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Posts tagged ‘Land of Fallen Empires’

Top diplomats at UN meeting offer support for Afghanistan

November 28, 2018

GENEVA (AP) — The Afghan president appealed for support for his reform efforts in a speech to top diplomats and other senior officials gathered at a U.N.-backed conference focusing on development, peace and security in the war-battered country.

Ashraf Ghani also told the conference that he wanted to “specifically recognize the commitment in blood and treasure that the United States has shown since 2001” in Afghanistan. Ghani called the U.S. its “key ally” and praised the Trump administration’s South Asia policy as a “game changer” for Afghanistan.

Foreign ministers from Russia, Germany, Iran and other countries, as well as EU’s foreign policy chief were attending the two-day gathering in Geneva, which opened Tuesday. The meeting aims to take stock of progress of the Afghan government in using billions of dollars in foreign aid for education, health care, humanitarian support and needs since 2016.

Ghani, who faces an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency in recent months — the Taliban now hold sway in nearly half of the country — presented Wednesday his government’s efforts in areas such as security, justice, women’s rights and anti-corruption.

“We have a plan for reform, and we need your support to help implement it,” he told the conference. “Does this mean that we have eliminated corruption? Absolutely not. We want it to happen faster, but meaningful change cannot be rushed.”

“We face multiple challenges on many fronts,” he concluded. Afghanistan is among the most corrupt countries in the world and last year Transparency International ranked it 177th out of 180 countries ranked. The corruption monitoring agency said the Afghan government’s anti-corruption efforts had been insufficient. The country’s overall score was a dismal 15 out of 100.

The United States has spent nearly $1 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, nearly $800 billion of which was spent on America’s own troops there and also Afghanistan’s National Security Forces. The U.S. has committed roughly $4 billion annually for the next several years toward financing those forces.

Russia has been accused by the U.S. of aiding the Taliban — a militant group that once ruled Afghanistan and that is seen by Moscow as a bulwark against an emerging Islamic State affiliate, which has sought to recruit Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbeks, posing a threat to Central Asian States and creating a source of instability for Russia.

Also, Iran has been charged with sending Afghan Shiites, most of who live as refugees in Iran, to fight in Syria in an Afghan-only brigade known as the Fatimayoun Brigade. Pakistan is routinely accused by both the U.S. and Afghanistan of harboring the Taliban.

On Tuesday, at the start of the conference, the European Union announced 474 million euros ($535 million) in financial aid for Afghanistan. The European Commission said the new funding would go toward reforms in the public sector, health, justice and migration and displacement issues, with 311 million euros aimed for supporting Afghanistan’s “reform agenda.”

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Despite Afghan deaths, slow peace efforts, NATO vows to stay

December 05, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — Fifteen years after NATO took the lead on international security efforts in Afghanistan, the military alliance’s foreign ministers on Wednesday reaffirmed their commitment to stay the course despite mounting Afghan casualties and the slow pace of peace efforts.

At talks in Brussels, the ministers underlined their “steadfast commitment to ensuring long-term security and stability,” reaffirming that NATO’s mission in the insurgency-wracked country will last as long as conditions demand it.

NATO took the lead of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2003. It wound down combat operations in 2014 and began training and advising Afghan security forces so they could handle the country’s security needs. The work is carried out in a combat environment and remains dangerous.

U.S. forces, which entered Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban for harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, now number around 15,000 and provide close support to Afghan forces and carry out counterterrorism operations.

The renewed NATO commitment came in a week when the Marine officer nominated to command U.S. forces in the Middle East warned that the fight there is at a stalemate and the number of Afghan troop deaths in the war is not sustainable. Four U.S. soldiers were also killed by a roadside bomb, the deadliest attack against U.S. forces this year.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the increase in violence could be a sign that things are about to change. “Sometimes there is an uptick, an increase in violence because different parties try to gain the best possible position at the negotiating table. So it may actually become worse before it becomes better,” he told reporters.

NATO’s top civilian representative in the country, Cornelius Zimmermann, agreed that warlords and factions could be fighting for turf. “We are hopefully at a pre-negotiation stage, and there are some elements trying to improve their bargaining position by trying to make military progress,” he said.

NATO and European leaders for years have expressed optimism about Afghanistan’s future while pouring billions of dollars into the security forces, development support and political and other assistance, yet the military alliance appears little closer to leaving the country than when it arrived.

Zimmermann based his optimism on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s unprecedented offer of unconditional peace talks with the Taliban, a recent and unprecedented three-day cease-fire agreed with the insurgents as a sign of goodwill and the changing attitudes of Afghan elders weary of years of conflict.

“This is clearly a qualitative step ahead” of what’s happened in the past, Zimmermann said. Still, in Washington this week Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie warned the Senate Armed Services Committee against an abrupt withdrawal of American forces or change in strategy.

“If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country,” McKenzie said. He said the U.S. and its allies need to keep helping the Afghans recruit and train forces to fight the Taliban’s estimated 60,000 troops.

On Oct. 30, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said more than 1,000 Afghan personnel were killed or wounded during August and September alone. Ghani said in November that over 28,000 of his country’s forces had been killed in the last four years.

The U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, insisted that the Afghans are doing more, running regional training centers and teaching their own special forces. “That’s already more heavily balanced in terms of the Afghans doing their own training. What we try to do is help out where it’s required,” Miller told reporters in Brussels.

Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani conceded that the security forces are sustaining many casualties, but he said they are increasingly successful in repelling enemy attack. “In any war there are casualties on both sides and of course this is not an exception,” Rabbani said on the sidelines of the NATO meeting. “But as far as the determination and resolve of the Afghan security forces are concerned, I reassure you that they are very resilient.”

Afghan vote enters 2nd day after attacks, technical issues

October 21, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections entered a second day on Sunday following violence and chaos that caused delays and interruptions on the first day of polling. Independent Elections Commission Chairman Abdul Badi Sayat said more than 3 million people out of 8.8 million registered voters cast their ballots on Saturday. The biggest turnout was in Kabul and the lowest in the southern Uruzgan province.

Polling on Sunday continues in 401 voting centers, including 45 in Kabul. Polls close at 4 p.m. (1130 GMT). The results of the polling will not be released before mid-November and final results will not be out until December.

The first parliamentary elections since 2010 are being held against a backdrop of near-daily attacks by the Taliban, who have seized nearly half the country and have repeatedly refused offers to negotiate with the Kabul government. The U.S.-backed government is rife with corruption, and many Afghans have said they do not expect the elections to be fair.

Officials at polling stations struggled with voter registration and a new biometric system that was aimed at stemming fraud but instead created enormous confusion because many of those trained on the system did not show up for work. The biometric machines arrived just a month before polls and there was no time to do field testing.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan praised those who had made an effort to vote despite the technical issues, many of whom waited in long lines for hours as polling stations remained open late. “Those eligible voters who were not able to cast their vote, due to technical issues, deserve the right to vote,” it said in a statement.

The Taliban had vowed to attack the election, and on the first day of polling at least 36 people were killed in nearly 200 attacks, including 27 civilians, according to Interior Minister Akhtar Mohammed Ibrahimi. He said security forces killed 31 insurgents in gun battles.

Violence, confusion surround Afghan parliamentary elections

October 20, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections in eight years suffered from violence and chaos Saturday, with a multitude of attacks killing at least 3 people, key election workers failing to show up and many polling stations staying open hours later than scheduled to handle long lines of voters.

Problems surrounding the elections — already three years overdue — threaten to compromise the credibility of polls which an independent monitoring group said were also marred by incidences of ballot stuffing and intimidation by armed men affiliated with candidates in 19 of the country’s 32 provinces. Some areas have yet to vote, including Kandahar, where the provincial police chief was gunned down Thursday.

Stakes were high in these elections for Afghans who hoped to reform Parliament, challenging the dominance of warlords and the politically corrupt and replacing them with a younger, more educated generation of politicians. They were also high for the U.S., which is still seeking an exit strategy after 17 years of a war there that has cost more than $900 billion and claimed more than 2,400 U.S. service personnel.

The most serious attack on the polls was in a northern Kabul neighborhood where a suicide bomber blew himself up just as voting was about to end, killing three people and wounding another 20, many of them seriously, said Dr. Esa Hashemi, a physician at the nearby Afghan Hospital.

The police and Interior Ministry officials reported a total of 15 casualties, without providing details on the number of those killed and wounded. However, Najib Danish, a ministry spokesman, said police officers were among the dead.

Polling stations also struggled with voter registration and a new biometric system that was aimed at stemming fraud, but instead created enormous confusion because many of those trained on the system did not show up for work. Also, the biometric machines were received just a month before polls and there was no time to do field testing.

Many polling stations opened as much as five hours behind schedule. The Independent Election Commission was uncertain how many of the estimated 21,000 polling stations closed by 4 p.m. local time, the original closing time. Polling was extended until 8 p.m. local time for all those polling stations that opened late, and those that could not open before 1 p.m. local time will open Sunday.

Afghanistan’s deputy chief executive Mohammad Mohaqiq expressed outrage at the chaotic start to polling and assailed election preparation by the country’s election commission. “The people rushed like a flood to the polling stations, but the election commission employees were not present, and in some cases they were there but there were no electoral materials and in most cases the biometric systems was not working,” he said.

“The widespread reports today of confusion and incompetence in the administration of the elections … suggest that bureaucratic failures and lack of political will to prioritize organizing credible parliamentary elections may do more to delegitimize the election results than threats and violent attacks by the Taliban and Daesh,” said Andrew Wilder, vice-president of Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, using the Arabic acronym name for the Islamic State group.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani marked his ballot at the start of voting. In a televised speech afterward, he congratulated Afghans on another election and praised the security forces, particularly the air force, for getting ballots to Afghanistan’s remotest corners.

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said, also reminding those elected that they are there to serve the people and ensure the rule of law. North of Kabul, thousands of outraged voters blocked a road after waiting more than five hours for a polling station to open, said Mohammad Azim, the governor of Qarabagh district where the demonstration took place.

Election Commission Commissioner Abdul Badi Sayat said dozens of teachers who had been trained in the new biometric system had not shown up for work at the polling stations. It wasn’t clear whether that was related to a Taliban warning directed specifically at teachers and students telling them to stay away from the polls.

“The long lines at many polling stations today, despite the threats and violent attacks by the Taliban and Daesh, clearly demonstrate that the problem with Afghan elections is not the enthusiasm of Afghan voters for a democratic future,” said Wilder.

The Defense Ministry said it had increased its deployment of National Security Forces to 70,000 from the original 50,000 to protect polling stations. Elections in the provinces of Kandahar and Ghazni have been delayed as well as in 11 of the country’s nearly 400 districts.

The Independent Election Commission registered 8.8 million people. Wasima Badghisy, a commission member, called voters “very, very brave” and said a turnout of 5 million would be a success. At a polling station in crowded west Kabul, Khoda Baksh said he arrived nearly two hours early to cast his vote, dismissing Taliban threats of violence.

“We don’t care about their threats. The Taliban are threatening us all the time,” said 55-year-old Baksh, who said he wanted to see a new generation of politicians take power in Afghanistan’s 249-seat Parliament. He bemoaned the current Parliament dominated by warlords and corrupt elite. “They have done zero for us.”

In the run-up to the elections, two candidates were killed while polling in Kandahar was delayed for a week after a rogue guard gunned down the powerful provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq. In the capital of Kabul, security was tight, with police and military personnel stopping vehicles at dozens of checkpoints throughout the congested city.

Commission deputy spokesman Aziz Ibrahimi said results of Saturday’s voting will not be released before mid-November and final results will not be out until later in December.

Afghan parliamentary polls underway despite threats

October 20, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Some Afghans lined up for hours to cast their vote Saturday in Parliamentary elections that are being protected by tens of thousands of security forces, who are on alert nationwide following a campaign marred by relentless violence.

As voting began, polling workers struggled with a new biometric system and in several polling stations workers took an extraordinary amount of time to locate names on voter lists. In some polling stations in the capital Kabul voting started as much as an hour late causing small disturbances by frustrated voters, some of whom had come to vote nearly two hours before polls opened.

The new biometric machines meant to curtail fraud were late additions to Afghanistan’s elections and had not been tested in the field nor had workers had more than a few weeks to learn the system. Even the Independent Election Commission chairman Abdul Badih Sayat warned ahead of polling that the system might experience glitches and asked for voters’ patience.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani marked his ballot at the start of voting. In a televised speech afterward, he congratulated Afghans on another election and praised the security forces, particularly the air force, for getting ballots to Afghanistan’s remotest corners. He also reminded those elected to Parliament that they are there to serve the people and ensure the rule of law.

The Independent Election Commission registered 8.8. million people. Wasima Badghisy, a commission member, called voters “very, very brave” and said a turnout of 5 million will be a success. At a polling station in crowded west Kabul, Khoda Baksh said he arrived nearly two hours early to cast his vote, dismissing Taliban threats of violence.

“We don’t care about their threats. The Taliban are threatening us all the time,” said 55-year-old Baksh, who said he wanted to see a new generation of politicians take power in Afghanistan’s 249-seat Parliament. He bemoaned the current Parliament dominated by warlords and a corrupt elite. “They have done zero for us.”

Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah waited to mark his ballot as polling workers struggled to move voters through the process. “Holding the election is a huge step in the lives of the Afghan people,” Abdullah said after casting his vote. “The beginning of the process was a bit slow, but that was just because of a new system and the Independent Election Commission employees needed more instruction.”

The first violence to be reported since the start of polling occurred in a northern Kabul neighborhood. Qarbagh district Gov. Azim Dilagha said a small explosion frightened voters but no injuries were reported.

In the run-up to the elections, two candidates were killed while polling in Kandahar was delayed for a week after a rogue guard gunned down the powerful provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq. In the capital of Kabul, security was tight, with police and military personnel stopping vehicles at dozens of checkpoints throughout the congested city.

Commission deputy spokesman Aziz Ibrahimi said results of Saturday’s voting will not be released before mid-November and final results will not be out until later in December. More than 50,000 Afghan National Security Forces personnel have been deployed to protect the 21,000 polling stations. Insecurity forced the election commission to close nearly a third of its polling centers and cancel elections in 11 of nearly 400 districts. As well as Kandahar, elections will not be held in Ghazni province, where polls have been postponed until next year.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt Saturday’s vote, warning teachers and students not to allow schools to be used for as precincts and warning Afghans to stay away from the polls. Ghani said Afghans alone are carrying out elections as he praised the millions of voters who registered, defying threats from insurgents.

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “The more than 8 million people who registered have shown that they themselves will decide the future of Afghanistan.”

Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Kabul contributed.

Afghan IS branch claims deadly attack on Shiites in Kabul

August 16, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — As Afghanistan’s Shiites mourned their dead and held funeral services Thursday, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the horrific suicide bombing in Kabul that targeted a Shiite neighborhood the previous day, killing 34 students.

Grieving families gathered to bury their dead but even amid the somber atmosphere there was no respite from violence, underscoring the near-daily, persistent threats in the war-battered country. Two gunmen besieged a compound belonging to the Afghan intelligence service in a northwestern Kabul neighborhood early Thursday, opening fire as Afghan security forces moved in to cut them off. The standoff lasted for nearly six hours before police killed the gunmen and secured the area. The Islamic State group, in a posting on its Aamaq News Agency, claimed more than 200 people were killed or wounded in Wednesday’s suicide bombing.

The bomber, who had walked into a classroom in a one-room building at a Shiite educational center in the neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, where he set off his explosives, was identified as “the martyrdom-seeking brother Abdul Raouf al-Khorasani.” Afghanistan’s IS affiliate is known as The Islamic State in Khorasan Province, after an ancient name of the area that encompassed parts of present-day Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The bombing also wounded 57 students, according to Health Ministry spokesman Wahid Majroh. Earlier on Thursday, the ministry revised an earlier death toll from the attack down to 34, not 48. Most of the victims were young men and women, high school graduates preparing for university entrance exams in the Shiite area’s educational center.

Kabul hospitals were completely overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of the attack as officials collected data on the casualties, leading to the confusion and the initial wrong toll. The Dasht-e-Barchi area is populated by members of Afghanistan’s minority ethnic Hazaras — a Shiite community that has in the past been targeted by similar large-scale attacks.

IS, which considers Shiites to be heretics, frequently targets them, attacking their mosques, schools and cultural centers. In the past two years, there have been at least 13 attacks on the Shiite community in Kabul alone.

Fifteen of the victims’ bodies were taken Thursday to a Hazara community compound in Kabul where a mass funeral service was being held. The remaining victims were taken to their villages to be buried there, said Gulam Hassan, the cousin of one of the victims.

The attack, which came at the end of more than a week of assaults that have left scores of Afghan troops and civilians dead, shows how militants are still able to stage large-scale attacks — even in the capital of Kabul — and undermine efforts by Afghan forces to provide security and stability on their own.

Amnesty International on Thursday denounced the attack on the Shiites, calling it a war crime. “The deliberate targeting of civilians and the targeting of places of education is a war crime,” said Samira Hamidi, Amnesty’s South Asia campaigner. “Mounting civilian casualties show beyond any doubt that Afghanistan and, in particular, its capital, Kabul, are not safe.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has also condemned the “terrorist” attack on the Shiites that “martyred and wounded the innocent” — students attending class — and ordered an investigation to determine how the bomber had managed to sneak into the compound, which has its own guards.

Survivors on Thursday struggled to come to terms with the bombing. In a Kabul hospital, Anifa Ahmadi sat by the bedside of her 17-year-old daughter Sima, who was wounded in the attack. Sima was in the front row of the classroom in the single-room building where the explosion occurred.

“I had told her and told her, ‘Don’t go to school. We are under attack everywhere. No place is safe for us.’ But she said ‘No, no, no’,” the mother said. Sima appeared undeterred despite injuries to her legs and arms and said she would go back to school. “I won’t let anyone stop me, I will resist all terrorist attacks to have the future I want,” she said.

Nahida Rahimi, a doctor at Kabul’s Isteqlal Hospital, where some of the wounded are being treated, said a mother told her she had lost a son in Wednesday’s bombing after already losing another a year earlier in another suicide bombing, also in Kabul, that targeted Shiites.

“We were both crying,” the doctor said. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, four policemen were killed and four were seriously wounded late Wednesday when they tried to defuse a car bomb they found in southern Kandahar province, according to Zia Durrani, provincial police spokesman.

Kandahar was the religious heartland of the Taliban during their five-year rule that ended with the 2001 invasion by U.S. and NATO forces following the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.

Suicide bomber targets Shiite students in Kabul, killing 48

August 15, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide bomber targeted students preparing for university exams in a Shiite neighborhood of Kabul on Wednesday, killing at least 48 people and wounding 67 in an attack blamed on the Islamic State group, officials said.

The bombing was the latest large-scale assault on Afghanistan’s Shiite community, which has increasingly been targeted by Sunni extremists who consider Shiites to be heretics. It comes amid a particularly bloody week in Afghanistan that has seen Taliban attacks kill scores of Afghan troops and civilians.

The bomber detonated his explosives inside a private building in the Dasht-i Barcha area of Kabul where a group of young Shiite men and women, all high school graduates, were studying for university entrance exams.

The spokesman for the public health ministry, Wahid Majroh, said the casualty figures were not final and that the death toll — which steadily rose in the immediate aftermath of the bombing — could rise further.

Majroh did not say if all the victims were students and whether any of their teachers were also among the casualties. The explosion initially set off gunfire from Afghan guards in the area, leading to assumptions that there were more attackers involved. Officials later said all indications were that there was only one bomber.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but Jawad Ghawari, a member of the city’s Shiite clerical council, blamed IS, which has carried similar attacks in the past, hitting mosques, schools and cultural centers.

In the past two years, Ghawari said there were at least 13 attacks on the Shiite community in Kabul alone. Abdul Hossain Hossainzada, a Shiite community leader in the western Kabul neighborhood, said the bomber apparently targeted the course, which had young men and women studying together.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied his group’s involvement in the attack. Meanwhile, a Taliban assault on two adjacent checkpoints in northern Afghanistan late on Tuesday night killed at least 30 soldiers and policemen, officials said.

The attack took place in northern Baghlan province, in the Baghlan-I Markazi district, said Mohammad Safdar Mohseni, the head of the provincial council. Dilawar Aymaq, a parliamentarian from Baghlan, said the attack targeted a military checkpoint and another manned by the so-called local police, militias recruited and paid by the Interior Ministry.

Abdul Hai Nemati, the governor of Baghlan, said at least nine security forces were still missing and four others were wounded in the attack. He said reinforcements have been dispatched to help recapture the checkpoints.

Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the assault. Also Wednesday, life was gradually returning to normal in parts of the eastern city of Ghazni after a massive, days-long Taliban attack, though sporadic gunbattles was still underway in some neighborhoods.

Afghans emerged from their homes and some shops reopened in Ghazni, where the Taliban launched a coordinated offensive last Friday, overwhelming the city’s defenses and capturing several neighborhoods. Afghan forces repelled the initial assault and in recent days have struggled to flush the insurgents out of residential areas where they are holed up.

The United States and NATO have launched airstrikes and sent military advisers to aid Afghan forces as they fight for the city, just 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the Afghan capital with a population of some 270,000 people.

Arif Noori, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said Wednesday that “life is getting back to normal” after at least 35 civilians were killed in recent days. But he said wounded people were still arriving at the city’s only hospital, which has been overwhelmed by the casualties.

Hundreds of people have fled the fighting in Ghazni, which has also killed about 100 members of the Afghan security forces. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Taliban attacked a police checkpoint in the southern Zabul province early Wednesday, killing four policemen, according to the provincial police chief, Mustafa Mayar, who said another three officers were wounded. He said seven attackers were killed and five were wounded during the battle, in which the Taliban used artillery and heavy weapons.

The Taliban have seized several districts across the country in recent years and carry out near-daily attacks targeting Afghan security forces. The assault on Ghazni was widely seen as a show of force ahead of possible peace talks with the U.S., which has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly 17 years.

Also on Wednesday, six children were killed when they tinkered with an unexploded rocket shell, causing it to blow up, said Sarhadi Zwak, spokesman for the governor of the eastern Laghman province. Zwak said that the victims were girls, aged 10-12, who were gathering firewood on Wednesday.

He blamed the Taliban, saying the rockets they fire at Afghan security forces often harm civilians. Afghanistan is littered with unexploded ordnance left by decades of war. It is also plagued by roadside bombs planted by insurgents, which are usually intended for government officials or security forces, but often kill and maim civilians.

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