British foreign secretary admits errors in intelligence assessments of Afghanistan

Dominic RaabTHE CONSENSUS VIEW OF British intelligence in the weeks leading to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban was that the Afghan government would be challenged, but that the rebels were unlikely to take over the country in 2021. This was revealed on Wednesday in the House of Commons by Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab. Speaking at an emergency meeting of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Raab fielded criticism that he had reacted slowly to the crisis in Afghanistan.

The foreign secretary told his critics that his department’s decisions had relied on assessments by the Joint Intelligence Committee, an interagency body that coordinates Britain’s intelligence agencies in issuing reports about pressing security matters. He told Parliament that the assessments he had been given pointed out that the pro-Western government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would be threatened by the Taliban following the withdrawal of Western troops. But they concluded that the government would remain in control of Kabul through 2021, said Raab.

The rapid fall of the Afghan capital to the Taliban caught the British intelligence establishment —and, consequently, the government as a whole— by surprise, said Raab, adding that the sheer “scale and speed of the fall of Kabul” was unexpected. The foreign secretary blamed “optimism bias” for the reports, but added that similar optimistic views were “widely shared” across the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. All parties involved would have to learn lessons from Afghanistan about the accuracy of intelligence reports, Raab concluded.

But the foreign secretary was less clear about why his office did not heed the warnings of the principal risk assessment of his own department, which was issued on July 22, approximately a month before the fall of Kabul. The assessment warned starkly that the return of the Taliban to power could be rapid, as “peace talks are stalled and [United States and] NATO withdrawal is resulting in Taliban advances”. This, said the assessment, could lead to the “fall of cities, collapse of security forces, [and] Taliban return to power”. The document also discussed the possibility that the British “embassy may need to close if security deteriorates” in the Afghan capital.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 3 September 2021 | Permalink

Can the Taliban access biometric data collected by US forces in Afghanistan?

Biometrics technology

CONCERNS ARE BEING RAISED by experts about whether the Taliban may have access to the biometric data of millions of Afghans —including those collected by the United States in its 20-year-long military campaign in Afghanistan. In an attempt to avoid recriminations by the Taliban, Afghans who worked for the United States and other Western powers, have been reportedly destroying evidence of their past association with these foreign powers. Evidence includes identification papers, payment stubs and other such documentation.

But in a recent article that rests on original research data, Pennsylvania State University Professor Margaret Hu warns that biometric data stored on Afghan government servers may provide the Taliban with all the evidence they need to identify former state workers, including those who worked for the United States. The data, says Hu, “could be transformed into death warrants in the hands of the Taliban”. What is more, much of the data has been collected by American troops in the past two decades.

The American military began collecting biometric data on the Afghan population as early as 2001. By 2007, US forces regularly collected biometric data across the country, using laptops and other portable electronic devices equipped with biometric data collection sensors. The resulting databases featured the names of several million Afghans by 2011. Hu says that the goal of the US Department of Defense was to build a massive biometric database that would encompass at least 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population —or approximately 32 million people.

In recent years, the US military’s system of biometrics collection had been adopted by the Afghan government, which used it to prevent election fraud, as well as to screen government employees. Now the Afghan government is no more, and the Taliban are in control of every government department, including the departments of defense, labor and the interior. The question is, do the militants have access to the biometrics databases of former government workers?

Hu says it is too soon to tell for sure. Some reports indicate that the Taliban —most of whom are rural peasants— lack the necessary technological know-how to access, search and ultimately utilize these databases. But other reports, says Hu, suggest that units of heavily armed Taliban fighters have already begun to employ “biometrics machines” to locate the homes of government workers and inspect them in early-morning and late-night raids. Time will tell, says Hu, if biometrics warfare is now a reality in Afghanistan.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 September 2021 | Permalink

Revealed: Unlike other Western nations, France began Afghan evacuations in May

Embassy of France in Afghanistan

UNLIKE OTHER WESTERN NATIONS, which are currently scrambling to evacuate their citizens and Afghan embassy workers amidst the chaotic takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, France began its evacuations back in May. It was then that the French government put in motion a complex operation to evacuate Afghans who had worked for its diplomatic facilities, as well as their families. It is believed that around 600 Afghans were evacuated in May, with several dozen more evacuations following in June and July.

The French government is now being praised from all sides for its “anticipatory planning”. Back in May, however, there was far more criticism than praise. On July 5, in an interview with France’s state-owned international television outlet, France24, Etienne Gille, director of the French aid charity Amité Franco-Afghan, derided the evacuations of Afghans by the French government as “premature”, saying they would hurt the aid work on the ground. In May, a German diplomat, who spoke anonymously to France’s Monde newspaper, criticized France for its decision to evacuate Afghans, and said Germany would not leave Afghanistan, but would instead invest €400 million to fortify civil society there.

Why was the French response so different from those of other Western nations? Britain’s former ambassador to France, Lord Peter Ricketts, has offered one explanation. He told British newspaper The Telegraph that the main reason behind France’s anticipatory planning was its distance from the United States. Britain, which has “stronger ties to Washington” compared to France, relied largely on the White House’s assessments on the situation in Afghanistan. France, on the other hand, maintains a “relative distance” from the United States, and was thus able to “act quickly on its own conclusions”, Lord Peter said. He added that Paris “just got on with it without feeling the need to coordinate closely with the US”.

Speaking recently about France’s decision to move forward with evacuations in May, the country’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said: “France does not forget those who have worked for us”. The French government is still evacuating some of its diplomats, as well as Afghans, but the bulk of the evacuations have been completed.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 August 2021 | Permalink

US spy agencies warned Kabul would fall, but did not give precise timeline, says report

US embassy in Afghanistan

ANALYSES BY UNITED STATES INTELLIGENCE agencies about the dynamics of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan became progressively grim over the summer, but did not provide precise timelines of the impending disaster, according to a new report. In his television address on Monday, US President Joe Biden admitted that his administration had rested on inaccurate estimates about the ability of the Taliban to overrun Afghan government defenses. Some —including many in the US intelligence community— have interpreted that statement to mean that the assessments given to the White House by the intelligence agencies were faulty or otherwise inaccurate.

On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the intelligence community continuously revised its assessments of the Afghan civil war in the past year. Earlier this year, the consensus among intelligence agencies was allegedly that the Afghan government could potentially remain in power for as long as two years after a US military withdrawal. But that consensus had been shattered by mid-summer, according to The Times. By July, intelligence reports, led by those produced by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), “had grown more pessimistic” and explicitly “laid out the growing risks to Kabul”, according to the paper. These reports also warned that the Afghan government, including its intelligence and military components, would not be able to withstand an assault on the capital and other major urban centers by the Taliban.

At the same time, however, these assessments were typically “not given a high confidence judgment” or a particularly high level of certainty by the agencies, according to the report. One source told the paper that “it was often hard to get [CIA] analysts to clearly predict how quickly [a Taliban victory] would occur”. Instead, its assessments “could often be interpreted in a number of ways, including concluding that Afghanistan could fall quickly or possibly over time”.

The Times report seems to indicate that the White House rested much of its decision-making on earlier assessments by the intelligence community, which projected a less radical pace of change in Afghanistan. For instance, one report from April of this year suggested that the Taliban were at least 18 months away from being able to conquer Kabul. The article also points out the possibility that different agencies may have had differing views on the speed with which the Taliban would conquer Afghanistan, with the CIA being on the more pessimistic end of the scale.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 August 2021 | Permalink

Opinion: The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was neither unexpected nor sudden

Taliban

THE COMPLETE TAKEOVER OF Afghanistan by the Taliban was “sudden” and “unexpected” only for those who have not been paying attention to the implosion of the country in recent months. There were certainly outliers, among them an assortment of Foreign Policy columnists, who, as late as July 28, were urging readers to stop “assuming the Taliban will win”. But ever since October of 2020, when United States President Donald Trump announced that American troops would leave the country (a policy that the Biden Administration eagerly adopted), the vast majority of reports about the future of Afghanistan have been unanimous: following an American military withdrawal, the Taliban would take over the entire country with little delay, and almost certainly without facing significant resistance.

This was certainly the view on the ground in Afghanistan, where desperate families have been leaving the country for many months now. The recent shocking images of Afghan men clinging on to American transport aircraft, were not the beginning of a desperate exodus from the country. Rather, these were the last groups of people who, for a variety of reasons, did not abandon the capital earlier. The impending reality of the Taliban takeover has been recognized especially by women in urban centers. They have been preparing for months for the change in the nation’s leadership, by burning their Western attire and throwing away their make-up kits.

Meanwhile, countries like Russia and the United Kingdom have been actively preparing to deal with the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. It was nearly five weeks ago when Ben Wallace, Minister of Defense of Britain, arguably the United States’ closest international partner, announced that London was prepared to “work with the Taliban, should they come to power”. Soon afterwards, Russia’s longtime Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called the Taliban “rational actors” and warned the Afghan government that it risked losing control of the entire country by not entering into a negotiated settlement with the militants. Read more of this post

Afghan spy chief warns drone warfare is Taliban’s new fighting method

TalibanTHE DIRECTOR OF AFGHANISTAN’S main intelligence agency warned on Monday that the Taliban are for the first time resorting to using drones in order to carry out attacks against the Afghan government. Groups such as the Islamic State in Syria, and Houthi rebels in Yemen, have been using modified drones to drop makeshift bombs on enemy targets since at least 2016. But the Taliban have not previously been known to make use of such weapons.

The information was shared by Ahmad Zia Shiraj, director of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), during an address to the Afghan parliament. Headquartered in Kabul, the NDS is Afghanistan’s primary domestic and foreign intelligence agency. It forms part of Afghanistan’s National Defense and Security Forces, along with the branches of the Armed Forces and the police. Its director reports directly to the Office of the President of Afghanistan.

Speaking during a parliament session on Monday, Shiraj said that the Taliban have begun to use drones to drop explosives on targets. These are commercially available hobby drones, which are equipped with video cameras and designed for filming. The Taliban purchase these drones and modify them so that they can carry and release explosives, said Shiraj. He added that Taliban forces had used drones to carry out attacks in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, as well as in Paktia, on the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Media reports in October claimed that the Taliban used a drone to drop a bomb on the headquarters of the Kunduz governorate, killing at least four people. The New York Times noted at the time that, if true, the use of a drone to carry out an attack could be the first in the 19-year war between the Taliban and the American-supported Afghan government, and called it “a worrisome shift” in tactics. On Monday, Shiraj did not mention specific attacks, but he did say that there had been more than one such incidents. He said that the NDS would pressure the Afghan government to stop the importation of commercial drones.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 November 2020 | Permalink

US forces are secretly helping the Taliban fight the Islamic State in Afghanistan

Taliban

UNITED STATES TROOPS ARE secretly re-purposing weapons that were initially used to fight the Taliban, in order to help the Taliban defeat the Islamic State in northeastern Afghanistan, according to a new report. The American military’s newfound role in Afghanistan reportedly reflects the view of the White House that the Taliban have no aspirations outside of Afghanistan, while the Islamic State seeks to challenge America’s interests worldwide.

The rumors that the US Department of Defense has been providing assistance to the Taliban as they battle the Islamic State in Afghanistan are not new. In March of this year, General Frank McKenzie, Commander of US Central Command, admitted as much during Congressional testimony. He told the US House Armed Services Committee that the Taliban had received “very limited support from us”, but declined to elaborate during open-door testimony.

What did General McKenzie imply? According to veteran military affairs reporter Wesley Morgan, US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces in Afghanistan have been instructed to provide air cover to Taliban forces as they fight the Islamic State. Morgan said he spoke to members of a JSOC Task Force in Afghanistan’s northeastern Kunar Province, who confirmed General McKenzie’s comments from back in March.

Importantly, the JSOC’s air support to the Taliban is reportedly provided without direct communication between the US forces and the Taliban. Instead, the Americans simply “observe battle conditions” and “listen in on the [communications of the] group” in order to determine what kind of air support it needs. The resources used in that capacity consist of weaponry that was initially deployed against the Taliban, but is now being secretly repurposed to assist the Taliban in their fight against the Islamic State. According to Morgan, the JSOC team in Kunar, which provides air cover to the Taliban, jokingly refers to itself as the “Taliban air force”.

Miller adds it is unclear whether the Afghan government in Kabul is aware that US forces are providing assistance to the Taliban. It is also unclear whether al-Qaeda, which is a close ally of the Taliban, is benefiting from that assistance. Recently a United Nations report warned that al-Qaeda remains “heavily embedded” with the Taliban in Afghanistan, despite assurances by officials in the administration of US President Donald Trump that the two groups are in the process of parting ways.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 November 2020 | Permalink

Belgium knew about Russian bounty offered to Taliban, defense minister says

Belgian German AfghanistanBelgium’s spy services were aware of financial rewards that Russia allegedly offered to the Taliban in exchange for killing American and other Western troops in Afghanistan, according to Belgium’s defense minister. Late last month, three leading American newspapers, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal alleged that the White House had been briefed about an alleged Russian bounty program that was in existence in Afghanistan. According to the allegations, the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, known as GRU, had offered Taliban fighters financial rewards in exchange for killing American and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops. Both the White House and the Kremlin denied the allegations, with US President Donald Trump dismissing them as “fake news” and “a hoax”.

On Wednesday, Philippe Goffin, who serves as Belgium’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense, told the Belgian Federal Parliament that his office was aware of the Russian bounty program. The minister was speaking before the parliament’s Committee on National Defense, where he responded to questions from committee members. According to Goffin, he had been briefed on the matter by the General Intelligence and Security Service (SGRS), Belgium’s military intelligence organization. He said the SGRS was “aware of Russian support for the Taliban in Afghanistan” and offered evidence that “confirmed Russian interference there”. He added that the Belgian intelligence services had linked “only one incident” to the Russian bounty program. It had occurred in April of 2019, and had resulted in the deaths of three American soldiers, he said.

Belgium is a founding member of NATO and hosts the alliance’s headquarters in its capital, Brussels. The country until recently participated in the NATO joint force in Afghanistan, but recalled its troops home in May due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 July 2020 | Permalink

US considers pulling CIA from Afghan front lines to help salvage Taliban peace deal

US embassy in AfghanistanThe White House is considering a plan to pull back Central Intelligence Agency officers from stations across Afghanistan, in a last-ditch effort to boost prospects for a peace deal with the Taliban. Plans for the peace deal were announced in February by representatives of the US and the Pashtun-based Sunni group, which has waged an Islamist insurgency against the US-supported government in Kabul since 2001.

But armed violence between the two sides has since peaked, prompting many to question the viability of planned peace deal. In response to this development, the White House is now reported to be considering a plan to limit the CIA’s presence in the Central Asian country. This was demanded by the Taliban early on in the negotiations, alongside the planned withdrawal of American troops from the country. In return the Taliban had pledged no break all ties with international terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.

The US had previously agreed to withdraw its troops from the country, but had ruled out pulling back CIA personnel —which are believed to number in the several hundreds in Afghanistan. A major reason for rejecting the Taliban demand is that the CIA supports, arms and trains several proxy forces throughout the country. These include the Khost Protection Force (KPF), a 6,500-strong unit of elite Afghan soldiers, which has a strong presence in Taliban strongholds like Ghazni, Paktia and Khost. These forces do not operate under the command of the Afghan government, but are instead directly controlled by the CIA.

Reports in August of 2019 claimed that the CIA would retain “a strong presence on the ground in Afghanistan”, even if American troops were to leave the country following a peace deal with the Taliban. But this is now under review, according to US officials who spoke anonymously to The New York Times. The paper said on Sunday that “the deliberations over the CIA presence” were now “part of larger discussions about pulling back international forces” from the country. One possible course of action revolves around a plan to limit the presence of the CIA to the grounds of the US embassy in Kabul, said The Times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 April 2020 | Permalink

Extremist groups see coronavirus pandemic as opportunity to spread chaos: report

Islamic StateExtremist groups around the world are capitalizing on the novel coronavirus pandemic to rally their members around a common cause and spread chaos and violence, according to a new report. In an article published on Tuesday, veteran reporter Bridget Johnson, currently the managing editor for Homeland Security Today, writes that the world’s most active militant groups have issued numerous edicts and proclamations about COVID-19.

Johnson explains that most militant groups “have shown some concern” about their members’ health and wellbeing amidst the pandemic. The Islamic State was arguably the first Islamist group to instruct its members to take precautions against COVID-19. Johnson writes that the group began highlighting the threat of the virus in January, when an article in Al-Naba­, the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter, expressed “growing concern about the spread of the infectious virus”. The militant group has since prescribed that “the healthy should not enter the land of the epidemic and the afflicted should not exit from it”, and has advised its members to wash their hands and “cover the mouth when yawning and sneezing”.

In the past month, the Afghan Taliban have been carrying a “COVID-19 awareness campaign” in areas under their control. The campaign centers on community events that feature the distribution of masks, soap and informational pamphlets to families, writes Johnson. Taliban commanders have also been issuing regular warnings and threats against those who are caught resorting to price gouging or hoarding food and supplies. In recent communiques, the Taliban have called the coronavirus “a decree of Allah” and have urged their followers to respond to it “in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Prophet”, including daily readings of the Quran, repenting and reciting prayers.

Al-Qaeda publications have described COVID-19’s spread in Muslim communities as “a consequence of our own sins and our distance from the divine methodology, [our widespread] obscenity and moral corruption”. The group has also instructed its followers to view the coronavirus as “a powerful tsunami” that has the potential to ruin the American economy. A recent article by al-Qaeda propagandists stressed that the group’s co-founder, Osama bin Laden, “would often inquire about the economic impact of the [September 11] attacks, unlike most others who would limit the discussion to casualties”, according to Johnson. She adds that al-Qaeda has called on its members to “turn this calamity into a cause for uniting our ranks, [because] now is the time to spread the correct Aqeedah [creed], call people to jihad in the Way of Allah, and revolt against oppression and oppressors”.

Meanwhile, Islamic State publications in countries such as India have been pointing out that, with soldiers and police officers “deployed in streets and alleys” during the coronavirus pandemic, jihadists have “easy targets”. Islamic State members are also being urged to “intensify the pressure” while national governments around the world are “preoccupied with protecting their countries”, something that will inevitably distract them in the coming weeks and months, writes Johnson.

In the United States the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Counterterrorism Center have issued several warnings regarding threats made by racially motivated violent extremists (RMVEs) in connection with the pandemic. The warnings state that RMVEs have discussed weaponizing the virus and using it to infect members of racial or ethnic minorities. Some white supremacist theorists have utilized online forums to discuss their hope that the responses to the pandemic by governments around the world “could crash the global economy, hasten societal collapse, and lead to a race war”. Other RMVE groups have been promoting conspiracy theories blaming ethnic and religious minorities —primarily Jews— for the coronavirus pandemic, writes Johnson.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 April 2020 | Permalink

US-Taliban peace deal will empower ISIS in Afghanistan, say insiders

ISIS Islamic State AfghanistanAn imminent peace agreement between the United States government and the Taliban will inadvertently empower the Islamic State in Afghanistan, according to a number of insiders, who warn that the soon-to-be-announced deal may have grave unintended consequences for the war-ravaged country.

After nearly two decades or war, the United States is close to concluding a peace agreement with the Taliban, the Pashtun-based Sunni group that has waged an Islamist insurgency against the American-supported government of Afghanistan since 2001. The two sides have said that they will be signing a peace settlement on February 29, providing that an ongoing agreement for a week-long reduction in armed violence holds. If the current reduction in violence continues unabated, the United States has agreed to remove most of its troops from the country, while the Taliban have agreed to initiate peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

But a team of journalists with the American television program Frontline, who are working on the ground in Afghanistan, report that the impending peace deal may bear unintended consequences. They report that numerous sources in Afghanistan are warning that the peace deal will result in an increase in membership for the Islamic State forces in the country. This will happen, they say, because Taliban fighters who object to a peace treaty with Washington will abandon the Taliban and join the Islamic State. Some Frontline sources claim that the majority of the Taliban’s foot soldiers are preparing to join the Islamic State if a deal is struck between Washington and the Taliban.

The Frontline team quotes one Islamic State commander in Afghanistan, who claims that the peace deal will “make the caliphate rise”, as “Taliban fighters have promised to join us”. The United States is trying to pre-empt this expected trend, according to reports. The Pentagon expects that, as soon as the peace treaty with the Taliban is signed, it will need to redirect its remaining troops in the country to focus their attention to the forces of the Islamic State.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 February 2020 | Permalink

Despite imminent US-Taliban deal, CIA plans to keep proxy units in Afghanistan

Armed guerillas Khost AfghanistanThe United States Central Intelligence Agency plans to retain a strong presence on the ground in Afghanistan, despite reports that American troops may soon be leaving the country following a deal with the Taliban. Several news outlets reported this week that Washington has resolved its differences with the Taliban about withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, after receiving assurances by the Taliban that they will not cooperate with other militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. An announcement of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban may thus be imminent. But in an article for Foreign Policy, Stefanie Glinski points out that the CIA is not planning to leave the Central Asian country any time soon.

The American intelligence agency is known to support, arm and train several proxy forces throughout Afghanistan. Langley plans to keep those proxy forces operating in the country for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether US troops pull out, says Glinski. She gives the example of the Khost Protection Force (KPF), a 6,500-strong unit of Afghan soldiers who are “trained, equipped and funded by the CIA”. The KPF is the most active and visible of an extensive network of CIA-sponsored paramilitary groups in Afghanistan. It operates almost exclusively along the Afghan-Pakistani border and has a strong presence in Taliban strongholds like Ghazni, Paktia and Khost. The roots of the KPF go back to the days immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, which prompted the US military invasion of Afghanistan. It therefore precedes the Afghan National Army, Afghanistan’s state-run military apparatus, and does not operate under its command. Instead, it is solely directed by the CIA, which uses it to secure the Afghan-Pakistani border and disrupt the activities of Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters in the Afghan borderlands.

Members of the KPF claim that they are “better trained than the Afghan National Army”. They are also paid much better, over $1000.00 per month, which is an enormous sum for Afghanistan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Glinski reports that most KPF fighters joined the group for the money and the ability to eventually seek permanent resettlement in the United States. But alongside the group’s elite image, KPF members have acquired notoriety and are often seen as trigger-happy and unaccountable. Several reports in Western media have said that the KPF’s tactical accomplishments have come at a high price, with countless reports of civilian deaths and, some claim, even war crimes. These risk “alienating the Afghan population”, said a New York Times report last year. Glinski says it is possible the KPF’s aggressive tactics may be “radicalizing portions of the very population it intends to pacify or frighten into submission”. In April of this year, a United Nations report alleged that more Afghan civilians died as a result of attacks by Afghan government and American military attacks than at the hands of the Taliban and other guerilla groups. The CIA did not respond to several requests for comment from Foreign Policy, says Glinski.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 August 2019 | Permalink

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

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

%d bloggers like this: