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

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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

Analysis: Mullah Mansour’s killing will shape future of Afghan War

Mullah MansourThe American operation that killed the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, on May 21, was unprecedented in more ways than one. It marked the first known effort by the United States to neutralize the leadership of the Afghan Taliban. It was also the first US drone strike in Pakistani Baluchistan, a region that is far removed from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where American operations have traditionally focused. Mullah Mansour’s killing also marked the most high-profile American incursion into Pakistani territory since the May 1, 2011 attack that killed al-Qaeda co-founder Osama bin Laden. Q QuoteIronically, just hours before killing Mansour, Washington was calling the Taliban to join the negotiation table for peace talks with the Afghan government. So what exactly was America’s intention in killing the leader of the Afghan Taliban?

PROSPECTS FOR A MODERATE SUCCESSOR

There is no question that Mansour represented the most intransigent and militant segment of Afghanistan’s militant Pashtuns. He consistently dismissed efforts by Washington and Kabul to strike a deal with his forces as a ploy designed to weaken the Taliban’s role in Afghan politics. So the primary outcome that the US is seeking from his death is the possibility that a more moderate figure will emerge from within the ranks of the Taliban. That, however, is far from guaranteed. Even if it does happen, it will probably come after a period of leadership struggle between different factions and tribes within the Taliban, much like the heated infighting that broke out after the announcement of the death of the Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. There are even some who believe that the death of two successive Taliban leaders in such a short period may split the group into three or more factions.

To avoid such a prospect, the Afghan Taliban have already begun internal consultations in order to quickly enthrone a new emir. Major candidates include the late Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yakoub, and his brother, Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund. The list of contenders also features the late Mullah Mansour’s deputies, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani Network, which recently consolidated its forces with those of the Afghan Taliban. Many observers believe that Haqqani is Mansour’s most likely successor, as well as the most militant of all contenders for the group’s leadership.

THE END OF PEACE NEGOTIATIONS?

If the Afghan Taliban are led by Haqqani, a man described by the White House as a terrorist mastermind, the chances of seeing Afghanistan’s militant Pashtuns join peace negotiations with Kabul are slim to none. The country’s President, Ashraf Ghani, said last week that he hoped that the death of Mansour would weaken the Taliban hardliners and open the path to negotiations with his government. It is difficult to see, however, how the Taliban could sit at the table with the Afghan government and its American allies, namely the same people who just Q Quotekilled the group’s leader.

They only way that could possibly happen is if Pakistan, which is the Afghan Taliban’s state patron, compels them to do so. But such a prospect is unlikely. In the hours after Mansour’s assassination, the US Secretary of State John Kerry described it as an “action that sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to work with our Afghan partners”. Indeed, Mansour’s killing was a source of jubilation in Kabul. But there were no celebrations in Islamabad, which was notified about the US drone strike on its soil after its completion. The Pakistani position has always been that military action against the Afghan Taliban will only push them further underground. Instead, Pakistan argues that the Taliban should be brought to the table to sign a comprehensive peace treaty that will ensure ethnic rights for Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. But the prospect of that happening after Mansour’s assassination are slim, even if a more moderate figure succeeds him at the helm.

THE FUTURE OF THE AFGHAN WAR

What are, then, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan? A notable rise in violence should be expected, as various Taliban factions lash out against the government in Kabul with the aim of augmenting their standing against internal competitors. The Taliban now control more territory in Afghanistan than at any other point following the 2001 US invasion. If their alliance with the Haqqani Network survives, they will continue to be a formidable force in the country and the surrounding region, and will become increasingly difficult to defeat militarily. The group will continue to operate with considerable force even if Mansour’s position is not filled soon, as local Taliban forces have shown that they are capable of taking unilateral initiative in times like this. In the meantime, observers in Kabul and Islamabad, as well as the Afghan Taliban’s leadership in Quetta, will be wondering whether the assassination of Mansour marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach by Washington in the ongoing Afghan war. The answer to that question remains elusive, but will likely shape the future of the 40-year-old Afghan war.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 May 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Taliban-Haqqani alliance marks new phase in Afghan war

Haqqani NetworkAn expanding alliance between two of the most powerful armed groups in Afghanistan, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, is reshaping regional power dynamics and possibly altering the course of the ongoing Afghan war. It was last summer when it was announced that Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the notorious Haqqani Network based in southeastern Afghanistan, had been appointed deputy leader of the Taliban. The move, which brought together two groups that traditionally acted autonomously, was seen as largely symbolic at the time. But observers are now suggesting that the two groups are actively integrating more than ever before, and that their increasing cooperation is drastically changing the dynamics of the bloody Afghan war.

THE HAQQANI NETWORK

The Haqqani Network dates from the mid-1970s, when a group of pro-royalist Pashtuns took up arms against the government of Mohammad Daud Khan, a former cabinet minister who in 1973 led a coup that overthrew the country’s king, Mohammad Zahir Shah. The group, founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, was actively supported by Pakistan, which perceived Khan’s government as pro-Soviet. As it became increasingly clear that the Soviet Union would invade the country, Pakistan’s assistance to the Haqqani Network was augmented by support from Saudi Arabia and the United States. During the Afghan-Soviet War of the 1980s, the Haqqani Network formed a major backbone of the anti-Soviet resistance. The group, and the Pashtun tribes that form its base in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have remained in a state of war against various invaders ever since. Today the Haqqani Network is led by Jalaluddin’s son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has closely followed in his father’s footsteps. He has continued to pledge allegiance to the Taliban by recognizing its commander-in-chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, as the Leader of the Faithful —essentially the Emir of the Islamic caliphate. At the same time, however, like his father, Siraj has maintained the Haqqani Network as an autonomous entity that operates based on its own command structure andQ Quote tactical priorities.

THE HAQQANI-TALIBAN ALLIANCE

The deepening cooperation between the Haqqani Network and the Taliban must be examined within the context of the failed efforts to broker a peace treaty between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In early 2016, the Quadrilateral Coordination Council, set up by the United States, China, Pakistan and the Afghan government, sought to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table, so that an official peace treaty could be put in place between them and Kabul. Throughout that time, however, the Afghan government has become increasingly weaker, faltering under the weight of its own ineptitude, corruption and sectarian divisions. The growing discontent against it among the people, as signified by the rise in mass immigration by young Afghans, has weakened Kabul’s trustworthiness as a national actor and strengthened the Taliban. At the same time, the Taliban, although strong, are not unilaterally capable of solidifying their power across the country unless they have the support of the many autonomous tribes and clans. For that reason, Taliban leader Mullah Mansour has spearheaded a policy of consolidation between his forces and regional groups, including the Haqqani Network.

The latter are also extremely capable militarily, having maintained a powerful armed force since the late 1970s, with its own heritage, traditions and command structure. During the 1980s, they were trained and supplied with ample war materiel by Saudi, Pakistani and American intelligence agencies, while also developing their own funding channels abroad. Today, Siraj Haqqani’s mother, who is an Arab, and many of his brothers, are located in the Persian Gulf, and are able to pursue alliances between the Network and oil-rich Arab donors. The group also maintains a large network of shell companies that operate internationally and bring in a substantial revenue to the group. Consequently, due to their strong financial backing, Haqqani forces are well-trained, well-supplied and have near-unparalleled military capabilities in the region. They are currently one of a handful of groups that have shown to be capable of striking at the heart of the Afghan government inside Kabul. Alongside their military prowess, Haqqani forces maintain an efficient, parallel administrative infrastructure in southeastern Afghanistan, which includes a justice Q Quotesystem, job centers, taxation offices and community militias. The administrative and military efficiency of the Haqqani Network only adds to the strength of the Taliban and places them in a renewed position of power vis-à-vis Kabul.

THE PAKISTANI FACTOR

Along with the Haqqanis and the Taliban, the Pakistanis have also gained strength in the past year as a regional actor. There is little doubt that the Haqqani Network, which operates a series of bases inside Pakistan’s North Waziristan region, maintains close connections with Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), Pakistan’s powerful spy agency. These links, which were forged in the 1980s during the Afghan-Soviet War, continue unabated and often —though not always— allow the Pakistanis to use the Haqqani Network as a proxy group to advance their interests in Afghanistan. Islamabad does not want India to dominate the region and has done more than any other regional actor to maintain the Taliban, Haqqanis, and other Pashtun groups as strong rivals to the central government in Kabul. By strengthening the role of the Haqqanis, which, unlike the Taliban, the US officially classifies as a terrorist group, Islamabad is making it more difficult for Washington to reach out to the Taliban in search of a comprehensive peace treaty. This development spells more violence and war in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, as local and regional actors appear to be positioning themselves for a showdown between the Afghan government and its tribal rivals.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 May 2016 | Permalink

Moscow is working with Taliban against ISIS, says Russian envoy

Zamir KabulovRussia’s official envoy to Afghanistan has said that Moscow is now working with the Afghan Taliban in order to stop the growth of the Islamic State in the region. Many Taliban fighters are direct descendants of the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns who fought the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan and fought a bloody decade-long war there. But the militant group, which today continues to control much of Afghanistan, despite a prolonged American-led military effort to defeat it, is now being challenged by the Islamic State. Known also as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the group enjoys growing popularity in Afghanistan, and some tribal warlords have already declared their allegiance to it. In contrast, the leadership of the Taliban has rejected the legitimacy of ISIS and refused to recognize its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the caliph of all Sunni Muslims. According to Sunni doctrine, a caliph is the recognized political and religious successor to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, and thus commands the Muslim ummah, or community.

For the past two years, allegations have surfaced in the world’s media that Russia, fearing the continuing growth of ISIS in Central Asia, has reached out to the Taliban in hopes of halting ISIS’ popularity. Last week, however, Zamir Kabulov, Moscow’s special envoy to Afghanistan, openly admitted that Russia is collaborating with the Taliban against ISIS. “The interests of the Taliban completely coincide with ours”, said Kabulov, and added that Moscow maintains “communication channels with the Taliban to exchange intelligence”. It is important to note that Kabulov, who was born in Soviet Uzbekistan, is arguably the most knowledgeable Russian diplomat on matters relating to Afghanistan. Until 2009, he served as Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, having also served in Iran and Pakistan. Western observers believe that Kabulov is not simply a “career diplomat”, as he presents himself, but a former officer in the KGB, the USSR’s foremost intelligence agency. He is also believed to have served as the KGB’s chief of station in Kabul during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, and to have worked closely with Khad, the intelligence agency of Soviet-dominated Afghanistan.

Kim Sengupta, a defense correspondent of British broadsheet The Independent, argues that Kabulov’s announcement reflects the growing ties between the Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the KGB’s successor agencies, and the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s current intelligence agency. The latter maintains open lines of communication with the Taliban. There is also a question about the extent of Russia’s collaboration with the Taliban in pursuit of common goals. Kabulov implied last week that the collaboration centers on intelligence-sharing. But Sengupta suggests that Moscow may also be supplying weapons and ammunition to the Taliban, through Russian ally Tajikistan. He also notes that other regional powers, including China and Iran, are warming up to the Taliban, which they increasingly view as a more reasonable alternative to ISIS.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 January 2016 | Permalink

Taliban insurgents attack CIA station in Kabul

Afghan Presidential PalaceBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Taliban assailants launched an unprecedented attack against the presidential palace in Afghan capital Kabul on Tuesday morning, which included a targeted assault on a nearby command post of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The daring attack began at approximately 6:30 a.m. outside the eastern gate of the palace, which is located in Kabul’s downtown Shash Darak district. The heavily guarded district contains, aside from most Afghan government buildings, dozens of foreign embassies and media offices. Hundreds of Afghan and foreign officials run for cover as over a dozen explosions were heard near the headquarters of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense, which is located next door to the presidential palace. The attack reportedly began when a group of about four or five insurgents approached the palace’s eastern gate with a small track laden with explosives. As the vehicle approached the gate, the passengers jumped out and began throwing grenades, while the car exploded at the gate. Afghan security guards fled the scene and the assailants were able to enter the grounds of the presidential palace and roamed around for several minutes before they were engaged in a firefight by Afghan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization security personnel. The attackers appeared to concentrate primarily on three buildings: the presidential palace, the Ministry of Defense, and the nearby Ariana Hotel, which is widely understood to host the main CIA command post in Kabul. On Tuesday afternoon, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, told French news agency AFP that “the CIA office” in downtown Kabul was “the main target” of the assault, along with the palace and defense ministry. Read more of this post