US-Taliban peace talks in Doha a ‘significant step’

The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilizad said Saturday that talks with the Taliban had been “more productive than they have been in the past,” and that “significant progress on vital issues” had been made.

In a series of messages posted to Twitter, Khalilzad also said he would be flying to Afghanistan for consultations with the government and to “build on the momentum and resume talks shortly.”

Khalilzad cautioned that there were still a “number of issues left to work out.”

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire,” Khalilzad said.

US officials and Taliban negotiators were in Qatar’s capital to broker a ceasefire that would lead to a sequenced agreement for dialogue, initially between the US and the Taliban and then between the Taliban and the Afghan government, a source with knowledge of the talks told CNN.

Afghan official: U.S. assures us they’re committed
“If the ceasefire is announced this will trigger a sequence of talks that will have already been agreed by heads of both sides,” the source said.

The source added that there is a lot at stake for Khalilizad in these talks, not least to get President Donald Trump to sign on to whatever he has been able to get from the Taliban.

One concern, the source said, is that if the US pulls out troops without a deal with the Taliban, the Afghan government would fall, which could potentially see al Qaeda returning to the capital. The Taliban are currently sheltering a number of al Qaeda sleeper cells, according to the source.

On Saturday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Doha talks “saw progress” on vital issues but that “until the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is agreed upon, progress in other issues is impossible.”

The Taliban spokesman also said there wasn’t a ceasefire agreement in place yet.

“Reports by some media outlets about agreement on a ceasefire and talks with the Kabul administration are not true,” Mujahid said in a statement.

Both parties thanked the Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani for his role in facilitating the talks.

Writing on Twitter, Al-Thani called the six-day meeting a “significant step in the history of peace and reconciliation” on Twitter and called on regional and international players to “unify and coordinate efforts and support#Doha in its endeavor to facilitate successful negotiations.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the news “encouraging,” writing on Twitter that the US is “serious about pursuing peace, preventing #Afghanistan from continuing to be a space for international terrorism & bringing forces home.”

Last month, the US military was ordered to begin planning to withdraw about half of its troops in Afghanistan, according to a US defense official with direct knowledge of the matter. The US has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, most of which are present as part of a larger NATO-led mission to train, advise and assist Afghan forces.

The conflict, known as America’s longest war, has cost more than 2,400 American lives, billions of US dollars and has spanned three US administrations.

While casualty figures for Afghan military and police have been classified since 2017, at least 62,000 Afghan military and police lives have been lost, according to the New York Times.

The number of civilians — mostly women and children — killed or injured by airstrikes in Afghanistan has risen a startling 39% year on year, according to UN figures released last October.

And in the past three years, the Taliban have strengthened their grip according to the most recent report released by the US government’s own ombudsman of the war.

In its quarterly report for the US Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said that the Afghan government currently controls or influences only 55.5% of the country’s districts, marking the lowest level recorded since SIGAR began tracking district control in November 2015.

In November 2015, the Afghan government controlled 72% of districts in the country, but now controls just 56% of them. Insurgent influence or control has risen to 12.5% of districts from just 7% and approximately a third of Afghanistan is a “contested” area.

CNN’s Nic Robertson, Saleem Masood and Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.

In Peace Overture, Afghan President Offers Passports to Taliban

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan renewed a call on Wednesday for the Taliban to join peace talks, offering to treat the insurgent group as a legitimate political party, though it has repeatedly rejected similar proposals.

In the latest overture, Mr. Ghani said his government would provide the Taliban with an office in the capital, Kabul; passports for its members; help resettling militants’ families; and assistance in scrubbing the names of top commanders from international terrorist blacklists.

“We believe in providing a peaceful and respectful life for all Afghans, including those Taliban who leave violence behind,” Mr. Ghani said. He spoke at a peace conference, called the Kabul Process, attended by more than 20 nations but not the Taliban.

There appears little chance of any breakthrough, but the Afghan government made the offer to demonstrate to an international audience that it is willing to negotiate, and to encourage those participating in the conference to pressure the Taliban to accept. The government is under pressure to offer incentives as the United States increases military pressure.

The Taliban’s main faction has insisted on direct negotiations with the United States and dismisses the American-backed government in Kabul as a puppet.

The Taliban has yet to respond to Mr. Ghani’s proposal. But in a statement on Monday, they said they had asked American officials to talk directly to their political office, and not through the Afghan government. The statement also said that “military strategies which have repeatedly been tested in Afghanistan over the past 17 years will only intensify and prolong the war.”

Under President Trump, the American strategy for ending the war has entailed expanding a campaign of airstrikes and putting pressure on Pakistan to force the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government.

American commanders have claimed progress, but only in measures that are classified. A Pentagon study made public this month showed that the Afghan government controlled 18 percent of the country’s districts at the end of last year and had influence over an additional 38 percent.

While the insurgents dominate only a sliver of the country, they still hold substantial sway. The Taliban collect taxes from businesses and run a shadow judicial system for settling disputes, preferred by some Afghans over the corrupt government courts.

In one measure of the Taliban’s reach, cellphone companies comply with the group’s request to halt service around 5 p.m. in parts of the country, including in Kunduz, a major city, lest the insurgents blow up transmission towers. The blackouts demonstrate influence, and the Taliban say they also serve a practical purpose of preventing government informants from calling in tips about their nighttime movements.

Around dusk on Tuesday, insurgents attacked a checkpoint in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, killing five police officers, and later stopped a bus and captured 19 passengers as hostages, according to a police spokesman.

The peace talks known as the Kabul Process began last year and are intended to demonstrate unity in the international community for negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The United Nations also backs this approach.

Battle for Kabul Has Begun


WASHINGTON — Taliban attacks on two consecutive weekends in Kabul, which have killed hundreds of people, including Americans, have occurred in the midst of stepped-up efforts by the Trump administration to find a way out of the 16-year-old Afghan imbroglio.

While the Trump administration has doubled its troop level in Afghanistan to 16,000, the U.S. Central Command led by Gen. Joseph Votel has dispatched military advisers that are guiding Afghan forces to stay on the offensive before the fighting season with the Taliban begins in spring.

That runs contrary to neighboring Pakistan’s position, which says it has in recent times intensified its push for talks with the Taliban leadership.

But disregarding Islamabad’s offer, the Trump administration has accused Pakistan of playing a “double game” that foremost includes giving refuge to the Haqqani network — the wealthy and well-connected Afghan Taliban who migrated to Pakistan 40 years ago.

A New Year tweet by Trump accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” in taking U.S. money while harboring the Taliban, which makes ferocious attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan. Frustrated officials in Washington have stopped $255 million aid to Islamabad.

In mid-January, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, articulated Trump’s policy in Kabul when she told a U.N. Security Council meeting that Pakistan should stop giving refuge to the Afghan Taliban militants.

Exactly a week later, the Taliban laid a 13-hour siege on Kabul’s Hotel Intercontinental, where they killed and wounded dozens of guests and set the hotel on fire. The casual manner in which the militants ate food inside the hotel — targeting foreigners at will — showed their ability to strike the protected enclave at a time and place of their choosing.

Barely was Afghanistan out of its state of shock when the next weekend on Jan. 27, a suicide bomber used an ambulance to kill and wound hundreds of people in a crowded part of Kabul. While Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed that police had been killed, eyewitnesses said the victims were mainly civilians.

Following the hotel attack, a retired Pakistani brigadier, Ishaq Khattak, rejected Afghan and U.S. allegations that the Haqqani network waged the attacks from inside the sanctuaries provided by Pakistan.

Still, pressed on whether the attack may be part of Pakistan’s strategy to up the ante in the final settlement with the Taliban, Khattak said it was the U.S. that needed to “change its line of thinking” and consider why it was unable to bring peace in Afghanistan even after 16 years.

Marvin Weinbaum, a former official in the State Department, says that the U.S. does not buy this line. Instead, he says the Trump administration plans to enforce its hard-line strategy “to keep up the military pressure to create conditions where the Taliban are ready to talk on U.S. terms.”

In keeping with this policy, the U.S. on Jan. 24 unilaterally made a drone attack in Pakistan. The attack hit the Orakzai agency’s Dapa Mamozai village and killed Haqqani network commander Tariq Mahmood.

Mahmood was also known by his warrior name, Khowarai. According to NBC News, he had led fighters in multiple attacks on Afghan security forces and U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Another Haqqani commander injured in the drone attack was taken away for investigation into the Jan, 20 terrorist attack that killed dozens of people in Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul.

The Pakistan Foreign Office expressed displeasure at the “unilateral” drone strike by the Resolute Support Mission, claiming it had “targeted an Afghan camp.” Political agents in the FATA confirmed, however, that the drone attack was on a single housing unit and did not kill any civilians.

Author Shuja Nawaz, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, says that the U.S. was able to undertake the precise drone attack because Western countries such as Britain and France have increased their intelligence agents in the border areas since 2004.

Nawaz says the Haqqanis have their sanctuaries inside Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan — Pakhtia, Pakhtika and Khost — enabling them to easily cross over to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that border Afghanistan. He says he regrets that Pakistan lost its opportunity last year to expel the Haqqani network to Afghanistan.

Pakistan says it has been trying to nudge the U.S. toward talks. On Jan. 15, Islamabad tried to use its “soft power” by hosting an Afghan Taliban delegation from Qatar to meet with the head of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan — Pir Syed Hamid Gilani.

Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, head of the Afghan Taliban and third in line from Mullah Omar, reportedly gave his blessings to the meeting.

Weinbaum says the Taliban’s demand that they want to “talk to the U.S.” is an oft-used strategy that is not going to fly. He says that by so doing, the Taliban merely seeks to reiterate that they want to see the “Americans out of Afghanistan.”

“Once the U.S. is out, then the Taliban, without stating it, will go — whether it’s a matter of months or a year — to scoring a military victory,” he said.

According to Nawaz, Pakistan’s continuing failure to push the Afghan Taliban out of FATA could lead the U.S. to send in troops from across the border to take them out, which for Pakistan would be a “red line.”

Meanwhile, Nawaz predicts that before using a last resort such as “declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism,” the U.S. will use “pressure points” such as the IMF, World Bank and international bodies to get Pakistan to cooperate.

Experts believe that the real test will come during the Afghan spring offensive, for which the U.S. is recruiting younger commanders, while bringing in new equipment and advisers — setting the stage to fight the Taliban in order to speed up the endgame.

Trump looks to the sky to force Taliban to the table

KABUL: The war in Afghanistan may be entering its 17th year, but screams of military jet engines in the twinkling skies above Bagram Airfield show no sign of quieting.

This city-scale military base just north of Kabul has — like similar facilities in Kandahar and Jalalabad — become central to Donald Trump´s promise to succeed where his predecessors failed, and end the Afghan war on favorable terms.

Trump concluded a months-long strategy review in August. During that soul searching, the White House came to believe that the Obama administration underutilized America´s total aerial superiority.

The skies, they believe, could hold one key to unlocking the conflict.

Trump will likely send a few thousand more troops to the country — a development sure to grab the headlines — but the days of having 100,000 US military personnel in the country are over.

The ground war is likely to fall more and more to Afghan government forces, and early political efforts will be trained, in part, on getting Pakistan to stop providing safe havens for jihadists across the border.

But the first tangible moves have been a significant increase in the tempo and intensity of airstrikes, an effort to take the war to the Taliban.

The US, which is the only foreign force in Afghanistan carrying out airstrikes, targeted the Taliban and Islamic State group militants with 751 bombs and missiles in September, the month after the strategy review.

That was up 50 percent from August and the highest since October 2010, according to US Air Force data.

US Air Force personnel on the ground in Afghanistan report a significant shift in how airpower is being used.

Before, jets patrolled for up to four hours waiting to provide air support to ground forces. But they often returned to Bagram without having fired a shot in anger.

Chocks away
Today, according to Captain Lyndsey Horn, they are much more likely to come back having engaged the Taliban, the Islamic State group or having targeted an opium production facility.

“For a long time here we stagnated,” said a second officer. “The effects so far are positive, the long term effects are harder to tell.”

Vice President Mike Pence, who on Thursday became the most senior member of the Trump administration to visit Afghanistan, says the strategy is starting to make a difference in Taliban morale.

“President Ghani informed me that in 2017 we have eliminated more senior leaders of the Taliban than were eliminated in all the prior years combined,” Pence said after his meeting in Kabul.

“They have begun to see a sea change in the attitudes among the Taliban” he added. The Taliban “are now beginning to question their future, and our hope is, as we take the fight to the enemy… that eventually the enemy will tire of losing and will be willing to come forward.”

Lofty claims of progress are hard to verify, and the Taliban were able to lift their momentum even after the deaths of their first two chiefs, including Mullah Akhtar Mansour who was killed by a US drone strike in 2015 ordered by Trump´s predecessor Barack Obama.

Afghan forces, beset by desertions and corruption, have seen casualties soar to what a US watchdog has described as “shockingly high” levels since NATO forces officially ended their combat mission in 2014, and the figures are now classified in an effort to save morale.

The Taliban continue to control or contest 45 percent of the country´s territory, according to a September analysis by the respected Long War Journal, and have stepped up raids on security installations across Afghanistan.

No recent arrival at Bagram, and certainly not Trump´s Afghan-savvy former generals who had a hand in the new strategy — namely National Security Advisor HR McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — believe the Taliban is about to surrender wholesale.

But the White House hopes overwhelming force will exacerbate divisions in the Taliban ranks and help lure more members to the negotiating table, where America´s diplomats will be waiting.

Officials admit the US strategy is not without risk, and the longer it runs the more costs will accrue.

More bombing almost invariably means more civilian casualties, which could further mobilize Afghans against the United States.

And while the US recently wiped out 10 Taliban labs used to process opium into heroin, counter-narcotics experts believe three million Afghan farmers make their living from the crop, which has been described as “a low-risk crop in a high-risk environment.”


APS attack (Credit: ATDT 2016 edition)
APS attack
(Credit: ATDT 2016 edition)

The massacre of children studying in Army Public School, Peshawar in December 2014, may have been an act of desperation by the Taliban, routed six months earlier from North Waziristan — `the last refuge for jihadis’ — but it would shake up Pakistan by the sheer level of its moral depravity.

That morning militants pumped bullets in the heads of children, as they hid trembling under their desks. The lights went out for hundreds of families, for whom the “tiniest coffins were also the heaviest.” A pall of gloom descended over the nation, which though inured by countless incidents of terrorism since 9/11, woke to new depths of human bestiality.

Pakistan reacted much as the US had after 9/11. It demanded Afghanistan extradite Pakistani Taliban chief, Mullah Fazlullah from Swat, for the heinous murders. Just as US support for the Mujahideen fighting Soviet occupation of Afghanistan went sour after Osama Bin Laden used the ensuing Taliban regime to kill thousands in New York and Washington… so too Pakistan realized the chickens had come home to roost.

This time round, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had made a fatal mistake. They had shot the students in Peshawar, believing they were from families of the army. A source close to Fazlullah’s coterie told me the TTP had boasted to the effect. Like other parents, he suffered, not knowing if his own child had survived in a neighboring school.

It was a display of how the Pakistani Taliban’s self confidence had peaked, despite being pushed out by the army. Fazlullah fled the 2009 Swat military operation, after his foot soldiers used brutal Al Qaeda tactics of kidnapping and beheading soldiers. His spokesman Muslim Khan explained to me they merely sought to implement Shariah — the interpretation of Islamic law that the Taliban wished to impose on the nation.

While the Taliban dug in, a group of educationists resisted them in their home base. In Malakand division, educators like Ahmed Shah and Ziauddin Yusufzai connected with the anti Taliban struggle by Pakistan’s civil society. Ziauddin’s `r’s’ rolled passionately as he narrated how the people of Swat had been taken hostage by the militants. I was intrigued by his idealism. Still, like other people in Pakistan I wondered how long he could sustain it in the face of mounting Taliban brutality.

Ziauddin brought his entire family into the resistance – putting his daughter Malala in touch with Pakistan’s civil society. The quintessential women’s rights activist in Islamabad, Tahira Abdullah took the teenage girl under her wing, connecting her with non governmental organizations (NGOs), focused on universal education.

Karachi’s civil society told me the teenager accompanied them to NGO workshops, to raise the profile for education of girls. In Swat, Malala’s family kept pushing the envelope in a dangerous environment, where Fazlullah’s militants sneaked in from across the border and attacked opponents.

It was only a matter of time before the Taliban arrived one October morning in 2012 to hunt down Malala. In a Goliath vs David encounter, a Talib peaked his head in the girls van and asked `Who is Malala.’ Without waiting for an answer, he fired a volley of bullets on the screaming school girls, injuring them as they ducked. Malala bled profusely, horrifying those who cared for her. When I heard Malala’s mentor, Tahira sob, I sensed the nightmare for civil society had hit home. That the girl who had pursued education in the face of all odds, would perhaps become one more nameless and faceless victim in Pakistan’s seemingly endless `War on Terror.’

But the difference between life and death… and what one ends up calling destiny… was that the bullet hit Malala centimeters away from target. It allowed the girl to be rushed to a hospital in the UK, where she was operated upon and survived to tell the world how the Taliban had brutalized people in the name of Islam.

In Washington, where Malala visited after she turned 18, I saw the fading scars on her animated face. With her head covered, the young woman looked on fondly at her father, Ziauddin, even as he stuttered with engaging enthusiasm. He narrated that in London a cab driver had initially asked him if he was the father of the girl attacked by the Taliban. But he glowed, recalling, he was now identified as the “father of Malala, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.”

With the same pride, Ziauddin introduced his family to a gathering of Pakhtuns and US based well-wishers.

“As a young man, I used to listen to my father… and now I listen to my children,” he said, carried away in a stream of consciousness.

Nurtured by her strong family network and boosted by a global following, Malala displayed quiet self-confidence. It contrasted with the boys from Army Public School, Peshawar who arrived in the US nine months after the massacre. The Obama administration had invited them to tour US universities along with local students, to better understand the system of education.

Hoping to add to my insight about the horrific incident, I tried to ask the boys about what happened that fateful day.

Umar Asif, a tall, bespectacled, alert looking young man quickly replied: “I didn’t go to school that day.” As I glanced at his class mate, he too replied, looking away, “Me neither.”

The mystery cleared as I saw a watchful army official skipping around the room. The official reminded those who may have forgotten… to stay quiet on the sensitive issue. Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban was not a topic on which the army wanted to invite scrutiny inside the US.

An off-shoot of Al Qaeda is Regrouping in Pakistan

KARACHI, Pakistan — Five years after most senior al-Qaeda leaders are thought to have fled this port city, officials in Karachi worry that the organization is regrouping and finding new support here and in neighboring Afghanistan. They are especially concerned about the recruitment of potential foot soldiers for the next major terrorist attack.

The resurgence has been managed by a South Asian offshoot called al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), created by al-Qaeda’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 2014 in order to slow advances by rival Islamic State militants in the region.

Initially, AQIS struggled to gain traction in Pakistan — it has been the principal target of President Obama’s drone-strike strategy in the country’s northwestern tribal belt. But AQIS is now finding its footing in southern Pakistan, powered by fresh recruits and budding alliances with other militant organizations.

“They are making a comeback of sorts,” said Saifullah Mehsud, executive director of the FATA Research Center, which monitors militant groups. “But it’s a different, more localized al-Qaeda.”

After the fall of Afghanistan’s Taliban government in 2001, many al-Qaeda leaders spilled into northwest Pakistan or attempted to blend in in Karachi, a bustling city of more than 20 million residents. A significant number of those core leaders were eventually killed or captured, or fled to the Middle East, officials said.

But the formation of AQIS is again allowing al-Qaeda to tap into Karachi’s wealth and network of madrassas in search of recruits and technical expertise — and sparking deadly clashes with Pakistani security forces.

“The core al-Qaeda, the thinkers and planners, are not coming to the front right now, but they are giving directions, and . . . the local boys are going in big numbers,” said one counterterrorism official in Karachi who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

While Pakistani officials remain confident that al-Qaeda probably can’t pull off another 9/11-style attack on the United States, there is concern that the group is, as one official put it, “planning something big.” The official added that it is unclear, however, whether such an attack would be aimed at Pakistan, another country in South Asia or the West.

Those concerns mirror assessments from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, where there are also signs that elements of al-Qaeda are trying to come together. A 30-square-mile training camp was discovered in Kandahar province in October, and last month U.S. and Afghan special operations forces freed a kidnapped Pakistani from an al-Qaeda-linked camp in Paktia province.

“They are looking to nestle in with the Taliban so they have some level of sanctuary,” said Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland, chief spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. “Ultimately, what we think al-Qaeda gets out of this relationship is, if the Taliban can provide them some ungoverned space, that allows al-Qaeda space to really conduct their global operations.”

In Pakistan, officials say al-Qaeda is also re-adapting through enhanced alliances with established militant groups, including the Sunni-dominated Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian group that had been focused on attacking Shiite Muslims.

The coordination comes as Pakistan’s military has stepped up its operations against various militant groups, prompting them to seek out support from al-Qaeda “for survival,” said one Pakistani law enforcement official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But officials say that the threat from al-Qaeda extends far beyond Sunni militant groups rebranding themselves. Instead, they say, al-Qaeda is finding new recruits from some unlikely Karachi neighborhoods.

Although ethnic Pashtuns and foreign fighters have historically formed the backbone of al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, some ethnic Bengalis and other Urdu-speaking Mohajirs — Muslims who migrated to Pakistan from India after the 1947 partition — are also being lured into the group, officials said.

“They are not into this factional fighting, or fighting with other sects or Shiites, but they will go for enforcement of sharia law overall” and be drawn to al-Qaeda sermons against the West, the official said.

Counterterrorism officials in Karachi have a list of several hundred active al-Qaeda members, which makes them assume there are at least a few thousand on the streets.

In Karachi, AQIS has divided itself into three operational segments — recruitment, financial and tactical — made up of four-to-six-person cells.

The recruitment cells work in madrassas and schools, casually preaching Islam before targeting certain students for potential recruitment, officials said.

“Nobody may even know it’s al-Qaeda operating,” said Saad Khan, a retired Pakistani intelligence officer.

Cells solicit local businesses for donations, often under the guise of supporting Islamic charities, officials said. Officials have no estimates for how much money al-Qaeda raises from relatively wealthy Karachi but said that militants are often found carrying hundreds of dollars in cash.

“They are being told they don’t need to do any job and they don’t need to indulge in petty crimes,” the counterterrorism official said. “But they are told they have to remain very discreet.”

Although such discretion complicates the work of counterterrorism officials, they think that the Karachi cells are just spokes in a broader operation centered near Pakistan’s southwestern border with Afghanistan or Iran.

From Karachi, AQIS tactical cells ferry money and messages to that general area, often moving through Quetta, which is also where part of the Afghan Taliban leadership resides, officials said. From Quetta, militants cross the border into Afghanistan but appear to have little knowledge about al-Qaeda’s broader ambitions or tactics in the region, intelligence officials said.

“The people we come into contact with say they go to Afghanistan but are put into a small corner and remain there and can’t go out,” the Pakistani counterterrorism official said. “Then they get direction from there, from another Pakistani, and return.”

In Pakistan, officials said AQIS has been linked to just one major attempted terrorist attack — an effort two years ago to hijack a Pakistani navy vessel from the port of Karachi.

The attack was foiled, but five Pakistani navy officers were convicted of helping to orchestrate the operation, according to media reports.

AQIS militants have also been linked to several recent police killings in Karachi. Officials say they are targeted revenge attacks or the early stages of a larger plot to try to weaken the morale of security forces.

“What still makes al-Qaeda different and more dangerous from other militant groups is a disciplined management system,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based expert on militants. “Another dangerous thing is they are always looking to penetrate into the armed forces looking for sympathy.”

U.S. intelligence officials have worried for years about potential links between al-Qaeda and rogue Pakistani military officials. That Osama bin Laden was found hiding near a Pakistan military training academy did little to allay their suspicions.

Pakistani security and intelligence agencies, however, seem to have no tolerance for the modern-day al-Qaeda. “We don’t go for arrests,” the counterterrorism official said. “We just search through their computer, their things, and then neutralize them.”

Last month, police in Pakistan’s Punjab province reported killing 14 al-Qaeda militants, including the group’s leader there, over two days in “encounters” with police. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that the suspects had been in police custody for four months before they died.

Saad Muhammad, a retired Pakistani general, said Pakistan’s military is determined not to allow AQIS to jeopardize its recent gains against Islamist militant groups.

“You can’t say they will be totally naked, but they will not be able to gain strength in any significant way,” Muhammad said.

But Syed Tahir Hussain Mashhadi, a retired Pakistani army colonel and sitting senator, said the real concern remains how a city such as Karachi fits into al-Qaeda’s broader global ambitions. The answer to that, he said, remains murky.

“Al-Qaeda is just an umbrella, and the top of the pyramid is what is controlling and enduring,” he said. “They don’t have to put much effort into Pakistan because all they have to do is pick up all these existing, bloodthirsty splinter organizations and they have a ready-made killing machine.”

Nisar Mehdi in Karachi, Aamir Iqbal in Peshawar and Antonio Olivo in Kabul contributed to this report.

How the US Tracked and Killed the Leader of the Taliban

Mansour vehicle (Credit:
Mansour vehicle
U.S. spy agencies zeroed in on Mullah Akhtar Mansour while he was visiting his family in Iran, laying a trap for when the Taliban leader crossed the border back into Pakistan.

While U.S. surveillance drones don’t operate in the area, intercepted communications and other types of intelligence allowed the spy agencies to track their target as he crossed the frontier on Saturday, got into a white Toyota Corolla and made his way by road through Pakistan’s Balochistan province, according to U.S. officials briefed on the operation.

Then, the U.S. military took over. Operators waited for the right moment to send armed drones across the Afghan border to “fix” on the car and made sure no other vehicles were in the way so they could “finish” the target, the officials said, using the argot of drone killing—all before Mullah Mansour could reach the crowded city of Quetta, where a strike would have been more complicated.

The ambush that killed Mullah Mansour marked a critical moment in Obama administration policy on Afghanistan, as it weighed a push for peace talks and a potential need for a military escalation. It also represented a message to Pakistan that the U.S. would take action on Pakistani soil if necessary without advance warning.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, warned on Tuesday that the strike would have “serious implications” for relations with the U.S. and described the incident as “completely against the U.N. Charter and international law.”

President Barack Obama secretly ordered the strike on Mullah Mansour after first trying to bring him to the negotiating table. Initially, there was hope in Washington that Mullah Mansour would be more open to negotiations than his predecessor, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Obama administration officials were divided over whether the Pakistanis were capable or willing to deliver Mullah Mansour for the negotiations.

U.S. officials said the Pakistanis tried and grew frustrated in February by Mullah Mansour’s refusal to send representatives to meet with the Afghan government.

Around the same time, people who maintain contacts with the Taliban began to report that Mullah Mansour had left Pakistan and was spending time in Iran.

U.S. intelligence agencies received information that allowed them to track Mullah Mansour’s movements, including details about devices he used for communications, U.S. officials said.

That allowed the spy agencies to present policy makers with a choice: If and when Mullah Mansour were located in Pakistan, should the U.S. strike?

Mullah Mansour’s travels made it easier to find him. In contrast, the Central Intelligence Agency spent years looking in vain for an opportunity to kill the reclusive cleric he replaced, Mullah Omar.

An April 19 Taliban attack in Kabul targeted Afghanistan’s secret service, killing more than 60 people and underlining for the Americans the extent to which Mullah Mansour had chosen a military course. A decision was made that he should “face the consequences” of his refusal to negotiate, a senior administration official said.

The U.S. knew the route Mullah Mansour took to Quetta because he had taken it several times. U.S. intelligence agencies detected his preparations to cross the border back into Pakistan last week.

“Such actionable intelligence is rare,” another senior administration official said. “Given the preponderance of what has happened over the last few months, most principals around the table were going to be hard pressed to say: ‘Don’t take the shot.’”

Both the U.S. military and the CIA operate drones in the region. Military drones in Afghanistan rarely stray across the border, and CIA drones generally only go into Pakistan for strikes in what are known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas, according to U.S. officials. Pakistan facilitates the program by clearing the airspace there for CIA drones, while publicly opposing U.S. strikes in Pakistani territory, they said.

But Balochistan has long been off limits to the drones, U.S. and Pakistani officials say. So U.S. officials believe that Mullah Mansour and other Taliban leaders felt more comfortable there.

Route N-40, which Mullah Mansour and his driver used, cuts between Taftan on the Iranian border and Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, according to the U.S. officials.

The U.S. normally would want multiple drones to keep eyes on such an important target. Because CIA drones weren’t operating in the area, U.S. spy agencies relied on signals intelligence and other location information to track the Corolla’s journey, according to U.S. officials.

Armed drones based in Afghanistan and piloted by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command were preparing to move in for the kill, the officials said.

The U.S. knew Pakistani radar could detect the intrusion. Pakistan might then scramble jet fighters to intercept the drones, so timing was critical.

The military’s Reaper drones crossed the border into Pakistani airspace, flying low over the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to exploit gaps in radar coverage, the officials said.

Officers in the U.S. military command center overseeing the operation held off briefly because the vehicle pulled over near unidentified buildings, the officials said. It’s not clear why the stop was made.

They waited until the car got back on the road and away from other vehicles and buildings. Then they launched the strike, and two Hellfire missiles took out Mullah Mansour, the officials said.

The drones hovered overhead to ensure there were no survivors, then headed back to Afghanistan, the officials said.

The U.S. government agencies involved in the operation agreed in advance that the strike would be disclosed publicly by the Pentagon once completed. The agreement also called for officials to be vague about identifying the location of the strike, and the Pentagon was instructed to announce that the strike took place along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But U.S. officials soon disclosed the location inside Pakistan.

Pakistani officials said they weren’t notified by U.S. authorities until seven hours after the strike.

—Margherita Stancati, Saeed Shah, Gordon Lubold and Qasim Nauman contributed to this article.

Afghan Taliban leader in Pakistan likely killed in US drone strike

Mullah Akhtar Mansoor (Credit: Al Jazeera)
Mullah Akhtar Mansoor
(Credit: Al Jazeera)

WASHINGTON, May 21 (Reuters) – The United States conducted a drone strike on Saturday against the leader of Afghan Taliban, likely killing him on the Pakistan side of the remote border region with Afghanistan in a mission authorized by U.S. President Barack Obama, officials said.

The death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, should it be confirmed, could further fracture the Taliban – an outcome that experts cautioned might make the insurgents even less likely to participate in long-stalled peace efforts.

The mission, which included multiple drones, demonstrated a clear willingness by Obama to go after the Afghan Taliban leadership in Pakistan now that the insurgents control or contest more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since being ousted by a U.S.-led intervention in 2001.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook confirmed an air strike targeting Mansour in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region but declined to speculate on his fate, although multiple U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters he likely was killed.

“We are still assessing the results of the strike and will provide more information as it becomes available,” Cook said.

A Taliban commander close to Mansour, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, denied Mansour was dead.

“We heard about these baseless reports but this not first time,” the commander said. “Just wanted to share with you my own information that Mullah Mansour has not been killed.”

In December, Mansour was reportedly wounded and possibly killed in a shootout at the house of another Taliban leader near Quetta in Pakistan.

Bruce Riedel, an Afghanistan expert at the Brookings Institution think-tank, described the U.S. operation in Pakistan as an unprecedented move but cautioned about possible fallout with Pakistan, where Taliban leadership has long been accused of having safe haven.

A State Department official said both Pakistan and Afghanistan were notified of the strike but did not disclose whether that notification was prior to it being carried out.

“The opportunity to conduct this operation to eliminate the threat that Mansour posed was a distinctive one and we acted on it,” the official said.


The U.S. drones targeted Mansour and another combatant as the men rode in a vehicle in a remote area southwest of the town of Ahmad Wal, another U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. special operations forces operated the drones in a mission authorized by Obama that took place at about 6 a.m. EDT (1000 GMT), the official said. That would have placed it at Saturday at 3 p.m. in Pakistan.

Cook branded Mansour “an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban” and said he was involved in planning attacks that threatened U.S., Afghan and allied forces.

Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said the strike was unlikely to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table any time soon.

“The Taliban won’t simply meekly agree to talks and especially as this strike could worsen the fragmentation within the organization,” he said.

Kugelman said the most important target for the United States remained the top leadership of the Haqqani network, which is allied with the Taliban.

Mansour had failed to win over rival factions within the Taliban after formally assuming the helm last year after the Taliban admitted the group’s founding leader, Mullah Omar, had been dead for more than two years.

It was unclear who Mansour’s successor might be.

“If Mansour is dead it will provoke a crisis inside the Taliban,” Riedel said.

U.S. Senator John McCain, the Republican head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he hoped the strike would herald a change in the Obama administration’s policy against more broadly targeting the Taliban.

The new U.S. commander in Afghanistan is currently reviewing U.S. strategy, including whether broader powers are needed to target insurgents and whether to proceed with plans to reduce the number of U.S. forces.

“Our troops are in Afghanistan today for the same reason they deployed there in 2001 – to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for global terrorists,” McCain said.

“The Taliban remains allied with these terrorists, including al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, and it is the one force most able and willing to turn Afghanistan into a terrorist safe haven once again.”

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Afghanistan and Drazen Jorgic in Pakistan; Editing by Bill Trott and David Gregorio)


Ashraf Ghani’s New Plan to Win Afghanistan’s Long War Against the Taliban

Ashraf Ghani (Credit:
Ashraf Ghani

After his swearing-in in September 2014, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan approached Pakistan sensibly. He did not demand military operations against the Haqqani Network and other Taliban networks based in Pakistan because he knew Islamabad would never do that. Rather, he pleaded with Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Despite trying to smooth over relations with Pakistan after taking over the country from his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Ghani’s stance was clear. He repeatedly said that Pakistan is in a “state of hostility with Afghanistan” and uses its proxies–chief among them, the Taliban–to exert pressure on Afghanistan for strategic gains.

This strategy of pursuing peace talks did not yield the desired result for Afghanistan. There were some occasional talks over the last two years, but the fighting has never quite gone away. The Taliban have once again vowed to launch a series of brutal attacks all over Afghanistan, invalidating and disregarding Ghani’s pleas for peace talks. A suicide attack and gun battle in Kabul in front of an National Directorate of Security (NDS) office claimed 64 lives and left 347 wounded on April 19, for example.

The Taliban has done this very thing throughout the past 13 years. They give glimpses of hope for peace in the winter months, since they cannot fight in the cold, only to take up arms again once their traditional fighting season begins.

Following the Kabul attack, Ghani summoned a joint session of the two houses of parliament. He addressed the nation and made bold announcements unlike any leader since Mohammad Najuibullah in the 1990s. Ghani said he no longer wants Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. He also added that the Taliban shed the blood of their own people and land for others’ interests. He added that the period of amnesty and soft behavior was over. Taliban who have been sentenced to death shall be executed soon, Ghani pledged. Despite these bold remarks, he said that Afghanistan’s door is open to those who lay down their weapons and put an end to militancy. His stance was applauded by many Afghans on social media. People of Helmand province  subsequently held a rally in support of the president’s remarks.

This is a major shift in Afghanistan’s outreach strategy to Pakistan and the Taliban. Karzai played at soft diplomacy with Pakistan throughout his presidency, in a bid to convince Islamabad to bring the Taliban to peace talks. He once publicly stated that he would side with Pakistan if there were to be a war between the United States and Pakistan; he even called the Taliban his “brothers.” But none of this rhetoric produced results.

Ghani’s statement at the joint session was not driven merely by emotion. He laid the ground for his strategy. Pakistan has always disowned the Taliban, but Ghani’s multilateral diplomacy essentially saw Pakistan confess that the Taliban are trained and sheltered in Pakistan. During his tour to the United States in March, Pakistan’s foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, admitted that Pakistan houses the Afghan Taliban.

On top of everything, Ghani is making advancements on diplomatic and military grounds with regional countries. His approach toward Central Asian countries is another example of his pragmatic diplomacy. Central Asian countries share the same fear of Islamist expansion in the region, as does Russia. Ghani’s national security adviser and top decision maker, Hanif Atmar, played a considerable role in furthering diplomatic missions with Russia, China, and India. Atmar traveled to India in November 2015 and China in April 2016. His visits with Russian officials and tour to China brought fruit militarily. China offered military aid to the Afghan National Army following Atmar’s visit to Beijing.

Moreover, after Russia allegedly approached the Taliban to help the group fight ISIS in Afghanistan, Atmar tried to convince Moscow that it was in its best interest to support Afghan forces instead of the Taliban–not only to fight ISIS, but all militant groups. Following his talks with Russian officials, Moscow gifted 10,000 automatic rifles to the Afghan Security Forces. Ten thousand automatic rifles might not mean a lot for a country’s military, but Moscow’s willingness for military cooperation speaks to the success of Ghani’s regional outreach.

The Taliban’s number one demand for a long time has been the withdrawal of the U.S. military from Afghanistan, but they continue their offensives, even after the U.S. military completely ended its combat mission in 2014. Thirteen years of appeasement and amnesty could not convince the Taliban to cut a peace deal. It is now sensible to stop investing Afghanistan’s resources in peace talks and start investing them in building up the country’s security forces. Finally, Afghanistan must put more diplomatic pressure on Pakistan and encourage the international community to do the same. This is now Ashraf Ghani’s plan.

Samim Arif is an Afghan Fulbright scholar. He studies Political Journalism and Public Relations at Indiana University.


Facing the Taliban and His Past, an Afghan Leader Aims for a Different Ending

Facing Taliban (Credit:
Facing Taliban

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — When mujahedeen guerrillas captured this southern provincial capital in 1993, Gen. Abdul Jabar Qahraman was the Afghan government commander on the last flight out, surrendering the city.

In a resonant twist more than two decades later, Mr. Qahraman is again the face of the Afghan government here as an insurgency threatens to overrun his post.

This time, it is the Taliban at the city gates. The insurgents are firmly entrenched in a suburb of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and separated from the seat of government by only the calm waters of the Helmand River. They control or contest at least 10 of the 14 districts in Helmand Province, Afghanistan’s largest in both size and opium production.

Mr. Qahraman came to Helmand last month as President Ashraf Ghani’s representative, taking charge of efforts to hold the province against the Taliban. But insisting that military measures alone are not the government’s best chance, the former general has also been trying to engage Taliban commanders in negotiations.

“Back then, too, I believed that the solution to the problem of this nation is not in fighting, and I believe that today,” Mr. Qahraman said in an interview last week at his command center here, in between aides’ frequently handing him the phone with military commanders, local officials and elders on the line. “Artillery, tanks and warplanes are failed instruments and should only be used very rarely, only when you think you will be destroyed.”

“Our first attempt is to slow the fighting, to quiet the fighting,” he added.

In some places, however, that has looked like retreat.

The army recently abandoned its last bases in the districts of Musa Qala and Now Zad, pulling out as many as 1,500 soldiers in an apparent move to strengthen a security belt around Lashkar Gah. American Special Operations forces have been drawn into the fight, recently moving to help clear roads to the provincial capital and getting involved in planning its defense.

Mr. Qahraman, 58, has been here before. His command was the last bastion of the Russian-backed Communist government in southern Afghanistan, and he became personally identified with its collapse here in 1993, when he withdrew his forces and turned Lashkar Gah over to the C.I.A.-backed mujahedeen. He went into exile in Moscow for a decade afterward.

He returned to Afghanistan after the United States invasion in 2001 and the fall of the Taliban, and became a member of Parliament. His views on how to engage the resurgent Taliban are a sympathetic fit with those of Mr. Ghani, who has tried to open talks with the insurgency’s leaders in an effort to reach a political end to the long war.

But in the immediate crisis, tribal elders here see his efforts as impractical and hopeless — the desperate acts of a nostalgic commander. The Taliban, instead of responding to his peace calls, have challenged him to a “face-to-face” fight, and they do not like the government’s chances.

“I think Mr. Qahraman is in daydreaming mode,” said Hajji Mohammad Tahir, an elder from Sangin District who recently attended discussions with Mr. Qahraman. “Right now, the Taliban have the upper hand, the government is beneath. Once you bring them down militarily, then it would be possible for local Taliban to put their weapons down and join the peace process — not now.”

Mullah Abdul Rahman Ehsan, a Taliban commander in Sangin, said Mr. Qahraman had clearly returned to Helmand to make up for past humiliations.

“Let’s fight first, and forget about peace and laying weapons down,” Mullah Ehsan said. “First we need to fight, then work on the peace process.”

Others even saw cynical motives in the recent events in Helmand, particularly after the surrender of the army bases. After a disastrous year militarily, the government might be striking deals with the Taliban in the districts to keep them away from the city, just as the Communist government did in its final days in southern Afghanistan.

The suspicion is furthered by the fact that the man in charge of Helmand operations is talking peace, and that the minister at the helm of national defense, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, was until last year effectively in charge of the national peace process.

“The question that is going through my head, after they just retreated from Musa Qala, is what if they are saying we won’t resist in the districts and you don’t attack the city?” said Abdul Majid Akhundzada, the deputy head of Helmand’s provincial council, whose father was a leading rebel commander against Mr. Qahraman in the 1980s. “If that is not the case, why are they leaving without a fight?”

Mr. Qahraman, who said the recent retreats were necessary and not part of any deal, admitted to facing an uphill task.

In Helmand, the government has lost to the Taliban not just most of its districts, but also, over the course of the past few years, much of its public support and any semblance of corruption fighting. The allure of opium profits has ensnared Taliban and government officials alike.

Deep in the deserts that are supposedly Taliban territory, officials and local elders report nighttime drug raids by security forces. Bodies are left behind, but lucrative bags of opium end up disappearing.

“If you send me out in the whole of Helmand right now and say, ‘Jabar, find me a couple good district governors, a few good district police chiefs, a few good directors,’ I can’t find you one in the whole of Helmand. I absolutely can’t,” Mr. Qahraman said. “Even if you appoint these men closest to me, they will turn into wolves — the mentality has turned like that. The bad has become good in the perceptions.”

After a few disastrous months of fighting in Helmand, with the government territory shrinking, a delegation of senior officials recently dispatched by Mr. Ghani found that only about half of the Afghan Army force there on paper was actually on duty. Many troops were missing because of desertion, casualties or corruption, one member of the delegation said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate information.

While acknowledging such problems, Mr. Qahraman said there should be enough forces in Helmand to fight an insurgency that he believes does not number more than 2,000 fighters. The Afghan forces are well supplied, he insisted, calling the modern army’s NATO support “a genetically modified cow that gives good milk” compared with the Soviet support a generation ago, which he called “a skinny cow.”

The problems lie in how the forces are managed, he said, and in corrupt leadership eating up supplies before they reach the units.

“Their only art is that they are mobile,” Mr. Qahraman said about the Taliban. “For us, on the other hand, even preparing the convoys takes days. They have an upper hand — they are locals, they know the terrain, and their load is smaller.”

Still, Mr. Qahraman said he hoped to make a difference in Helmand. He recited a Pashto poem:

“If you keep swimming after it, it will come to your hand / Who says there are no pearls in the sea?”

But Hajji Sharafuddin, 53, a mujahedeen fighter who battled Mr. Qahraman in the 1980s, fears that the former general’s history in Lashkar Gah will continue to repeat itself.

“Tomorrow, you will have another plane come for you,” Hajji Sharafuddin said, “and we will be left here watching.”

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan