Afghan government in crisis as senior security and spy chiefs tender mass resignations

Mohammad Haneef AtmarThe government of Afghanistan is facing one of its most serious crises since the end of the Taliban reign in 2001, as the country’s most senior security and intelligence officials tendered their resignations this week. The unprecedented move followed a dramatic escalation in attacks against Afghan government installations by Taliban and Islamic State forces, which have resulted in dozens of casualties throughout the Central Asian country. On Saturday, Mohammad Haneef Atmar, long time national security adviser to President Ashraf Ghani and one of the Afghanistan’s most recognizable and powerful political figures, tendered his resignation. Many seasoned observers were surprised when President Ghani, who is a close political ally of Atmar, accepted his resignation and replaced him with Hamdullah Mohib, who until recently was Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States.

But the political crisis deepened on Sunday, when three more senior officials tendered letters of resignation. Tariq Shah Bahrami, Minister of Defense, Wais Ahmad Barmak, Minister of the Interior, and Masoom Stanekzai, head of Afghanistan’s National Security Directorate, all resigned their posts. All three have been subjected to intense criticism by Afghanistan’s political opposition and national media, for having failed to stop the anti-government insurgency, which is intensifying in nearly every one of the country’s provinces. Criticism of the three men became even sharper last week, after the Taliban launched a spectacular rocket attack on the Presidential Palace in the Afghan capital Kabul, which was heard in the background during President Ghani’s speech to commemorate the Muslim festival of Eid.

Late on Sunday, however, a presidential spokesman told media representatives that President Ghani had rejected the three officials’ resignations. Instead, he demanded that they stay in their posts and redouble their efforts to enhance the security of Afghanistan. Later that same evening, the Presidential Palace issued a written statement to the media, which said that President Ghani “did not approve the [officials’] resignations”. Instead, he “gave them the necessary instructions to improve the security situation” in the country. Meanwhile on Tuesday US Defense Secretary James Mattis insisted during a press conference in Washington that the current US strategy in Afghanistan is working and that the Talian would eventually be forced to negotiate, thus ending the country’s ongoing civil war.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2018 | Permalink

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Russia, US, deny conducting mystery airstrikes in Tajikistan

Afghanistan TajikistanRussia, the United States and Tajikistan have all denied that they were behind a series of mystery airstrikes that took place along the Tajik-Afghan border on Sunday, while the identity of the targets also remains unknown. The 800-mile border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan consists of mountainous terrain. Unlike the Afghan-Pakistani border, which is rife with skirmishes and firefights, the Afghan-Tajik border is usually peaceful and sparsely guarded. But on Sunday, August 26, local officials from both sides of the Afghan-Tajik border reported that fighter jets conducted a series of airstrikes. News media in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe said that Tajik border guards exchanged fire with Taliban fighters, killing as many as eight, but losing two officers in the process. However, on Monday a Tajik border police official denied media reports and said that the border incident involved Tajik lumberjacks who were attacked by unknown assailants from Afghanistan.

Adding to the mystery, Afghan officials said on Sunday that fighter jets bombed Afghan territory adjacent to the Tajik border. They added that they did not know if the fighter jets were Russian or Tajik. However, Tajikistan has a nominal air force consisting of no more than four Czech-made light-attack aircraft, which have not been used in over a decade. That leaves Russia, which maintains an air base in the suburbs of Dushanbe, 100 miles from the Afghan border. But on Monday, Moscow denied any involvement in the incident, as did Tajikistan. Russian officials placed the blame on the US, saying that the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force in Afghanistan is known to regularly launch airstrikes throughout Afghanistan. But US Pentagon officials said that they were not involved. When asked by reporters in Kabul, Afghan government representatives said that Afghanistan lacked the ability to monitor its airspace due to a lack of radar equipment. They called on the US-led NATO force to investigate Sunday’s incident.

Meanwhile, the identity of the persons targeted in the alleged airstrikes is also in doubt. On Monday, the Taliban denied that they had engaged with either Afghan or Tajik government forces along Afghanistan’s northern borderlands, saying that they had not authorized their fighters to operate in the area. Additionally, the Taliban have not been known to engage Tajik government troops in the past. Some observers have opined that the border skirmish may have been caused by drug smugglers who regularly transport drugs from Afghanistan to Russia or the Caspian Sea region through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However, there are no prior reported incidents of Russian, American or Tajik fighter jets having been deployed along the Afghan-Tajik border to combat drug traffickers.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 August 2018 | Permalink

US diplomats secretly met with Taliban without Afghan government

TalibanIn a dramatic change to longstanding policy, senior United States diplomats have reportedly held secret meetings with Taliban leaders without the presence –and presumably knowledge– of the Afghan government. For over a decade, the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they view as a puppet regime controlled by Washington. They have instead sought to speak directly with the United States, without Kabul’s mediation. In 2015, the United States sought to initiate peace talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha, but the effort collapsed after the Afghan government denounced it and demanded a seat at the table. The negotiation process has remained dormant since then.

Last week, however, The Wall Street Journal reported that a series of unannounced meetings have been taking place between a delegation of senior Taliban officials and an American team led by Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. On Saturday, The New York Times confirmed the story, saying that meetings between the two sides were being held in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an informal diplomatic mission. Citing “two senior Taliban officials”, The Times said that the American diplomats have been meeting with members of the Taliban’s political commissariat. But the paper said it had no information about the substance or progress of the talks. If The Times’ claims are accurate, they would mark a dramatic reversal of longstanding US policy on the Taliban. Since 2001, Washington has consistently argued that any negotiation process involving the Taliban would be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”. Therefore, direct talks between Washington and the Taliban without Kabul’s mediation would mark a major shift in America’s security strategy in Afghanistan and beyond.

The New York Times said it contacted the US Department of State in Washington, seeking clarification about the alleged talks. But a spokesman refused to discuss the claims and insisted that “any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government”. However, The Times noted that the spokesman did not expressly deny the existence of the talks with the Taliban.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 July 2018 | Permalink

Spy chiefs from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan hold high-level meeting

Sergei NaryshkinIntelligence directors from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan met on Tuesday to discuss regional cooperation with particular reference to combating the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Information about the high-level meeting was revealed yesterday by Sergei Ivanov, media spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Ivanov told Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency that the meeting was held in Pakistan and included the participation of SVR director Sergei Naryshkin. TASS reported that the meeting was held under the auspices of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate and was attended by “senior intelligence officials” from Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China.

Ivanov said that discussions during the meeting “focused on the dangers arising from a buildup of the Islamic State on the Afghan territory”. The Islamic State announced the formation of its Afghan province (wilayah in Arabic) in January 2015, using the term “Khorasan Province”. By July 2016, two of its most prominent leaders had been killed in coordinated drone strikes by the United States, but the group continues to launch operations to this day. Its core is thought to be made up of nearly 100 fighters from the Islamic State’s former strongholds in Syria and Iraq. According to Russian reports, security officials in China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran are concerned that the Islamic State’s Afghan command is becoming stronger as fighters from the group are leaving the Middle East and moving to Afghanistan.

Tuesday’s high-level meeting in Islamabad follows an announcement last month by the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that it would adopt a more active stance on security issues in Afghanistan. Early in June, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani described the SCO as “an important platform for anti-terrorist cooperation and enhancing regional connectivity” in Central and South Asia. President Ghani made these comments shortly before traveling to China to attend the annual summit of the SCO, of which Afghanistan is an observer country.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 11 July 2018 | Permalink

Taliban pose open threat to 70% of Afghanistan, BBC study finds

TalibanThe Taliban have an open and constant presence in 70 percent of Afghanistan, according to an extensive study undertaken by the BBC, which was conducted over several months in every corner of the country. The report comes nearly 17 years after a military coalition led by the United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since then, Western forces, most of them members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have spent countless lives and billions of dollars in an effort to defeat the Pashtun-led insurgency of the Taliban. American forces in the country, which at the end of 2009 numbered close to 100,000 troops, were reduced to a force of fewer than 8,000 by 2014, when US President Barack Obama declared the war over.

But the BBC study has found that the Taliban have grown in strength since the US military withdrawal, and are now more powerful than at any time in the past decade. The BBC said that it carried out the study between August and November of 2017, with the help of a large network of reporters who spoke to more than 1,200 local sources. Thousands of interviews were conducted either in person or by telephone with Afghans across the country, and every report of a Taliban-related violent incident was cross-referenced with as many as six other sources, said the BBC. The interviews covered every one of Afghanistan’s 399 districts, using a representative sample from both urban and rural areas.

The findings were described by one expert, Kate Clark, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, as “shocking”. They show that more than half of Afghanistan’s population resides in areas that are either mostly controlled by the Taliban, or where Taliban forces are openly and regularly active. The group is now in complete control of 14 Afghan districts, which represent 4 percent of the country’s territory. But they maintain an open armed presence in another 263 districts, which represent a further 66 percent of Afghan territory. No open Taliban presence was reported in 122 districts (30 percent of Afghanistan), but the BBC cautioned that many attacks by the Taliban are not reported by the locals. The statistics published in the study show that the Taliban have managed to establish strongholds far beyond their traditional strongholds of southeastern Afghanistan. They are now openly active in much of central, western, and even northern Afghanistan, where their power had been limited in the past.

The BBC reported that the Afghan government dismissed the findings of the study, arguing that its forces are in control of most areas in the country. The US government has not commented on the BBC study. US President Donald Trump said last week that his representatives would not hold talks with the Taliban, and announced that 1,000 more American troops would be sent to the country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 January 2018 | Permalink

US Pentagon wasted $450 million in Afghan spy training program, says watchdog

Afghan National ArmyNearly half a billion of American taxpayers’ funds were wasted by contractors hired by the United States government to train Afghan intelligence personnel, according to a scathing report by a Congressional body. The funds were spent between 2010 and 2013 by the US Department of Defense, in order to train several thousand members and a few dozen aspiring trainees of the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Two companies, Legacy Afghanistan R&D and Afghanistan Source Operations Management, oversaw the training program. It was primarily executed by a contractor, Imperatis Corporation, and a subcontractor, New Century Consulting, at a total cost of $457 million to the US taxpayer.

But according to a new report, the four-year program was a monumental, multimillion dollar waste. The report was written by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The body was established by the US Congress in 2008 to supervise the effectiveness of US government-funded reconstruction programs in Afghanistan. Dated July 2017, the SIGAR report says it is “almost impossible” to evaluate the effectiveness of the ANDSF intelligence-training program, because none of the contractors and subcontractors involved in it kept adequate training records. Based on the available information, the SIGAR report concludes that there is virtually “no indication of improvement in intelligence operations” by ANDSF as a result of the four-year training program.

Part of the reason for the poor value of the program is that “a significant portion” of the intelligence trainees enrolled in it performed below the minimum standards required. Additionally, few trainees actually completed the courses that were required prior to graduation. Shockingly, the US Pentagon paid the contractors in full despite the fact that they had failed to keep adequate records of their performance, an omission which legally entitled the Pentagon to refuse to payment. Even more incredibly, the SIGAR report also found that Imperatis Corporation billed the US taxpayer nearly $4 million between March and December of 2011 for training courses that had been canceled and were not being offered.

The training program’s subcontractor, New Century Consulting (owned by retired US Special Forces Colonel Tim Collins), was criticized two years ago in another SIGAR report for spending $130 million of US taxpayers’ funds on “unsupported” and “questioned” purchases. The program’s main contractor, Imperatis Corporation, went out of business in May 2016.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 03 August 2017 | Permalink

Late Taliban leader’s regular trips to Iran helped US spies track him down

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad MansourFrequent trips to Iran caused the demise of the late leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a secret American operation on May 21. The death of Mansour, who had led the Afghan Taliban since July 2015, when he succeeded Mullah Mohammad Omar, was announced by the Taliban on May 26. Early reports stated that Mansour was killed while traveling to the Pakistani city of Quetta from Iran. He is believed to have been visiting family or seeking medical treatment in Iran, which he appears to have entered using a forged passport.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the United States found out in February that Mansour made regular trips to Iran, as well as the precise route that the Taliban leader took to enter the country. American intelligence agencies also received “details about the devices [Mansour] used for communications” while in Iran. They then intercepted communications from Iran that matched Mansour’s electronic signature and followed these signals across the border into Pakistan. The Taliban leader entered Pakistan’s Baluchistan province on Saturday, May 21. Once in Pakistan, Mansour entered a Toyota Corolla, believed to be a taxi, and made his way through the N-40 National Highway, heading to Quetta.

The Journal report states that the Taliban were aware that Baluchistan’s airspace is outside the Central Intelligence Agency drones’ operational area, and thus “felt more comfortable there”. Indeed, the paper claims that no CIA drones were actively targeting Mansour at the time. However, US President Barack Obama had given ordered the Joint Special Operations Command to have the Taliban leader killed. Reaper drones were deployed to launch two Hellfire missiles at Mansour’s car, which was totaled, killing the Taliban commander and his driver. According to the Journal, the White House had decided to ambush Mansour before he entered the city of Quetta, in order to prevent civilian casualties. After firing at it, the American drones hovered over the remains of Mansour’s vehicle to ensure that there were no survivors, before exiting Pakistani airspace.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 May 2016 | Permalink