker in Afghanistan, mediating between feuding factions as it jockeys with Washington for influence in the country. In 2019, it hosted talks between various Afghan factions.

EXPLAINER: What’s next if Pakistan frees man in Pearl murder

EXPLAINER: What’s next if Pakistan frees man in Pearl murder

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Police vehicles are driven out from the Karachi Central Prison where British-born Pakistani Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was charged, convicted and later acquitted in the 2002 murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl is detained, in Karachi, Pakistan, Friday, Jan. … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Friday, January 29, 2021

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistan is scrambling to manage the fallout from a decision by the country’s Supreme Court to free the Pakistani-British man accused in the 2002 beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl.

The Sindh provincial government on Friday filed a review petition, asking the same court to revisit its decision.

But even the lawyer for the Pearl family has said a review petition has a slim chance of succeeding because it is heard by the same judges who voted to free Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh. The case appears to have fallen apart because of the contradictory evidence produced during Sheikh‘s original trial in 2002 and the decision by the prosecution at the time to try him and three other accused co-conspirators together. According to the Pearl family lawyer, Faisal Siddiqi, this means that doubt about the guilt of one translates into a doubt about all.

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Washington has expressed outrage, promising to pursue extradition of Sheikh on two separate U.S. indictments against him. For its part, Pakistan‘s government has thrown up every legal hurdle it could to keep Sheikh in jail following his acquittal last April by a lower court.

WHAT LEGAL OPTIONS REMAIN FOR PAKISTAN?

The provincial Sindh government has taken the last remaining legal step by filing a review petition Friday with the Supreme Court. It’s unlikely to change the outcome, but it could give the provincial government legal cover to keep Sheikh in jail in the port city of Karachi, the capital of the southern Sindh province.

Defying the Supreme Court order to free Sheikh could again leave the Sindh government facing contempt charges. It already defended itself against earlier charges of contempt for previously refusing to release him, ignoring an order from a lower court.

Pakistan also might consider charging him in connection with allegations that he possessed nine different SIM cards for phones he used to contact friends, including some in Britain, in 2009 while on death row. There have been suggestions in the local media in Pakistan that he used the SIM cards to call for assistance to break him out of the Hyderabad jail where he’d been on death row since his 2002 conviction. He was moved to a Karachi jail after his April acquittal.

WHAT OPTIONS ARE OPEN FOR THE U.S.?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Washington was ready to extradite Sheikh to answer two indictments against him in U.S. courts – one for his involvement in the beheading of Pearl and the other for his involvement in the kidnapping of an American in Indian-ruled Kashmir in 1994, alongside three British tourists. All four were eventually freed unhurt.

There are a couple of hurdles to extradition: Pakistan, like the United States, has a double jeopardy rule that prevents a person from being tried for the same offense twice. The U.S. also does not have an extradition treaty with Pakistan, although Islamabad has in the past bypassed legalities to send suspects to the U.S., including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mohammed has been in U.S. custody on Guantanamo Bay since his arrest in Pakistan in March 2003. He also confessed that he killed Pearl himself, but has not been charged in the Wall Street Journal reporter’s death. The most recent example of Pakistan allowing someone accused of a crime to leave for the U.S. was in 2011, when Raymond Davis, an American contractor at the U.S. Embassy, returned home after gunning down two people in the eastern city of Lahore. He said he opened fire because he felt threatened.

HOW MIGHT THIS CASE IMPACT U.S.-PAKISTAN RELATIONS?

The case could be one of the first major tests for President Joe Biden and U.S.-Pakistan relations have historically been tumultuous. Pakistan likely will play a crucial role in the Biden administration’s attempts to navigate the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan was seen as key to getting the Taliban into negotiations with the Kabul government, even if those talks have been excruciatingly slow and until now have garnered little success, even as violence has spiked.

Mohammad Amir Rana, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, said Sheikh’s acquittal has created a conundrum for both countries. Until now, Pakistan has taken every legal step to keep Sheikh in jail but sending him to America could rile up opposition at home, Rana explained. For America, snubbing Pakistan just when the two have agreed on exchanging intelligence on terror financing and the road to a political settlement in Afghanistan is at a critical juncture, could result in setbacks on both fronts.

WHO IS AHMAD SAEED OMAR SHEIKH?

A British national of Pakistani heritage, Sheikh lived a relatively privileged life in Britain, where he attended the prestigious London School of Economics. It appears he was inspired to jihad by the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, relentless attacks on Muslims in Bosnia at the time, their treatment in Bosnian Serb camps and what Sheikh perceived as Western indifference to their plight.

He traveled to Bosnia and later joined Harakat-a-Ansar, a Pakistan-based militant group that was declared a terrorist group by the U.S. in 1997 and later became known as Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen. He also travelled to the Indian-ruled section of Kashmir to wage war against India in the Muslim-majority region. The disputed Himalayan region is split between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.

Sheikh’s strength seemed to be his ability to use his British upbringing to entice foreigners to trust him. That ability led to the kidnapping of the American tourist in 1994, and according to some evidence, eased any concerns Pearl might have had as he sought to track militants in Pakistan.

Sheikh was arrested by India after the 1994 kidnappings but was among terror suspects freed by India on Dec. 31, 1999 in exchange for the hostages on an Indian Airlines aircraft that was hijacked and taken from Nepal to then Taliban-controlled Afghan city of Kandahar.

Iran, Taliban officials say US pushing war in Afghanistan

Iran, Taliban officials say US pushing war in Afghanistan

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FILE – In this Jan. 31, 2020 file photo, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, center, top U.S. commander for the Middle East, makes an unannounced visit in Kabul, Afghanistan. Iranian state TV said Iranian and Taliban officials have met in Tehran … more >

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By

Associated Press

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iranian and Taliban officials met in Tehran on Wednesday and accused the U.S. of provoking the continuation of war in Afghanistan, Iranian State TV reported.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told visiting Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar that the U.S. seeks to continue the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

“The U.S. strategy supports the continuation of war and bloodshed among various Afghan groups in the political spectrum,” Shamkhani was quoted as saying. He said the U.S. tries to blame insecurity and instability in the country on individual Afghan groups.

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There was no immediate comment from the U.S., which signed a peace agreement with the Taliban last February and met its goal this month of reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan to about 2,500.

Taliban representatives and the Afghan government earlier this month resumed peace talks in Qatar, the Gulf Arab state where the insurgents maintain an office. The stop-and-go talks are aimed at ending decades of conflict. But frustration and fear have grown over a recent spike in violence, and both sides blame one another.

Baradar, who arrived Monday with a Taliban delegation, criticized the U.S. for allegedly breaking its commitments to the February deal. He did not elaborate.

“We do not trust the U.S. and will fight any group that is a mercenary for the U.S.,” he said.

Occasionally, Iranian and Taliban officials meet for what Tehran says are talks aimed at helping facilitate intra-Afghan dialogue.

Iran sees the presence of U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq as a threat on its doorstep and routinely calls for their departure. Iran and Afghanistan have some 945 kilometers (some 585 miles) of common border.

Official: Gunmen kill two women judges in Afghan capital

Official: Gunmen kill two women judges in Afghan capital

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By TAMEEM AKHGAR

Associated Press

Sunday, January 17, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Gunmen fired on a car in northern Kabul on Sunday, killing two women judges who worked for Afghanistan’s high court and wounding the driver, a court official said. It was the latest attack in the Afghan capital during peace talks between Taliban and Afghan government officials in Qatar.

Supreme Court of Afghanistan spokesman Ahmad Fahim Qawim, said the women were judges who worked for the high court but he did not identify them by name.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack and Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the insurgent group wasn’t responsible.

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The Afghan government has repeatedly blamed the Taliban for targeted killings in recent months and the insurgent group accuses the government of staging the killings to spoil the peace process.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the capital in recent months, including on educational institutions that killed 50 people, most of them students. IS has also claimed responsibility for rocket attacks in December targeting the major U.S. base in Afghanistan. There were no casualties.

The Taliban and the Afghan government earlier this month resumed peace talks in Qatar. Negotiations were off to a slow start as the insurgent group continues attacks on Afghan government forces while keeping their promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops.

Trump’s presidency not just a blip in US foreign policy

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President-elect Joe Biden leaves after speaking at an event at The Queen theater, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) more >

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By DEB RIECHMANN and MATTHEW LEE

Associated Press

Saturday, January 16, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to scrap President Donald Trump’s vision of “America First” in favor of “diplomacy first” will depend on whether he’s able to regain the trust of allies and convince them that Trumpism is just a blip in the annals of U.S. foreign policy.

It could be a hard sell. From Europe to the Middle East and Asia, Trump’s brand of transactional diplomacy has alienated friends and foes alike, leaving Biden with a particularly contentious set of national security issues.

Biden, who said last month that “America’s back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it,” might strive to be the antithesis of Trump on the world stage and reverse some, if not many, of his predecessor’s actions. But Trump’s imprint on America’s place in the world – viewed as good or bad – will not be easily erased.

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U.S. allies aren’t blind to the large constituency of American voters who continue to support Trump’s nationalist tendencies and his belief that the United States should stay out of world conflicts. If Biden’s goal is to restore America’s place in the world, he’ll not only need to gain the trust of foreign allies but also convince voters at home that international diplomacy works better than unilateral tough talk.

Trump has insisted that he’s not against multilateralism, only global institutions that are ineffective. He has pulled out of more than half a dozen international agreements, withdrawn from multiple U.N. groups and trash talked allies and partners.

Biden, on the other hand, says global alliances need to be rebuilt to combat climate change, address the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for future epidemics and confront the growing threat posed by China. The national security and foreign policy staff that he has named so far are champions of multilateralism.

His choices for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and foreign aid chief Samantha Power – all veterans of the Obama administration – underscore his intent to return to a foreign policy space that they believe was abandoned by Trump.

“Right now, there’s an enormous vacuum,” Biden said. “We’re going to have to regain the trust and confidence of a world that has begun to find ways to work around us or without us.”

Biden intends to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and cooperate again with the World Health Organization. He plans to smooth relations with Europeans and other friends and refrain from blasting fellow members of NATO, and he may return the United States to the Iran nuclear agreement. Still, many Americans will continue to espouse Trump‘s “America First” agenda, especially with the U.S. economy struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, civil strife in American streets over racism and the absence of civil political discourse.

“Whether people liked it or not, Trump was elected by Americans in 2016,” said Fiona Hill, who worked in the Trump White House’s National Security Council and now is at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.

Trump’s election in 2016 and the tens of millions of votes he garnered in 2020 reflect a very divided nation, she says.

“We have to accept that the electoral outcome in 2016 was not a fluke,” Hill said.

Steven Blockmans, research director at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Belgium, said Europeans should not kid themselves into believing transatlantic relations will return to the way they were before Trump.

“In all but name, the rallying cry of ‘America First’ is here to stay,” he said. “Biden has vowed to prioritize investment in U.S. green energy, child care, education and infrastructure over any new trade deals. He has also called for expanded ‘Buy American’ provisions in federal procurement, which has long been an irritant in trade relations with the European Union.”

Each part of the world holds a different challenge for Biden.

CHINA

Fear of China’s quest for world dominance started to mount before Trump came to office. Early on, Trump sidled up to China’s authoritarian president, Xi Jinping. But after efforts to get more than a first-phase trade deal failed, the president turned up the heat on China and repeatedly blamed Beijing for the coronavirus pandemic.

He sanctioned the Chinese, and in speech after speech, top Trump officials warned about China stealing American technology, conducting cyberattacks, taking aggressive actions in the South China Sea, cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong and abusing the Muslim Uighurs in western China.

Increasingly, Republicans and Democrats alike are worried about a rising economic and geopolitical threat from China, and that concern won’t end when Trump leaves office.

NORTH KOREA

Resetting U.S. relations with Asia allies is instrumental in confronting not only China but also North Korea.

Trump broke new ground on the nuclear standoff with North Korea with his three face-to-face meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But Trump‘s efforts yielded no deal to persuade Kim to give up his nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief and security assurances. In fact, North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear capabilities.

Biden might be forced to deal with North Korea sooner than later as experts say Pyongyang has a history of conducting tests and firing missiles to garner Washington’s attention around U.S. presidential elections.

AFGHANISTAN

Nearly 20 years after a U.S.-led international coalition toppled the Taliban government that supported al-Qaida, Afghan civilians are still being killed by the thousands. Afghan security forces, in the lead on the battlefield, continue to tally high casualties. Taliban attacks are up outside the cities, and the Islamic State group has orchestrated bombings in the capital, Kabul, including one in November at Kabul University that killed more than 20 people, mostly students.

The U.S. and the Taliban sat down at the negotiation table in 2018. Those talks, led by Trump envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, eventually led to the U.S.-Taliban deal that was signed in February 2020, providing for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

Set on making good on his campaign promise to withdraw U.S. troops from “endless wars,” Trump cut troops from 8,600 to 4,500, then ordered troop levels to fall to 2,500 by Inauguration Day. The United States has pledged to pull all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1, just months after Biden takes office, but it’s unclear if he will.

MIDDLE EAST

Trump opted to think outside the box when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and relations with Arab nations.

The Palestinians rejected the Trump administration’s Mideast peace plan, but then Trump coaxed two Arab nations – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – to recognize Israel. This was historic because Arab nations had for decades said they wouldn’t recognize Israel until the Palestinians’ struggle for an independent state was resolved.

Warming ties between Israel and Arab states that share opposition to Iran helped seal the deal. Morocco and Sudan also later recognized Israel.

IRAN

In 2018, Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, in which world powers agreed to lift sanctions on Tehran if it curbed its nuclear program.

Trump said the deal was one-sided, didn’t prevent Iran from eventually getting a nuclear weapon and allowed it to receive billions of dollars in frozen assets that it has been accused of using to bankroll terror proxies destabilizing the Mideast.

Biden says exiting the deal was reckless and complains that Iran now has stockpiled more enriched uranium than is allowed under the deal, which is still in force between Iran and Britain, China, Russia, France and Germany.

U.S. reduces troop numbers in Afghanistan to 2,500

U.S. reduces troop numbers in Afghanistan to 2,500

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By Lauren Toms

The Washington Times

Friday, January 15, 2021

The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has dropped to 2,500, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said Friday, meeting the Trump administration’s goal to steeply reduce the number of American troops in the country ahead of Inauguration Day.

It’s unclear whether President-elect Joseph R. Biden will seek to uphold or continue to reduce the troop levels in his first months in office. While the former vice president has said he supports troop reductions and an end to the 20-year-long war, top military and intelligence officials have warned that a complete withdrawal could destabilize the region.

Mr. Miller, who is in his final week as acting Defense Secretary, said in a statement that the U.S. “is closer than ever to ending nearly two decades of war and welcoming in an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process to achieve a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”

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As part of a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban that was struck last February, the Taliban agreed to not allow Afghanistan to become a base of operations for terrorist groups and to halt attacks on U.S. personnel. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to drastically reduce its military presence in the country.

While the Taliban has picked up the pace of attacks against Afghan security forces, U.S. officials say there have been few, if any, direct attacks at American personnel.

The deal also called on the Taliban to begin formal peace talks with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, though the two sides have struggled to get those negotiations underway.

The U.S. troop drawdown has come despite clear warnings by the Pentagon that Afghanistan remains a national security challenge.

A Pentagon report last year concluded that some remote areas of Afghanistan remain home to “terrorist sanctuaries” and some Taliban members routinely cooperate with extremist groups such as al Qaeda.

But despite the challenges, military leaders have maintained that the U.S. can accomplish its goal of peace in Afghanistan with the reduced troop numbers.

“The United States will continue to execute both our counterterrorism mission and the train, advise and assist mission in support of Afghan Security Forces working to secure peace in their country,” Mr. Miller said.

When the deal was struck nearly a year ago, the U.S. had about 13,000 troops in the country.

Under the National Defense Authorization Act that was passed by Congress earlier this month, the Pentagon is prohibited from using military funds to bring troop numbers in the country below 4,000 unless it receives a presidential waiver or defense officials present a report to lawmakers justifying a further reduction.

There is no public evidence that the Pentagon has met either of the requirements.

Mr. Trump in November ordered an additional withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq to be completed by Jan. 15. His order took effect before the annual defense policy bill was signed into law.

Mr. Miller said that the Pentagon remains capable of further reducing troop levels to zero by May of this year, although any additional withdrawals would be “conditions based.”

“This force reduction is an indication of the United States’ continued support towards the Afghan peace process and our adherence to commitments made in both the U.S.-Taliban agreement and the U.S.-Afghanistan Joint Declaration,” the acting defense secretary said.

“All sides must demonstrate their commitment to advancing the peace process.”

Afghan Shiite leader in Pakistan after killings of miners

Afghan Shiite leader in Pakistan after killings of miners

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People from the Shiite Hazara community mourn beside the coffins of coal mine workers who were killed by gunmen near the Machh coal field prior to their funeral prayer in Quetta, Pakistan, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. Hundreds of Pakistani Shiites … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

ISLAMABAD (AP) – An influential Afghan Shiite leader is visiting Pakistan where members of the minority sect are still reeling from the brutal killing of 11 Shiite coal miners, nine of whom were Afghan immigrants, earlier this month.

The miners, who were abducted and killed by militants from the Islamic State group in southwestern Baluchistan province, were members of the minority Hazara. They were buried on Saturday, following a week of protests in Pakistan that sought to highlight the community’s plight.

The visiting Afghan leader, Karim Khalili is also an ethnic Hazara. Members of the mostly Shiite community live in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and have suffered persecution from the majority Sunni Muslims in both countries.

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The Sunni militant Islamic State group, which is headquartered in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan, as well as Pakistani Sunni militant groups have repeatedly targeted Shiites.

Khalili’s visit is seen as part of an effort to repair the troubled relations between the two neighboring countries in parallel with the peace talks underway in Qatar between the Afghan government negotiators and the Taliban. The warring sides are trying to find a political roadmap that would bring an end to decades of war in Afghanistan.

Khalili’s visit is part of Pakistan’s policy “to reach out to political leadership in Afghanistan to forge common understanding on the Afghan peace process,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement. The Shiite leader, who was a vice-president under Afghan ex-President Hamid Karzai’s government, is also to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Khan travelled to Afghanistan late last year, while several senior Afghan leaders, including the head of the country’s reconciliation council Abdullah Abdullah, came to Islamabad in recent months in an effort to reset a relationship that has been marked by deep mistrust and relentless accusations that the other was supporting insurgent enemies.

Kabul accuses Islamabad of harboring the Taliban and seeking to wield influence over Afghanistan as part of a defense strategy against archrival India. Pakistan and India, two nuclear-armed neighbors, have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain.

Meanwhile, Islamabad accuses Kabul of providing safe haven to separatists in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, as well as working with India to destabilize Pakistan.

Stakes are high for the region as the U.S. proceeds to reduce its troop levels in Afghanistan – expected to go down to just 2,500 this month, with the remainder scheduled to leave by April along with other NATO service members – in line with a U.S.-Taliban agreement signed last February.

President-elect Joe Biden has expressed support for a small contingent of U.S. intelligence troops in Afghanistan to hunt down and monitor terrorist groups, but the incoming administration’s plans have not been made public.

Violence, meanwhile, has continued unabated across war-weary Afghanistan. After 20 years and billions of dollars spent in the country, a U.N. statement on Monday warned that nearly half of all Afghans will need humanitarian aid just to survive this year – something the world body blamed on “the ongoing conflict, natural disasters, chronic poverty and the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Many Afghans also blame runaway government corruption and lawlessness for the dire economy.

The U.N and its humanitarian partners will seek $1.3 billion to provide “life-saving” aid this year, according U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, money is needed to help 16 million Afghans. That’s up from last year, when an estimated 2.3 million Afghans needed life-saving assistance.

“It’s a huge increase in people who need aid,” Dujarric said.

_____

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Trump efforts to end ‘forever wars’ fall short

Trump’s efforts to end ‘forever wars’ only reshuffles deployed troops

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On Thursday, the Pentagon announced that more than 5,000 sailors and Marines with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group are headed home after a 10-month deployment. They had been in Somalia. (Tech. Sgt. Christopher Ruano/Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Thursday, December 31, 2020

President Trump in early December ordered the withdrawal of the roughly 700 U.S. troops stationed in Somalia to battle the al-Shabaab terror network, a key milestone in his drive to end American military involvement in what he dubbed foreign “endless wars.”

Less than three weeks later, however, the Pentagon dispatched 5,000 fresh sailors and Marines off the coast of the Horn of Africa to act as a deterrent and to provide logistical support while the original 700 troops moved to their ultimate destinations: other military bases in East Africa, where officials say they will continue waging war against extremist groups.

The entire episode — a “withdrawal” that brings virtually no troops home and even spurs a temporary surge of forces in the region — serves as perhaps the clearest example of how Mr. Trump‘s quest to drastically reduce U.S. entanglement in foreign conflicts he inherited has been, at best, a disappointment.

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Most of the troops in question, critics contend, are not coming home but are simply being moved to other locations, often in the same dangerous corners of the world and sometimes with the same mission. The Trump administration has had little if any measurable success in cutting the overall amount of American military commitments around the world, and the president’s expectation that waves of battle-weary, victorious troops would finally return home to their families has simply not materialized.

Mr. Trump gets credit, analysts say, for asking tough questions about the purpose and expense of U.S. overseas military missions, many dating to World War II. But a look at the hard numbers finds that Mr. Trump‘s rhetoric — and even his direct orders — haven’t always produced the results he wanted.

Trump‘s reputation for ending endless wars, as the slogan goes, is not well earned. He frequently employs these themes in his rhetoric, but it never really showed up in policy,” said John Glaser, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “He tends to make a big public stink about withdrawals, and then hopes the public doesn’t do the homework it actually takes to discover these withdrawals aren’t really happening. … The troops are just being shuffled around the region to continue the endless war from a different location.”

Mr. Trump can point to at least some operations that are pulling back in his final weeks in office.

The Pentagon announced Thursday that more than 5,000 sailors and Marines with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, which most recently had been providing operational support for forces in Somalia, are now headed home after a 10-month deployment.

“The sacrifices and services of the sailors, Marines, and their families is greatly appreciated by the entire Department of Defense and were in the finest traditions of the U.S. naval service. We are glad that we can conclude 2020 by announcing these warriors are headed home,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

While Somalia is the most recent and glaring instance, a similar situation has unfolded in the Middle East, where American forces have been fighting nonstop for nearly two decades. The overall number of U.S. troops in the region appears larger today than it was when the president came into office.

New approach

The administration has had some successes.

Mr. Trump pushed through plans to reduce the number of combat forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite some strong reservations from some of his military commanders. Further cuts are expected before President-elect Joseph R. Biden assumes office in January. Defense Department officials say the number of troops in each country will be down to 2,500 by Jan. 15.

In Afghanistan, a diplomatic deal between Mr. Trump and the Taliban paves the way for all American forces to eventually leave the country, though there are questions about whether that agreement will hold in light of continued Taliban violence. Just last February, there were more than 12,000 troops in Afghanistan, making the nation the clearest example of the president at least partially fulfilling his promise.

Over the objections of Pentagon leaders, the president also has decreased the number of American forces in Syria from 2,000 to about 500. His personnel moves in Syria led to the resignation of former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, who has gone on to become one of Mr. Trump‘s harshest critics.

For Mr. Trump, reducing America’s military role abroad formed a central pillar in his unconventional political platform, and his policy served as a clear break with the neoconservative thinking that had dominated the Republican Party in the post-9/11 era.

In 2016 and again in 2020, Mr. Trump campaigned hard on the issue. He seemed to never waver in his conviction that the U.S. should have fewer troops overseas, and he routinely clashed with powerful members of his own party who warned his approach would embolden al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups that could threaten national security.

When Mr. Trump sensed that he was running into institutionalized resistance in the Pentagon or in Congress, or suspected that military leadership may be slow-walking his orders, he even resorted to unexpected declarations on Twitter in a brute-force effort to turn his goals into reality.

“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” Mr. Trump tweeted in October, which caught the Pentagon leadership by surprise, though ultimately his promise was only partially realized.

Shortly after the November election, the president fired then-Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who was privately opposed to many of Mr. Trump‘s plans for troop drawdowns. In his place, Mr. Trump installed Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who quickly made clear he supported the president’s proposals.

“We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought,” Mr. Miller said in his inaugural message to the military. “All wars must end. Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”

‘Completely pointless’

But Mr. Trump‘s passion and Mr. Miller’s commitment to the big-picture policy won’t tangibly shrink America’s footprint in the Middle East, which actually appears greater now than it was in January 2017.

Over the past several years, Mr. Trump has deployed or redeployed thousands of troops to American military bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and elsewhere, framing those deployments as a warning to an increasingly aggressive Iran and its regional allies. Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been high throughout Mr. Trump‘s tenure and the Pentagon has repeatedly sent more troops to the region whenever it appeared that conflict might erupt.

The result: a surge of American troops in the Middle East under Mr. Trump‘s watch. The U.S. now has at least 42,000 troops in the region, according to a recent analysis by Defense Priorities, a Washington based think tank that advocates a more restrained foreign policy. Thousands more are aboard U.S. warships in the same tense theater.

The Pentagon has stopped releasing official troop counts in war zones, so nailing down specific figures is difficult. But all evidence seems to show that the number of new troops sent to the Middle East during Mr. Trump‘s tenure has greatly outweighed the number of men and women brought home, raising questions about both the intent and effectiveness of the president’s approach.

“You can’t come to any other honest assessment than to say it’s been completely pointless,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, now a Defense Priorities senior fellow.

“We’ve actually increased [troop presence] in the region,” Lt. Col. Davis said. “I actually thought that what President Trump would do would be to make a final push to make good on his campaign promise and actually end some of these forever wars. I thought he would press hard and get it done, and be out of Afghanistan, be out of Iraq, be out of Syria. Instead he just reduced — or didn’t do anything.”

Mr. Trump‘s tenure has seen the reshuffling of troops elsewhere around the world. The Pentagon in 2020 rolled out a long-awaited repositioning of troops in Europe, moving more than 10,000 service members from Germany to other locations — though the majority of those troops remain stationed overseas and have not returned home.

The White House also reportedly considered rethinking the U.S. military commitment along the demilitarized zone separating North Korea and South Korea. While Washington and Seoul have had heated disagreements over how much South Korea should pay to support those deployments, the American military presence has remained and a revised cost-sharing agreement remains in diplomatic limbo.

Specialists say that neither Mr. Trump nor any other president will be capable of changing the broader dynamic until there’s a fundamental rethinking of the U.S. role in the world.

“What needs to change is the well-established policy — virtually uncontested in Washington, D.C. — of maintaining a permanent global military presence. It is that presence, the associated treaty obligations, and the political establishment’s commitment to constant interventionism that get us into these endless wars in the first place,” Mr. Glaser said. “I don’t think Trump‘s motivation to actually alter American foreign policy in this direction was ever that deep, or even genuine. I think it probably helped him politically to employ these themes in his rhetoric, but that’s a separate issue.”

Series of explosions target police in Kabul; at least 4 dead

Series of explosions target police in Kabul; at least 4 dead

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Afghan security personnel inspect the site of a bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. A series of explosions hit the Afghan capital on Saturday morning. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul) more >

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By RAHIM FAIEZ

Associated Press

Saturday, December 26, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – A series of explosions hit the Afghan capital on Saturday morning, killing at least four people including two police officers, officials said.

The deaths were caused by a sticky bomb attached to a police vehicle detonated in western Kabul, police spokesman Ferdaws Faramarz said. The explosion wounded two civilians.

Two other police officers were wounded when a bomb attached to their car exploded earlier Saturday in southern Kabul, Faramarz said.

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Maooma Jafari, deputy spokeswoman for the health ministry, said that four corpses and four wounded people were taken to hospital following the two explosions.

A third sticky bomb detonated in eastern Kabul but caused no casualties, he said.

There were reports of at least two other blasts elsewhere in the city but police had no immediate details.

In a separate report form northern Balkh province, a senior army officer was killed when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb, said Arif Iqbali, a Sholgara district police chief.

Iqbali said that Mohammad Tareq, the garrison commander of the army brigade in Balkh was the apparent target who was killed in the attack.

The latest attacks came as Taliban and Afghan government negotiators held talks in Qatar, trying to hammer out a peace deal that could put an end to decades of war.

No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks in Kabul. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the capital in recent months, including on educational institutions that killed 50 people, most of them students.

The talks in Doha have been suspended until early January and there is speculation they could be further delayed.

At the same time, Taliban militants have waged bitter battles against IS fighters, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, while continuing their insurgency against government forces and keeping their promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops.

IS has also claimed responsibility for last week’s rocket attacks targeting the major U.S. base in Afghanistan. There were no casualties.

Afghan army: 2 officers killed by roadside bomb in north

Afghan army: 2 officers killed by roadside bomb in north

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By

Associated Press

Friday, December 25, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – At least two Afghan army officers including a battalion commander were killed Friday when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in the northern Balkh province, the military said.

Hanif Rezaie, a spokesman for the army in the country’s north, said Capt. Mohammad Qasim Paikar and another officer were killed and two other soldiers were wounded in the explosion, which took place between Balkh and Char Bolak districts.

The attack was the latest amid relentless violence in Afghanistan even as Taliban and Afghan government negotiators hold talks in Qatar, trying to hammer out a peace deal that could put an end to decades of war.

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No one immediately claimed responsibility for Friday’s bombing. Rezaie blamed the Taliban, who are active in both districts and regularly launch attacks against Afghan security forces.

Elsewhere, the Taliban announced the release of 30 imprisoned Afghan security personnel on Thursday in the southern Kandahar province’s Panjwai district.

This is the first batch of prisoners released by the Taliban since the start of direct peace talks with the Afghan government in September.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the group, did not provide further details about the freed prisoners, but it appeared the decision was based on an order from the Taliban’s leadership.

Earlier this year, the government freed more than 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the Taliban releasing around 1,000 Afghan security forces. The prisoner swap was part of the terms of a separate U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February.

Violence in Afghanistan has spiked even amid the Taliban and Afghan government peace negotiations in Qatar, which after some recent procedural progress have been suspended until early January. There’s speculation the resumption could be further delayed.

At the same time, the Taliban have continued their insurgency against government forces while keeping their promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops. The Taliban have also waged bitter battles against the Islamic State group, particularly in eastern Afghanistan.

The IS affiliate in Afghanistan has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the capital of Kabul in recent months, including on educational institutions that killed 50 people, most of them students.

Afghan official: Women’s rights activist shot dead in north

Afghan official: Women’s rights activist shot dead in north

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By RAHIM FAIEZ

Associated Press

Thursday, December 24, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – An Afghan women’s rights activist was shot and killed by unknown gunmen in northern Kapisa province Thursday, an Interior Ministry official said.

Tariq Arian, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said Freshta Kohistani was assassinated by unknown gunmen in the Kohistan district of Kapisa. Kohistani’s brother was wounded in the attack, he said.

Kohistani, a former provincial council member, organized protests and raised awareness on social media about violence against women in Afghanistan.

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The attack was the latest amid relentless violence in Afghanistan even as Taliban and Afghan government negotiators hold talks in Qatar, trying to hammer out a peace deal that could put an end to decades of war.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack, but the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in Kabul in recent months, including on educational institutions that killed 50 people, most of them students.

Violence in Afghanistan has spiked even during Taliban and Afghan government peace negotiations, which began in September. The talks, after some recent procedural progress, have been suspended until early January and there is speculation the resumption could be further delayed.

At the same time, Taliban militants have waged bitter battles against IS fighters, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, while continuing their insurgency against government forces and keeping their promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops.

Rockets hit US base in Afghanistan, no casualties reported

Rockets hit US base in Afghanistan, no casualties reported

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Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, left, talks with Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 at Miller’s military headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. The top U.S. … more >

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By RAHIM FAIEZ

Associated Press

Saturday, December 19, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Five rockets were fired at a major U.S. base in Afghanistan on Saturday, but there were no casualties, NATO and provincial officials said.

The rockets hit Bagram Airfield, said Wahida Shahkar, spokeswoman for the governor in northern Parwan province.

Shahkar said that 12 rockets were placed in a vehicle and five of them were fired while police were able to defuse seven others.

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She couldn’t provide other details on any possible casualties or damage within the U.S. base. She said there are no casualties among civilians in the area.

A NATO official confirmed the attack and said initial reports indicated that the airfield was not damaged.

No one has immediately claimed responsibility. In April, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for five rocket attacks on the base. There were no casualties.

The IS also has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the capital of Kabul in recent months, including on educational institutions that killed 50 people, most of them students.

In a separate attack in northern Balkh province, a civilian vehicle hit a roadside bomb on Saturday, killing four people, according to Tariq Arian, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in Balkh, but Arian claimed the Taliban were behind the bombing.

Violence in Afghanistan has spiked even as the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators hold talks in Qatar, trying to hammer out a peace deal that could put an end to decades of war. At the same time, the Taliban have waged bitter battles against IS fighters, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, while continuing their insurgency against government forces.

Earlier this week, U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, held an unannounced meeting with Taliban leaders in Doha to discuss military aspects of last February’s U.S.-Taliban agreement.

The agreement, signed in Qatar where the Taliban maintain a political office, was intended to set the stage for direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

After talks with the Taliban, Milley flew to Kabul to consult with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. He said he emphasized to both parties the need to rapidly reduce levels of violence across the country.

Pakistan warns India planning ‘surgical strike’ against it

Pakistan warns India planning ‘surgical strike’ against it

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By MUNIR AHMED

Associated Press

Friday, December 18, 2020

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistan’s foreign minister on Friday accused neighboring India of planning a “surgical strike” against his Islamic nation, the latest in a war of words between the two nuclear-armed rivals.

Shah Mahmood Qureshi spoke during a televised news conference in the United Arab Emirates where he is currently on a two-day visit for talks with senior UAE government officials.

He did not offer evidence to support his claim but cited “credible intelligence” about the alleged plot. He added that Pakistan was fully prepared to respond to any such attack from India, which he said could endanger peace in the region.

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There was no immediate comment from New Delhi. Pakistan and India have a history of bitter relations and often trade accusations. They have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain, two of them over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, which is divided between them and claimed by both in its entirety.

Qureshi said an Indian strike could disrupt the ongoing Afghan peace process, which is being facilitated by Pakistan. The Taliban, over whom Pakistan yields considerable influence, and Afghanistan’s government representatives have been holding negotiations since September in Qatar to try and hammer out a peace deal that would end the war.

A Taliban team arrived in Islamabad this week for talks with Pakistani government leaders amid growing calls for a reduction in violence in neighboring Afghanistan. The Taliban delegation met with Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday. According to a government statement, Khan expressed his concern during the meeting over the high level of violence in Afghanistan and called on all sides to reduce violence levels and work toward a cease-fire.

Echoing Qureshi’s concerns, Khan’s adviser on national security, Moeed Yusuf, later Friday tweeted that the “world must prevent India from destabilizing the region in its attempt to divert attention from its domestic trouble.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri said Pakistan learned “from credible sources that India is planning to undertake a military misadventure” in Kashmir and pledged that the Pakistani military was “fully prepared to defeat Indian designs.” Islamabad has informed the international community about the intelligence, Chaudri said.

Also Friday, Pakistan’s military said Indian troops targeted a vehicle with two U.N. observers who escaped unharmed. A military statement said the attack was deliberate as U.N. vehicles are clearly marked and “recognizable even from long distances.”

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq only confirmed that the vehicle, carrying personnel from the observers’ mission and their driver was “impacted by an unidentified object while conducting routine monitoring activities.” No one was harmed and the incident is being investigated, Haq said.

A top Indian army officer, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations, denied the Pakistani accusation. Indian army spokesman Lt. Col. Devender Anand in turn accused Pakistani soldiers of violating the cease-fire in two incidents on Friday along the Line of Control separating the Pakistani-administered and the India-run sectors of Kashmir.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in Kashmir.

___

Associated Press writers Aijaz Hussain Sri Nagar, India, and Edith M Lederer contributed to this report.

Taliban team in Pakistan as calls grow for Afghan cease-fire

Taliban team in Pakistan as calls grow for Afghan cease-fire

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Afghan security personnel inspect the site of a bombing attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. A bombing attack on Wednesday in the Afghan capital of Kabul wounded a few people, Ferdaws Faramarz, a spokesman for the Kabul police … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

ISLAMABAD (AP) – A Taliban team, led by the co-founder of the insurgent movement, arrived Wednesday in Islamabad for talks with Pakistani government leaders amid growing calls for a reduction in violence in neighboring Afghanistan.

The visit came as the Taliban unleashed a wave of attacks in Afghanistan, striking in northern Baghlan and southern Uruzgan province late on Tuesday and early Wednesday. At least 19 members of the Afghan security forces and 11 Taliban fighters were killed in fierce battles, officials said.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and his delegation were summoned to Islamabad from Qatar, where they have been negotiating since September with Afghan government representatives, officials close to the talks said. The visit comes on the heels of U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s quick trip on Tuesday to Pakistan’s military in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

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The Pakistani military has wielded significant influence over the Taliban and has had links with some of their leaders – then part of the U.S.-backed mujahedeen – dating back to the 1980s and the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban emerged in 1994 in response to runaway corruption and violence of mujahedeen warlords who took power from the former communist regime in 1992.

Pakistan was key in getting the Taliban to the negotiation table with the United States in 2018. Those talks eventually led to the U.S.-Taliban deal that was signed in February, providing for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

The deal also paved way for the start of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which began in September in efforts to hammer out a roadmap for post-war Afghanistan. The talks, after some recent procedural progress, have been suspended till early January and there is speculation the resumption could be further delayed.

Kabul has called for the talks to resume inside Afghanistan while the Taliban insist they continue in Doha, Qatar, where they maintain a political office.

Meanwhile, Washington has been increasingly frustrated by a spike in violence in Afghanistan and calls for a cease-fire have been reaching crescendo in both Kabul and in Washington.

Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem tweeted late Tuesday that “a high level delegation” led by Baradar “left for Islamabad at the official invitation” of Pakistan. The delegation will meet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Thursday and met Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, as well as military officials.

However, it is unclear if the Taliban visit to Pakistan would yield any progress toward even a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan.

Still in a press conference

President Donald Trump accelerated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan earlier this month, with another 2,000 troops returning home by early January and leaving just 2,500 American soldiers behind.

The final withdrawal hinges on Taliban fulfilling their commitment to cut off al-Qaida and other militant groups and ensure that Afghan territory is not used for attacks on the United States. The Islamic State group – a rival of the Taliban – is seen as America’s greatest security threat in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad has called on both sides in the Qatar talks to press toward a political solution, but the stepped-up violence by the Taliban is undermining progress, according to officials familiar with the talks. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations.

Until now, the Taliban have said a cease-fire would be on the agenda for negotiations but have refused pressure for an immediate end to fighting.

Qureshi, the Pakistani foreign minister, said following meetings Wednesday with Taliban representatives that both sides in the conflict have a responsibility to reduce violence.

“This responsibility cannot be placed on the shoulders of the Taliban alone. All sides will have to play a role,” Qureshi said, adding Pakistan wants to see a reduction of violence that leads to a cease-fire.

In the latest attacks in Afghanistan, Jawed Basharat, spokesman for the provincial police chief in Baghlan province, said the Taliban attacked a police checkpoint near Puli Khumri, the provincial capital.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, however, claimed that Afghan security forces had shelled civilian areas, prompting a response from the insurgents. Basharat said an investigation was underway into the attack.

A provincial health department official, who was not authorized to speak with the media, said bodies of 13 policemen and five wounded were brought to a city hospital early on Wednesday. One of the wounded died shortly afterward, the health official said.

In the Uruzgan attack, Ahmad Shah Sahil, spokesman for the provincial governor, said a Taliban attack on a checkpoint late on Tuesday in Dehrawad district killed five members of the security forces and wounded two others. He added that at least 11 Taliban fighters were killed and six others were wounded in the fighting there, which ended early in the morning on Wednesday.

The Taliban did not immediately offer any comment on the attack in Uruzgan.

In Kabul, a roadside bomb struck a vehicle early on Wednesday, wounding two people, according to police spokesman Ferdaws Faramarz. On Tuesday, a lawyer was shot and killed in the latest target killings sweeping the country. Afghan police have arrested two suspects in connection with the shooting.

___

Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

Afghan officials probe civilian deaths in alleged airstrike

Afghan officials probe civilian deaths in alleged airstrike

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By RAHIM FAIEZ

Associated Press

Monday, December 14, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – The Afghan government is investigating reports that an alleged airstrike over the weekend killed around a dozen civilians, including children, in southern Kandahar province, officials said Monday.

According to Fawad Aman, the Afghan defense ministry’s deputy spokesman, the military will soon have its assessment of the allegations of civilian casualties in Arghandab district on Saturday night but declined to provide further details.

Bahir Ahmadi, the provincial governor’s spokesman in Kandahar, said there was a battle in the area at the time and that a Taliban vehicle full of explosives detonated prematurely. The investigators now have to find out exactly how the civilian were killed.

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“It is not clear whether the civilian casualties were caused by the enemy explosion or during the battle,” said Ahmadi.

On Sunday, the Taliban claimed that government forces in an airstrike killed at least 13 civilians in Arghandab, prompting a swift denial by the government, which in turn insisted that seven civilians were killed when the Taliban detonated a bomb in the area.

The area of the explosion is remote and difficult to reach, and Taliban and government accounts of the civilian deaths could not be immediately confirmed. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai tweeted his condolences for the dead, calling for an immediate end to the fighting.

A U.S.-based institute warned last week that there has been a dramatic increase in airstrikes conducted by Afghan government forces from July to September this year, attacks that have led to a sharp rise in civilian casualties.

The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, a research center at Brown University, said in its report that 70 Afghan civilians have been killed in the third quarter of this year, compared to 86 killed in the first six months of 2020.

In its report, the institute also said that from 2017 through 2019, civilian deaths due to U.S. and allied forces’ airstrikes in Afghanistan dramatically increased. In 2019, airstrikes killed 700 civilians – more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war in 2001 and 2002.

Violence in Afghanistan has spiked in recent months even as the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators are holding talks in Qatar, trying to hammer out a peace deal that could put an end to decades of war.

Report: Afghans losing hope for peace process amid violence

Report: Afghans losing hope for peace process amid violence

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By TAMEEM AKHGAR

Associated Press

Friday, December 11, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Optimism among Afghans regarding the country’s peace process has decreased significantly in the past few months amid a spike in violence, according to a survey released Friday.

The Institute of War and Peace Studies found optimism had dropped to 57% when the survey was conducted from Sept. 29 to Oct. 18. That’s down from 86% of those surveyed according to the previous assessment conducted over the summer and released in August.

Ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar had been at an impasse until last week, when in a breakthrough, the two sides agreed on rules and procedures for the negotiations.

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However, since the Afghan-Taliban talks started in September, violence has spiked significantly. The Taliban have staged deadly attacks on Afghan forces while keeping their promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops. The attacks have drawn a mighty retaliation by the Afghan air force, backed by U.S. warplanes. International rights groups have warned both sides to avoid inflicting civilian casualties.

The Kabul-based think tank found the 75.9% of survey respondents said a cease-fire should be the top priority of the intra-Afghan talks.

Additionally, 71% of those polled did not want to dissolve the country’s army and security forces after a peace deal. Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani has denounced the idea.

Another 64% were also against any fundamental reforms to the structure of the country’s security forces, something the Taliban have insisted on, saying these forces were created by foreign powers.

The institute polled 8,627 people across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces – 58% men and 42% women – and received funding to conduct the survey from the European Union and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The survey had a 5% margin of error.

A few districts in some provinces were not surveyed due to high levels of violence and instability, as well as issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, the institute said.

The Taliban now control or hold sway over half the country, and are at their most powerful since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

In a report earlier this year, Washington’s Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, which monitors billions of dollars in U.S. aid to the country, said Afghanistan may not be ready for peace unless it finds a way to reintegrate Taliban fighters into society and combat “endemic corruption.”

UN backs Afghan peace talks in resolution, Russia votes `no’

UN backs Afghan peace talks in resolution, Russia votes `no’

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Thursday, December 10, 2020

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution over Russian objections Thursday commending progress in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban while urging stepped-up efforts to tackle terrorist attacks by the Taliban, al-Qaida, the Islamic State extremist group and their affiliates.

The vote in the 193-member world body was 130 in favor, Russia against, and China, Pakistan and Belarus abstaining. Fifty-nine countries did not vote.

The 15-page resolution titled “The Situation in Afghanistan” covers a wide range of issues including peace and reconciliation, democracy, the rule of law, good governance, human rights, counter-narcotics, social and economic development and regional cooperation.

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While welcoming progress in the intra-Afghan talks, including the Dec. 2 agreement on rules of procedure for negotiations, the resolution “condemns the high rate of continued violence.” It says this “is contributing to an unacceptable number of casualties” and calls for an immediate cessation of violence and strongly encourages the Afghan government and the Taliban “to pursue confidence-building measures and to reduce violence.”,

The resolution reiterates the General Assembly’s “serious concern” about the security situation in Afghanistan and stresses the need to continue to address the threat to the country’s stability from violence committed by the Taliban, including the Haqqani Network, as well as al-Qaida, Islamic State, their affiliates “and other terrorist and criminal groups.”

Afghanistan’s U.N. ambassador, Adela Raz, expressed regret that despite her government’s strong support for the resolution it wasn’t adopted by consensus, saying the measure reflects “developments that are taking place on the ground and particularly the progress in the peace process.”

Raz said the goal of the government, Afghanistan’s neighbors and the General Assembly is to incorporate the Taliban as a political party. “It is our utmost aim to see the Taliban as a constructive political party in the country, without the relationship with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, working for prosperity and peace in Afghanistan,” she said.

Noting that U.N. experts monitoring sanctions against the Taliban say it “maintains ties to terrorist groups such as al-Qaida,” Raz said the resolution is balanced regarding “the Taliban’s willingness to take firm steps towards peace and reconciliation” and its continuing attacks and terrorist ties.

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, whose country led negotiations on the resolution, said that “out of all the `special years’ for Afghanistan declared in the past two decades, 2020 was indeed singular.” Most important was the start of Afghan peace negotiations in September, he said after detailing all the events leading to the talks, starting with the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February.

Heusgen also pointed to pledges of more than $13 billion in foreign aid and stabilization for Afghanistan at a donors conference in Geneva just over two weeks ago as evidence that “the international community stands firmly behind the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and its ongoing quest to achieve self-reliance.”

He said the resolution is “constructive and forward-looking” and the vote signals that the General Assembly “stands behind the Afghan people in a very difficult period of the country.”

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Anna Evstigneeva, sharply criticized Germany’s role in the negotiations, saying there was “blatant disregard” for Moscow’s concerns. She also said it is “an attempt to conceal the true scope” of threats from the Islamic State extremist group and drug issues threatening the country’s security.

She accused Germany of having “a pre-established biased position favoring one group of states,” which she didn’t name, and said it should no longer facilitate negotiations on the Afghanistan resolution in the General Assembly.

Nonetheless, Evstigneeva said, “we continue to support Afghanistan during this crucial period.”

Germany’s Heusgen responded by saying Russia’s “no” vote sends the message that “Russia today let down the Afghan people.”

“All of us should have voted in favor and should have sent a strong signal to the Afghan people: In these difficult times, we stand behind you,” he said.

Iran, Afghanistan open first rail link with eye on trade

Iran, Afghanistan open first rail link with eye on trade

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Associated Press

Thursday, December 10, 2020

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – The leaders of Iran and Afghanistan on Thursday inaugurated the first railway link between the two countries, expressing hope it would enhance trade links across the region.

The 140-kilometer (90-mile) line running from eastern Iran into western Afghanistan will eventually be expanded by 85 kilometers to reach the Afghan city of Herat, providing a crucial transport link for the landlocked country, where decades of war have hindered infrastructure development.

The $75 million project began in 2007, with Iran funding construction on both sides of the border as part of its development assistance to Afghanistan.

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Iran‘s President Hassan Rouhani, speaking in a video conference, called it “one of the historic days” in relations between the two countries. He said Iran had succeeded in building the line despite sanctions imposed by the Trump administration after the U.S. withdrew from Iran‘s 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called the railroad a “precious gift from Iran” that would help restore the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that spread prosperity across Asia. The inauguration saw cargo trains depart from opposite ends of the line.

Iran hopes to transform itself into a regional transport hub, allowing Afghanistan and other landlocked Asian countries to transport goods to its ports on the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Iran already has rail links with Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Turkey.

IS says it killed female TV anchor in eastern Afghanistan

IS says it killed female TV anchor in eastern Afghanistan

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Afghans pay their respects to TV anchor Malala Maiwand who was shot and killed by gunmen soon after she left her house early Thursday, during her funeral ceremony in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. No one … more >

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Associated Press

Thursday, December 10, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for an attack on Thursday that killed a female TV anchor in eastern Afghanistan.

Two attackers opened fire on Malala Maiwand’s car soon after she left her house in Nangarhar province earlier in the day, said Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the governor. Maiwand’s driver was also killed in the shooting, he added.

Afghan interior ministry spokesman, Tariq Arian, said police immediately arrested both attackers, adding that they have confessed their crimes.

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The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks militant messaging online, said IS issued its claim of responsibility in a “communique” posted on the internet.

Nangarhar province is where the IS affiliate first emerged about five years ago and where it is now headquartered. IS has claimed most of the recent attacks on civilians in Afghanistan. The Taliban, who also operate in the area, are holding peace talks with government representatives, negotiations underway in Qatar.

In addition to working as a TV and radio presenter, Maiwand was also an activist who advocated for the rights of Afghan women and children.

Two Afghan journalists were killed in separate bombings in Afghanistan last month. The international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders has called Afghanistan one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists.

Chinese official says Australian PM overreacted to tweet

Chinese official says Australian PM overreacted to tweet

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FILE – In this Nov. 17, 2020, file photo, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reviews an honor guard during a ceremony ahead of a meeting at Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s official residence in Tokyo. Morrison said Monday, Nov. 30, … more >

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Associated Press

Thursday, December 3, 2020

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – China’s senior diplomat in Australia said Prime Minister Scott Morrison overreacted to a social media post about alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, adding that his actions drew more attention to the report.

Earlier this week, Morrison said that a Chinese official’s tweet showing the fake image of an Australian soldier appearing to slit a child’s throat was “truly repugnant” and merits an apology, which has not come from China.

“I think it’s unfortunate that this issue evolved in such a way that has gone astray and now there is a much larger visibility of the Brereton report in China,” China’s deputy ambassador, Wang Xining, said Friday. “More people are attentive to what happened in Afghanistan. People wonder why a national leader would have such a strong opinion to an artwork done by a normal young artist in China.”

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He was referring to a disturbing report by Australia’s military earlier this month that found evidence that elite Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 Afghan prisoners, farmers and civilians during the conflict in Afghanistan. It recommended that 19 soldiers be referred to federal police for criminal investigation.

It followed a four-year investigation by Maj. Gen. Paul Brereton, a judge and army reservist who was asked to look into the allegations and interviewed more than 400 witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of documents.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, posted the graphic image that shows a grinning soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of a veiled child, who is holding a lamb.

Zhao wrote a caption with the tweet saying: “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, & call for holding them accountable.”

Many of Australia’s allies have been critical of the tweet, with the European Union calling it “irresponsible.”

“We consider the deliberate dissemination of a fabricated image via social media accounts affiliated with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be irresponsible, insensitive, and not at all constructive, particularly given the subject in question,” said an EU spokesman.

“Such behavior and use of information tools to disseminate fabricated images or information cannot be justified.”

Officials from the United States, New Zealand and Canada have also criticized the Chinese tweet.

The rift between the two nations has grown since the Australian government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. China has since imposed tariffs and other restrictions on a number of Australian exports, most recently to its lucrative wine industry.

New Zealand joins Australia in denouncing China’s tweet

New Zealand joins Australia in denouncing China’s tweet

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during a media stand-up on her way to Question Time at Parliament, in Wellington, New Zealand Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. New Zealand has joined Australia in denouncing a graphic tweet posted by a … more >

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By NICK PERRY

Associated Press

Monday, November 30, 2020

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – New Zealand has joined Australia in denouncing a graphic tweet posted by a Chinese official that shows a fake image of a grinning Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to a child’s throat.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Tuesday that New Zealand has voiced its concerns directly with Chinese authorities.

“This is an image that wasn’t factual. It wasn’t correct. And so in keeping with our principled position where images like that are used, we will raise those concerns and we’ll do it directly,” Ardern told reporters.

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China has not backed down from the tweet and said there will be no apology.

Ardern’s criticism was more muted than Australia‘s. She faced an awkward choice of how far to get involved in a conflict between New Zealand’s closest ally, Australia, and its biggest trading partner, China.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday called the image “repugnant” and demanded an apology from the Chinese government. The post took aim at alleged abuses by Australian soldiers during the conflict in Afghanistan.

The incident is further souring already tense relations between Australia and China.

The image, which appeared to show the soldier slitting the child’s throat, was posted by Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry. He wrote a caption with his tweet: “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, & call for holding them accountable.”

He was referring to a disturbing report by Australia’s military earlier this month which found evidence that elite Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 Afghan prisoners, farmers and civilians during the Afghanistan conflict. The report recommended that 19 soldiers be referred to federal police for criminal investigation.

Asked about the issue at a daily briefing, foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying cast blame on the Australian side.

“What Australia should do is to reflect deeply, bring the perpetrators to justice, make a formal apology to the Afghan people, and solemnly promise to the international community that they will never commit such terrible crimes again,” Hua said.

Morrison said Zhao’s tweet was “utterly outrageous” and a terrible slur against Australia’s military.

It “is truly repugnant. It is deeply offensive to every Australian, every Australian who has served in that uniform,” he told reporters in Canberra. “The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes.”

Morrison said his government contacted Twitter asking it to take the post down. The post had a warning tag on it on Tuesday but could still be viewed. Zhao’s account comes with a Twitter label stating that it’s a Chinese government account.

Despite China blocking Twitter and other U.S. social media platforms within the county, Chinese diplomats and state media have established a strong presence on them.

Zhao was criticized by the U.S. in March after tweeting a conspiracy theory that U.S. soldiers may have brought the coronavirus to China. He is considered a leading representative of China’s high-pitched new strain of assertive foreign relations.

Morrison acknowledged there were tensions between China and Australia.

“But this is not how you deal with them,” he said. “Australia has patiently sought to address the tensions that exist in our relationship in a mature way, in a responsible way, by seeking engagement at both leader and ministerial level.”

The rift between the two nations has grown since the Australian government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. China has since imposed tariffs and other restrictions on a number of Australian exports.

Christopher Miller, acting Defense Secretary, visit spurs talk that Somalia pullout is in the works

Miller visit spurs talk that U.S. troop pullout of Somalia is in the works

Trump decries endless wars, critics wary of PR win for al-Shabab

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In this Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, image taken from a video provided by Defense.gov Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller speaks at the Pentagon in Washington. Miller said Tuesday that the U.S. will reduce troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan by … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

Associated Press

Monday, November 30, 2020

A surprise trip by acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller to Somalia over the Thanksgiving weekend is fueling speculation that President Trump may soon pull the U.S. out of an “endless war” in the Horn of Africa — but there are growing fears that a hasty American exit could embolden the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab and destabilize the entire country at a delicate political moment.

The roughly 700 U.S. troops currently in Somalia primarily conduct counterterrorism missions and train Somali forces while also helping to coordinate an American anti-terror drone war that has grown more aggressive throughout Mr. Trump’s four years in office. The air campaign has kept al-Shabab — an al Qaeda affiliate estimated to control as much as 25% of Somali territory — in check, but America’s limited military engagement has proven inadequate to fully defeat the group or to spur peace negotiations with the struggling government in Mogadishu.

Faced with that reality, Mr. Trump reportedly is on the verge of ordering all U.S. forces to leave Somalia. Such a move would come on the heels of major troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, scheduled to be completed just days before presumptive President-Elect Joseph R. Biden assumes office on Jan. 20.

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While some American forces almost surely would remain in neighboring countries and U.S. drones would continue bombing al-Shabab targets across Somalia. But as in other U.S. deployments in hot spots around the globe, Mr. Trump is taking flak from critics who say pulling out is worse that staying put.

Analysts warn that a U.S. withdrawal would be cast by terror groups as a major victory and serve as a serious public relations and recruiting boost. The potential exit also would come as the fragile Somali government gears up for presidential and parliamentary elections in the coming months, and a significant uptick in violence could derail those contests and spark a new wave of instability.

“The short-term ramifications are significant,” said Katherine Zimmerman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies the region. “Rapid gains by al-Shabab as Somali units collapse under pressure and the counterterrorism operation tempo drops; al-Shabab claiming victory over the U.S., joining what might soon be a choir that includes the Taliban and perhaps the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; and the shift in focus toward security concerns over the upcoming [Somalian] election. Limited bandwidth across the board will mean the elections [do] not get the attention they need.”

Mr. Miller offered few clues as to the future during his brief trip to Somalia, where he celebrated Thanksgiving with U.S. troops.

“Honored to celebrate Thanksgiving with U.S. military personnel at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti and in Mogadishu, Somalia, and give thanks for the sacrifices our service members and their families make to protect our freedoms and the American way of life,” he said in a Twitter statement during the trip.

Mr. Miller was installed after the president fired former Defense Secretary Mark Esper earlier this month. Mr. Miller is widely viewed as much more amenable to Mr. Trump’s desire to pull U.S. troops out of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa in quick fashion, and even engaged in some clandestine diplomatic outreach to al-Shabab leaders as head of the National Counterterrorism Center before getting the Pentagon post.

The initiative reportedly angered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and was promptly shut down.

In Somalia, terrorism is just one piece of a complex equation. The historically difficult Somali electoral process already appears in turmoil this week after the Somali government expelled the ambassador from Kenya, alleging that its African neighbor is interfering in elections in Jubbaland, one of the Somalia’s semi-autonomous provinces.

Successful elections and a relatively stable central government has been at the core of America’s exit strategy. U.S. military officials long have planned to turn over leadership in the fight against al-Shabab to the Somali government by next year, though that timeline is now in doubt even if American troops remain inside the country.

Specialists say an American withdrawal also could lead troops with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to take a step back, giving al-Shabab even more freedom to operate.

“Under the new U.S. military plans, attack drones will still fly from Kenya and Djibouti. But the risks of tragic and politically exploitable civilian casualties will grow, and the air strike frequency is likely to decrease,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a recent analysis.

“Fearing al-Shabab, AMISOM may bunker up in garrisons even more and reduce the number of bases, thus weakening anti-Shabab militias,” she said.

Some former military officials warn that an emboldened al-Shabab represents a very real threat to U.S. national security interests at home and abroad.

“The reality is, on the ground in places like Somalia and Afghanistan, there are still terrorists who would do us ill, and I want to play, actually, the game on their turf, and not play it here,” retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program on Sunday.

Chief Afghan peace envoy says US troops pulling out too soon

Chief Afghan peace envoy says US troops pulling out too soon

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By SUZAN FRASER

Associated Press

Saturday, November 21, 2020

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – Afghanistan’s chief peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah said Saturday that the U.S. decision to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan has come too soon, as his country is still struggling to attain peace and security amid an ongoing conflict.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Abdullah also described as “shocking” an Australian military report that found evidence that elite Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 Afghan prisoners. He welcomed a decision by Australian authorities to pursue the perpetrators.

Abdullah spoke in Ankara where he sought Turkey’s support for negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban that are taking place in Qatar to find an end to decades of war. The talks have made little progress so far.

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“This is the decision of the U.S administration and we respect it,” Abdullah said of the U.S. decision this week to reduce troops levels in Afghanistan from more than 4,500 to 2,500. “Our preference would have been that with the conditions improving, this should have taken place.”

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced that Washington would reduce troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan by mid-January, in line with President Donald Trump’s pledge to bring U.S. forces home.

Afghan officials have expressed concerns that a rapid reduction in American troops could strengthen the negotiating hand of the Taliban, while the militants are still waging a full-fledged insurgency against government forces.

“It’s not like things will go as we wish,” Abdullah said, adding however, that he welcomed the fact 2,500 troops will remain and that NATO will also retain its presence.

The chief negotiator said he was confident that the United States will continue to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban during President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.

“What form or what shape it will take that remains to be seen but they will certainly push for a peaceful settlement,” Abdullah said.

Abdullah, who shared power in Afghanistan’s last government as chief executive and before that as foreign minister, cautioned that “a comprehensive settlement will come as a result of the negotiation between the Afghan government and the Taliban,” regardless of any possible new input by the new U.S. administration.

Washington signed a deal with the Taliban in February to pave the way for the Doha talks and American forces’ eventual withdrawal. The Americans championed the deal as Afghanistan’s best chance at a lasting peace.

Abdullah’s meetings with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials came days after Australia revealed a report into war crimes that found evidence that elite Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 Afghan prisoners, farmers and civilians.

“It was shocking,” Abdullah said of the report, but welcomed the fact that Australia had “come clear about it. ”

He added: “there is the promise, the prospect of prosecution for those who have committed these heinous crimes that will count. This will help preventing these types of crimes.”

The top Afghan official also said he had asked Turkey to “reenergize” its efforts in support of the peace process, and suggested that Turkey appoint a “special envoy” to support the negotiations.

Rights group, Afghan envoy want more probes into war crimes

Rights group, Afghan envoy want more probes into war crimes

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An honor guard is formed at Defence Headquarters in Canberra, Australia, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, before findings from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry are released. A shocking report into war crimes by elite Australian troops has … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Thursday, November 19, 2020

ISLAMABAD (AP) – A leading international human rights group and an Afghan envoy on Thursday urged nations whose militaries have served as part of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan – including America and Britain – to follow Australia’s example and probe their own soldiers’ conduct in the 19-year war.

The appeal came after Australia’s public release earlier in the day of a shocking report alleging unlawful killings by elite Australian troops in Afghanistan.

The report – the result of a four-year investigation – found evidence that some among Australia’s elite troops summarily killed 39 Afghan prisoners, farmers and civilians. Some of the crimes, which began in 2009, with most occurring in 2012 and 2013, could rise to the level of war crimes.

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A particularly disturbing practice noted in the report was the so-called “blooding,” where new soldiers to the battlefield were encouraged to kill an Afghan to get a first “kill.” It also alleges that items such a gun or a cell phone were placed on the slain victim to claim he was an insurgent.

“It’s important to understand that the elite Australian special forces were not alone in committing these atrocities,” said Patricia Gossman, senior researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch.

“Their soldiers have even said it was widely known that U.K. and U.S. special forces had carried out similar crimes,” she said. “It was part of a sick culture that essentially treated Afghans living in these contested areas as if they were all dangerous criminals – even the children – or simply as not human.”

Gossman said that at about the same time as some of the alleged Australian offences took place, there was a case of “alleged involvement of U.S. special forces in the forced disappearance, murder and torture of Afghan civilians in the Nerkh district of Wardak (province) in 2012-2013.”

The Australian report, she said, should put “pressure on other coalition members to do better, including the U.S. and also the UK.” Grossman added that there has been a similar probe in Britain that was never publicized. Britain “buried its own investigation and failed to prosecute those accused of serious crimes,” she said.

A former advisor to the Afghan government, Torek Farhadi, said it took courage for the Australian government to publicly acknowledge the alleged crimes but that from “an Afghan’s viewpoint, redress and compensation will be important.”

Australia must follow up with the victims,” he said.

Farhadi claimed abuses by the U.S.-led coalition forces started being reported to Afghan leaders soon after the Taliban were overthrown by the U.S.-led coalition in 2001.

But, at the time, “Afghan leaders were too insecure to confront the coalition,” he added.

However, a few years later, Afghanistan’s then-President Hamid Karzai began to complain bitterly about night raids conducted by international forces, reports of unlawful detentions and abuses by coalition and Afghan forces. He called for an immediate stop but Farhadi said Karzai “was quickly scolded as a non-team player by the U.S. and the coalition.”

Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court judges authorized a far-reaching investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by Afghan government forces, the Taliban, American troops and U.S. foreign intelligence operatives. Washington, which has long rejected the court’s jurisdiction and refuses to cooperate with it, condemned the decision.

The probe was authorized after the ICC in 2018 received a staggering 1.7 million statements – including those of entire Afghan villages – alleging atrocities were committed by the Talban, the Islamic State group, Afghan government forces and U.S. forces. The statements resulted in several thousand claims.

While the ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda pledged to carry out an independent and impartial investigation, little has been done so far. Current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government has said it would not authorize any investigations into the conduct of Afghan forces, denying they were involved in any war crimes.

Still, Ghani’s special envoy on human rights and international affairs Sima Samar told The Associated Press on Thursday that probes similar to the Australian inquiry should be conducted by all governments that had troops deployed to Afghanistan.

“It is very sad to know that this kind of crimes has happened in Afghanistan,” said Samar. “I hope (the Australian report) will encourage others to do the same – not only make their reports public, but acknowledge the wrongdoing and crimes committed by the their forces in Afghanistan.”

Gossman of the Human Rights Watch said the Australian report was “an important step” that should also “be a reminder to all that the ICC investigation is pending, despite Afghan government efforts to seek a postponement and U.S. efforts to bully the court.”

“The details emerging from the Australia report underscore just how vitally important an ICC investigation is when countries implicated in serious abuses fail to hold their forces accountable,” she said.