Afghanistan 2017 – 2019

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U.S. Policy in Afghanistan: Changing Strategies, Preserving Gains (May 2017)
Afghanistan 2010 – 2017
The Devastating Paradox of Pakistan
How Afghanistan’s neighbor cultivated American dependency while subverting American policy

27-29 January
RYAN CROCKER: I was ambassador to Afghanistan. This deal is a surrender.
A framework agreement was announced on Monday calling for a cease-fire that could lead to the full withdrawal of U.S. troops. … The framework was reached without the involvement of the Afghan government. The Taliban has said all along that it refuses to negotiate with the government, considering the government the illegitimate puppet of the U.S. occupation. “By acceding to this Taliban demand, we have ourselves delegitimized the government we claim to support. This current process bears an unfortunate resemblance to the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War. Then, as now, it was clear that by going to the table we were surrendering; we were just negotiating the terms of our surrender. The Taliban will offer any number of commitments, knowing that when we are gone and the Taliban is back, we will have no means of enforcing any of them.

The US-Taliban negotiations breakthrough: What it means and what lies ahead
(Brookings) many difficult questions remain: How fast will the United States withdraw its military forces—in as few months as the Taliban wants (militarily infeasible and strategically unsound for the United States and Afghanistan), or between 16 to 24 months as the United States seeks? Will there be a residual U.S. military force, of say 1,000 soldiers, to protect the U.S. embassy, which—wink, wink, with the Taliban’s permission—will have the capacity to conduct limited counterterrorism strikes, something the Obama administration had contemplated in 2014? Will the Taliban finally agree to negotiate with the Afghan government, as President Ashraf Ghani, very leery of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations, has been insisting? Will the Taliban agree to a ceasefire while it negotiates with the Afghan government? And will the U.S. military remain in Afghanistan (and at what strength) until the agreement is concluded? If not, the U.S.-Taliban deal will merely be a fig leaf for U.S. departure while the Afghan government and people are left on their own to face the Taliban.

Taliban Talks Raise Question of What U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Could Mean
President Trump’s headway in Afghan peace negotiations with the Taliban raises the same question that has bedeviled other presidents who extracted American troops from foreign wars: Will the departing Americans end up handing over the country to the same ruthless militants that the United States went to war to dislodge?
A hasty American withdrawal, experts said, would erode the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan government, raising the risk that the Taliban could recapture control of the country. Short of that, it could consign Afghanistan to a protracted, bloody civil war, with Taliban fighters besieging the capital, Kabul, as they did in the 1990s.
These scenarios now seem possible because of the progress in direct talks between the United States and the Taliban. The chief American negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Monday that American and Taliban officials had agreed in principle to the outlines of a deal in which the insurgents would guarantee that Afghan territory is never used by terrorists, setting the stage for a total pullout of American troops.
U.S. and Taliban Agree in Principle to Peace Framework, Envoy Says
After nine years of halting efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban, the draft framework, though preliminary, is the biggest tangible step toward ending a war that has cost tens of thousands of lives and profoundly changed American foreign policy.
A senior American official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss continuing negotiations, said the Taliban delegation had asked for time to confer with their leadership about the American requirements for the insurgents’ agreement to hold direct talks with the Afghan government and to a cease-fire.
To many analysts of the Afghanistan conflict, the details that have emerged so far in Mr. Khalilizad’s discussions with the Taliban suggested an American desperation for a withdrawal from a war regarded as unwinnable, rather than patience for a comprehensive peace deal that could ensure some of the most basic values the Americans have emphasized in their 18-year presence in the country.
[chief United States negotiator Zalmay] Khalilzad returned to Afghanistan on Sunday to brief the government in Kabul after conducting six days of talks with the Taliban delegation in Doha, Qatar. In an address to the nation on Monday after Mr. Khalilzad had briefed him, President Ashraf Ghani expressed concern that a peace deal would be rushed. He highlighted previous settlements that ended in bloodshed, including when the Soviet Union withdrew from the country in the late 1980s.
Why Did Soviets Invade Afghanistan? Documents Offer History Lesson for Trump
(NYT) The origins of the Soviet invasion offer lessons for a history-challenged Mr. Trump as he negotiates an end to the United States’ own war in Afghanistan, now 17 years old. An American envoy reported Monday that he has reached a draft framework for peace with the Taliban.
A hardscrabble land of breathtaking beauty and unimaginable brutality, torn by religious, ethnic and tribal divisions and stuck in a virtually medieval reality, Afghanistan has been at the center of geopolitical contests for centuries — and high on the American priority list since the Soviet invasion of December 1979.
Mr. Trump argues that it is time to leave. During a cabinet meeting in early January where he discussed plans to withdraw half of the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan, Mr. Trump said other countries should pick up the slack, including Russia.

Taliban Ceasefire Talks: Trump’s Need to ‘Bring Boys Home’ Risks Wasting Lives Already Lost
By C. Uday Bhaskar
Negotiators from the United States and the Taliban held talks in Qatar this week on a ceasefire to the 17-year war in Afghanistan – with a deal under discussion that would result in the withdrawal of American troops, and insurgents promising not to allow the country to host militant groups like al-Qaeda.
The talks came after US Senator Lindsey Graham last Sunday urged Trump to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, saying it was time for both sides to have a “strategic partnership”. Khan has long been supportive of a peace treaty to stop the raging conflict between the Taliban and Afghan and US forces.
Concurrently, the US Central Command Chief General Joseph Votel met Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, with the talks confirming that the Afghan peace process was “high on the agenda”. The Pakistani daily Dawnthen reported the US was considering the offer of a free-trade agreement in exchange for Islamabad’s help in talks with the Taliban.
Does this latest of flurry of activity mean that the end of a foreign military presence in Afghanistan is in sight? The signals are mixed and contradictory at this point.
Even while the Taliban claims the US is accepting of its demand to pull out troops, Washington’s envoy Zalmay Khalilzad added a caveat when he noted military pressure was essential to creating the conditions for the peace negotiations with the Taliban, and promised the US would maintain the security support it is providing to Afghan security forces.
The fact that the Taliban brazenly claimed responsibility for an attack last week in the Afghanistan province of Wardak that killed 65 people, even while talks were going on, is indicative of the audacity of the group and the perilous security situation within the country.
The inability of the Kabul government to prevent such attacks points to the growing profile of the Taliban in the internal power structure of a war-weary country.

2018

A story of music. A story of courage. The story of Zohra.
The musicians of Zohra are smoothing out their dresses. Everything has to be perfect before the curtain goes up. It’s 6.30pm; on the other side of the drape is the culmination of a long journey. These 30 young Afghan women have flown all the way from Asia to perform in Switzerland in front of 2,000 world leaders. Instruments at the ready, Zohra – named after a Persian goddess of music – are about to bring to a close the 2017 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.
This isn’t just their first time outside Afghanistan, it’s the first time stage fright is the only fear they must brave. Back home, a performance by Zohra may be met with abuse or threats – or even bombs. Here they can – quite literally – show their true colours. Cloaked in exquisitely embroidered costumes, their heads wrapped in bright-hued headscarves, the young members of the Zohra orchestra are ready to share their culture and their message of hope with the world.

20 December
U.S. to Withdraw About 7,000 Troops From Afghanistan, Officials Say
(NYT) The whirlwind of troop withdrawals and the resignation of Mr. Mattis leave a murky picture for what is next in the United States’ longest war, and they come as Afghanistan has been troubled by spasms of violence afflicting the capital, Kabul, and other important areas. The United States has also been conducting talks with representatives of the Taliban, in what officials have described as discussions that could lead to formal talks to end the conflict.

23 October
Ballots and bullets in Afghanistan
(Brookings) Despite Taliban threats of violence to disrupt last Saturday’s parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, many Afghans showed up in large numbers to vote. Their commitment once again debunked the myths and caricatures so readily put forth by Western commentators that Afghans do not want democracy. Over and over the Afghan people have shown that they want accountability from their leaders, inclusion, and justice. And, once again, the long-delayed elections showed how the commitments and desires of the Afghan people are frustrated by dysfunctional political processes and systems that often render their voices meaningless, further exacerbating the steadily worsening security situation.
The people who showed up to vote exhibited great bravery: The Taliban attacked polling stations, rained rocket fire on some towns, and kidnapped and killed four election officials. At least 78 people, including 28 members of the Afghan security forces, were killed by the end of Saturday and some 470 people were wounded. Afghan security forces did succeed in preventing large-scale attacks on election day. But at least one-third of polling stations did not open due to insecurity, and the Taliban and various political rivals killed numerous political candidates while campaigning.

21 October
Polls close in Afghanistan’s long-delayed parliamentary elections
Parliamentary polls, the third since the Taliban’s fall in 2001, saw large numbers of voters cast their ballots
(Al Jazeera) Most polling stations in the country opened on Saturday at 7am (02:30 GMT) and were scheduled to close at 4pm (12:30 GMT).
But voting was extended to Sunday at 6pm (13:30 GMT) as the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said they gave voters more time to cast their ballot because of a lack of voter materials at some polling stations and problems with the electronic voter system.
Vote counting is under way and preliminary results are expected within 20 days. The electoral body has until December 20 to release the final results.

19-20 October
Afghanistan election: Voters cast ballots amid heavy security
Nearly nine million voters are entitled to cast their ballots when polling stations open at 03:30 GMT. The voting is expected to end at 11:30 GMT.
But only about 5,000 polling stations of the initially planned 7,000 will be operational because of security concerns.
About 54,000 members of the security forces have been deployed to try to ensure the elections pass off peacefully.
Preliminary results are expected 20 days after the election, on 10 November.
Why do the elections matter?
Most Afghans are desperate for a better life, jobs, education and an end to the war with the Taliban.
For the country’s foreign partners, seeing a flourishing democracy would be the return they’re seeking after many years of investment, billions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost in more than a decade of fighting.

18 October
Two top Afghan leaders in Kandahar Province were assassinated in a devastating attack that narrowly missed the top American commander in the country, Gen. Austin Miller. Accounts suggested it was an inside job.
The attack came just two days before national elections that have already been marred by violence; at least 10 candidates and dozens of their supporters have been killed.
Adding to the tension: The U.S. has held quiet talks with the Taliban, blindsiding the Afghan president.

19 August
(NYT evening brief) Taliban insurgents said they had taken control of the southeastern Afghan city of Ghazni early Friday. If confirmed, the move would represent the militant group’s most important strategic gain in years.
Government officials denied that Ghazni, a provincial capital, had fallen, but conceded that the insurgents were close.
Ghazni sits on an important north-south highway. If the Taliban control the city, they would essentially cut off the south.
Afghanistan: dozens dead as Taliban attack Ghazni, officials say
Many killed in overnight attack on provincial capital before troops force militants out

9 May
Attackers hit Afghan capital Kabul with bombs, bullets
(Reuters) – Gunmen mounted coordinated attacks in the Afghan capital Kabul on Wednesday, battling security forces for hours in the city’s main commercial area after three large explosions sent plumes of smoke and dust into the sky.

29 April
Three months later, the horror continues
Twin blasts in Afghan capital kill at least 26, including nine journalists who had arrived to report on the first explosion and were apparently targeted by a suicide bomber, officials said.
(Reuters) The attacks, a week after 60 people were killed as they waited at a voter registration center in the city, underlined mounting insecurity despite repeated government pledges to tighten defenses.
Hours after the attack in Kabul, a suicide bomber in a vehicle attacked a foreign military convoy in the southern province of Kandahar, killing 11 children studying in a nearby religious school, police said.
The attacks in rapid succession were a grim reminder of the strength of both the Taliban and Islamic State’s emerging Afghanistan branch to wreak violence despite stepped up U.S. air attacks under Trump’s new policy for the 16-year-old war.

27 January
Kabul: bomb hidden in ambulance kills dozens
Attacker passed first checkpoint by claiming he had a patient, then detonated explosives
The attack came a week after Taliban attackers stormed the city’s high-end Intercontinental hotel, killing at least 22 people, and four days after an Isis suicide bomber attacked the offices of the Save the Children charity in eastern Afghanistan. …the recent assaults show insurgents are still capable of complex attacks that are damaging to both morale and infrastructure. And they come in winter, when the Taliban have traditionally retreated to havens in Pakistan, waiting for the summer fighting season.

21 January
Taliban claims Kabul Intercontinental hotel siege
(Al Jazeera) A marathon deadly siege on a major hotel in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, has ended with the killing of all gunmen who fought off security forces for 16 hours.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the heavily-guarded Intercontinental Hotel in the Bagh-e Bala which left at least 18 civilians dead and 22 wounded.
Kabul hotel attack: guests ‘sprayed with bullets as they ran’
(The Guardian) The Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed five gunmen belonging to the group were responsible for the attack, while the Afghan interior ministry blamed the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, which killed 21 people in an attack on the same hotel in 2011.

Up to 1,000 more U.S. troops could be headed to Afghanistan this spring
(WaPost) The U.S. Army is readying plans that could increase the total force in Afghanistan by as many as 1,000 U.S. troops this spring beyond the 14,000 already in the country, senior military officials said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has not signed off on the proposals for the new forces, which are part of a broader strategy to bolster Afghan forces so that they can pound the Taliban during the upcoming fighting season.

15 January
The President, the Strongman, and the Next U.S. Headache in Afghanistan
By MUJIB MASHAL
(NYT) Atta Muhammad Noor, a strongman who has ruled a prosperous northern Afghan province more like a king than a governor for 13 years, was driving between meetings in Dubai last month when he got the call: President Ashraf Ghani was firing him.
For three years, Mr. Ghani had tried to ease Mr. Noor, 54, a commander of the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviets who then became a warlord in the civil war and in the battle against the Taliban, out of his spot as governor of Balkh Province, the country’s commercial hub. Negotiations over a deal that would see Mr. Noor finally leave in return for more government seats for his political party faltered. And when Mr. Noor began meeting with other important regional power brokers who were also critics of the president, Mr. Ghani decided he had finally had enough. He ordered Mr. Noor out.
The Afghan president may have miscalculated.
Since returning to Balkh, not only has Mr. Noor rejected the Afghan president’s firing of him, but he is using his defiance of the American-backed administration in Kabul as a platform to project himself as a player in the presidential elections that are supposed to happen next year.

3 January
The Afghan president has more powers than a king
by Nazif Shahrani
(Al Jazeera) The dismissal of Governor Atta Muhammad Nur of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan by President Ashraf Ghani on December 18, 2017, was met with adamant defiance by the governor and his supporters. It was an unnecessary, constitutionally induced, crisis that has brought the country to the brink of yet another major conflict.
This development is also a symptom of a much deeper constitutional problem, which, if not resolved, could be a recipe for disaster in the future.
The 2004 Afghan constitution invests the president with more powers than former Afghan kings had before the republican period. Among them is the power to appoint all government officials, political and professional, from the cabinet to the district levels.
At the same time the office of the president, at least in practice, tends to be filled only with ethnic Pashtuns. That is why candidates view the presidency as “the prize” to be won at any cost.
Hence, presidential elections have become a massive exercise in fraud. The last election conducted in 2014 was the worst by far. Following accusations of unprecedented violations, US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered, extra-constitutionally, a national unity government for Ashraf Ghani and Abdulla Abdulla to share power, averting a likely tragedy.
Nikki Haley: Pakistan playing ‘double game’ for years
“They work with us at times, and they also harbour the terrorists that attack our troops in Afghanistan,” Haley told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York. That game is not acceptable to this administration.”

1 January
Trump shifts gears on Afghanistan
(The Hill) President Trump is changing gears on Afghanistan as he enters his second year in office.
After decrying nation building during his presidential campaign and lambasting Afghanistan as a “complete waste,” the president is in the midst of sending thousands more troops to the country in an effort to stabilize it.
The move, military commanders say, will help break a stalemate in the longest U.S. war in history and help beat back a resurgent Taliban and straggling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters.
But defense experts say there is little indication the shift will be a quick fix.
The U.S. must contend with an increased ISIS presence while keeping Afghanistan politically stable and pressuring Pakistan to limit the space for the Taliban and other terrorist groups, according to James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

2017

31 December
Its dreams of a caliphate are gone. Now Isis has a deadly new strategy
Territorial losses in Syria and Iraq mean Islamic State militants are igniting bloody sectarian insurgencies elsewhere
By Hassan Hassan
(The Guardian) Last Thursday, dozens of civilians in Kabul were killed in a suicide attack that targeted a Shia cultural centre in the Afghan capital. The assault was the latest in persistent attacks by an affiliate of Isis, which has proved to be resilient despite a relentless campaign against it in recent months.
Aside from its persistence in Afghanistan, the nature of Thursday’s attack is a harbinger of what is to come as Isis loses its caliphate in Iraq and Syria. In its statement about the assault, the Isis media outlet claimed that the cultural centre was bankrolled and sponsored by Iran. “The centre is one of the most notable centres for proselytisation to Shiism in Afghanistan,” the statement added. “Young Afghans would be sent to Iran to receive academic studies at the hands of Iranian clerics.”

28 December
Scores killed in Isis bombing of Kabul news agency and Shia centre
At least 41 people killed and 80 wounded in sectarian attack in Afghan capital that UN said deliberately targeted children
Islamic State has killed at least 41 people and injured more than 80 others in an attack on a Shia cultural centre and news agency that share a building in Kabul.
The bombings were the latest in a particularly bloody year for the Afghan capital, even by the standards of a country inured to decades of conflict.
The first explosion was detonated by a suicide bomber sitting among students at a lecture marking the 38th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The death toll rose over the day as hospitals struggled to cope, and may climb further.

13 October
Haqqani network’s loss of hostages raises concerns over possible quid pro quo
Release of Canadian Joshua Boyle and family may be result of increased U.S. pressure on Pakistan
(CBC) The freeing of a Canadian-American family held hostage by the Haqqani network has cast a spotlight on the lesser-known terror group. It also has raised questions about what the network might have received in return.
The kidnapping of Canadian Joshua Boyle and his American wife, Caitlan Coleman, fits into the group’s pattern of violence on Western targets. Kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2012, the family was kept alive and ultimately freed Wednesday in neighbouring Pakistan.

5 October
Ashraf Ghani: Afghan president has ‘worst job on Earth’
(BBC) The most obvious [issue] is security. His country has been at war for almost 16 years now. Yet the Afghan president is surprisingly bullish about how long the country will continue to require the support of Nato.
Nato troops, he says, will be able to pull out “within four years”.
Many military analysts will consider that optimistic given that it is only three years since the Nato combat mission ended and the Afghan military took responsibility for the battle against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. …
The Taliban, he says, had two strategic aims: to overthrow the government or to create two “political geographies”, by which he means whole areas of the country where it holds sway.
“It has failed miserably in both of these aims,” Mr Ghani believes.
Whether that is true is debatable. The latest figures from the US military show that the Afghan government controls less than two-thirds of the country. The rest is either controlled or contested by the Taliban and other militant groups.
What is more, last year Afghanistan lost some 10% of its entire fighting force: about 7,000 Afghan National Army soldiers were killed, another 12,000 were injured, and many thousands more deserted.

21 September
President Trump meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (CNBC video)

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