KABUL, Feb 23: Afghan government and Taliban representatives are expected to meet in Islamabad by the first week of March for their first direct talks since a previous round of the peace process broke down last year, officials said on Tuesday.
Following a meeting in Kabul, the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), made up of officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China, “expressed strong support for the upcoming direct talks between the Government of Afghanistan and authorized representatives of the Taliban and other groups.”
In a joint statement released by the Afghan foreign ministry, they said the first round of direct peace talks is expected to take place by the first week of March in the Pakistani capital.
On Monday, the powerful chief of the Pakistan army, Gen. Raheel Sharif met officials from Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office, to prepare the way for Tuesday’s meeting, the fourth in a series of quadrilateral encounters aimed at laying the ground for full peace talks.
However the Taliban has been riven by factional infighting since last year’s announcement of the death of the movement’s founder Mullah Mohammad Omar some two years earlier. The Taliban has not yet clearly indicated whether it will take part in any talks with the Western-backed government in Kabul.
New leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour has laid down preconditions for taking part in any talks, including the withdrawal of all foreign forces, while a breakaway faction that opposes him has rejected any negotiations.
But officials in Kabul have expressed hopes that at least some parts of the movement and other insurgent groups affiliated with it can be persuaded to join.
“I think there’s a lot of Taliban that want to come,” the outgoing commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Campbell said earlier this month. “That’s what’s going to be hard, to get all the right people to the table.”
Tuesday’s four-way talks in Kabul came against a backdrop of continuing violence and increasing military pressure from the Taliban, which has stepped up its insurgency since the withdrawal of most international troops from combat in 2014.
Over the weekend, Afghan officials confirmed that troops had pulled out of two key districts in Helmand, leaving the entire northern half of the volatile province in the hands of the insurgents.
Insurgents have also kept up their suicide bombing campaign, with 14 people killed in an attack on a clinic in Parwan province north of Kabul on Monday.
Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Michael Perry and Katharine Houreld
WASHINGTON, Jan 31 — The United States has carried out at least a dozen operations — including commando raids and airstrikes — in the past three weeks against militants in Afghanistan aligned with the Islamic State, expanding the Obama administration’s military campaign against the terrorist group beyond Iraq and Syria.
The operations followed President Obama’s decision last month to broaden the authority of American commanders to attack the Islamic State’s new branch in Afghanistan. The administration — which has been accused by Republicans of not having a strategy to defeat the group — is revamping plans for how it fights the terrorist organization in regions where it has developed affiliates.
Many of these recent raids and strikes in Afghanistan have been in the Tora Bora region of Nangarhar Province — an inhospitable, mountainous area in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Pakistan. It was in Tora Bora that Osama bin Laden and other senior Qaeda militants took refuge during the American-led invasion in 2001, and eventually evaded capture by slipping into Pakistan.
Instructors from the American-led coalition worked with Iraqi soldiers during a live ammunition exercise last week at the Besmaya military base south of Baghdad. The emergence of Islamic State affiliates in various countries has prompted a new American approach. Credit Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
American commanders in Afghanistan said they believed that between 90 and 100 Islamic State militants had been killed in the recent operations. Intelligence officials estimate that there are roughly 1,000 Islamic State fighters in Nangarhar Province, and perhaps several thousand more elsewhere in the country. But even the generals leading the missions acknowledge that a resilient militant organization can recruit new fighters to replace those killed in American attacks.
“The new authority gives us the ability to take the gloves off to hold them in check, and we have been targeting them heavily and it has had quite an effect,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the military’s deputy chief of staff for operations in Afghanistan. “But just because you take a bunch of guys off the battlefield doesn’t mean you will stop this organization.”
Although Mr. Obama had declared an end to combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the operations are part of a continuing and potentially expanding American military footprint in south-central Asia, the Middle East and Africa for the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
In Iraq, the United States has about 3,700 troops, including trainers, advisers and commandos. There are several dozen Special Operations forces deployed in Syria. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has said the United States and its allies are looking to do more, and has asked other countries — including several Arab ones — to contribute more to the military campaign as it moves to reclaim Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the two major cities controlled by the Islamic State.
Administration officials are weighing a new campaign plan for Libya that would deepen the United States’ military and diplomatic involvement on yet another front against the Islamic State. The United States and its allies are increasing reconnaissance flights and intelligence collecting there — and even preparing for possible airstrikes and raids, according to senior American officials. Special Operations forces have met with various Libyan groups over the past months to vet them for possible action against the Islamic State.
In Afghanistan, American and other allied commanders fear that the combination of fighters loyal to the Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Islamic State is proving too formidable for the still struggling Afghan security forces to combat on their own.
The United States has 9,800 combat troops in Afghanistan. Although that figure is scheduled to decline to 5,500 by the time Mr. Obama leaves office next January, administration and military officials are privately hinting that the president may again slow the troop withdrawal later this year.
At a hearing last week, Mr. Obama’s nominee to be the next commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., was asked by Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, if he believed that the overall security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating, rather than improving.
“Sir, I agree with your assessment,” said General Nicholson, a veteran of several deployments to Afghanistan. He said that the Taliban had fought against Afghan security forces “more intensely than perhaps we anticipated” and that the emergence of the Islamic State there had been unexpected.
General Nicholson said that, if confirmed by the Senate, he would take his first 90 days to review the two primary missions in Afghanistan — counterterrorism and advising and assisting Afghan forces — before offering his recommendations on American troop levels in the country. The departing commander, Gen. John F. Campbell, is scheduled to testify before Congress this week, and he is expected to likewise underscore the rising threat from the Islamic State.
Under newly relaxed rules the White House sent to the Pentagon last month, the military now needs to show only that a proposed target is related to Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan. Before, such a target could be struck only if it had significant ties to Al Qaeda.
The military had been able to strike Islamic State targets in self-defense, but the new rules lower the standard for such offensive operations against the group.
“Suffice to say we had built up a sufficient amount of intel to be able to go after them in a robust way once we were able to take the gloves off,” General Buchanan said.
He added: “We continue to conduct operations against Al Qaeda throughout, but have been more focused on” ISIS in recent weeks.
There are significant differences between the Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan and those in Iraq and Syria.
In Afghanistan, a majority of the militants were previously part of the local Taliban or Haqqani network, and many of them have now “rebranded” themselves as members of the Islamic State. While the leaders of the group in Iraq and Syria are mostly from those countries, many of their fighters come from other Middle Eastern countries and from Europe.
The Islamic State militants in Afghanistan receive some money from leaders in Iraq and Syria, but there is little evidence that they receive much direction about when and where to launch attacks, according to military officials. There have been few examples of the Islamic State members in Afghanistan being able to effectively communicate with each other to carry out complex attacks, like the ones often carried out in Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, the group has claimed responsibility for several deadly bombings in Afghanistan in recent months.
President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has thanked American officials for their recent efforts against the Islamic State, which he fears is gaining strength, according to senior American officials.
As the Islamic State has expanded in Afghanistan, it has also fought the Taliban as the two groups compete for influence and money.
“They are trying to assume control at the local level over checkpoints, over the drug trade, over flows of illicit goods,” Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, a spokesman for the American military in Afghanistan, said in a telephone interview on Sunday.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The most popular man in public office in Pakistan does not give speeches on television, rarely appears in public and rejects news interviews.
He is Gen. Raheel Sharif, the Pakistani Army chief, who has presided over the country’s armed forces at a time when they are riding high after curbing domestic terrorism and rampant political crime.
Aided by a new-media publicity campaign, the military command’s popularity has helped it quietly but firmly grasp control of the governmental functions it cares about most: security and foreign affairs, along with de facto regulatory power over the news media, according to interviews with Pakistani officials and analysts.
In a country with a long history of military coups, the current command has gotten what it wants, edging aside the civilian government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is not related to General Sharif, without the messiness or the international criticism a complete takeover would bring. And it is being thanked for doing it.
“I wouldn’t describe it as a soft coup, but I would definitely say the civilian leadership has yielded space to the military — for their own survival and because there were major failures on their part,” said Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general and military analyst.
General Sharif, known as General Raheel here, took over the military command late in 2013. He was appointed to the post a few months after the new civilian government was inaugurated, and the country was in trouble. There were suicide bombings, political party killings, rampant crime and violence in its big cities, and assassinations of political leaders. Some politicians were calling for negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban as military efforts to set the militants back appeared to have stalled.
Then the Pakistani Taliban carried out a cruel attack on a school for army families in Peshawar last December, killing 145 people — including 132 schoolchildren methodically gunned down in their classrooms. Supported by a huge public backlash against terrorism, the army ramped up its crackdown on some of the militant groups sheltering in the country’s northwestern tribal areas, especially in North Waziristan.
Capital punishment was restored, and the military was handed new power, starting its own counterterrorism court system alongside the badly backlogged and compromised civilian justice system.
This year, the Pakistani Taliban have managed to carry out only a single major suicide bombing. The army’s success against the Taliban emboldened it to take on violent political parties and criminal gangs in the country’s biggest city, Karachi, through a paramilitary group known as the Sindh Rangers. Despite complaints of human rights abuses in Karachi, and millions of internally displaced people from the tribal areas, most Pakistanis were simply relieved to see the violence hugely reduced.
Through it all, General Sharif’s public appearances have been less ostentatious than those of some of his predecessors. But at the same time, his face has become ubiquitous on social media, after giving a free hand to the officer commanding the Inter-Services Public Relations office, the military’s media arm, to modernize that service.
The ISPR had long been headed by lower-ranking officers, and it remained decidedly lodged in the analog era. But by this year, the leader of the office, Asim Saleem Bajwa, had been promoted to lieutenant general — a three-star rank normally reserved for corps commanders — and his agency had become an impressively slick
General Bajwa’s Twitter account has more than 1.5 million followers, and the agency’s Facebook account has more than 2.8 million likes. A film division is pumping out offerings for television, as it had long done, but it has added short videos tailored to YouTube-style platforms.
The social media accounts show in daily detail the commander’s movements — visiting the front lines in Waziristan or reviewing troops. Video links showed army units in combat, sometimes the same day it occurred, and troops helping earthquake victims. Professionally produced martyr-style videos show, for instance, a mother mourning a son killed in the field, who returns from the dead to present her with his beret.
The ISPR declined to comment for this article unless a draft of it was submitted to the office for advance review, according to a spokesman for the agency.
The Pakistani news media is clearly reflecting the shift in influence. When Prime Minister Sharif visited Washington on Oct. 22, for instance, the visit did not get nearly the attention of General Sharif’s current five-day visit to Washington.
In recent weeks, General Sharif has seemed less circumspect about the new pecking order. The military press office noted, for instance, that at a meeting of army corps commanders last Tuesday, the general was “concerned” that the civilian government was not doing enough to follow up the military’s success at clearing out the frontier areas with effective governance. The clearly implied scolding sent shock waves through the political establishment, but few dared to criticize the military — something even opposition parties rarely do now.
The Pakistani news media, in particular, has largely stopped open questioning of the military’s increased power. Pakistani journalists say the military no longer has to bring intimidation to bear, as it long had, because most of the criticism has gone quiet. At the military’s insistence, a government watchdog body has ordered broadcast media to stop airing anything that could be viewed as support for terrorist groups — a notably broad definition.
Even some of the military’s critics in the news media now say the relative peace has been a trade-off nearly everyone supports.
“My honest opinion is that most of the pressure now is from within ourselves,” said Rana Jawad, the news director at GEO, a leading private television network. “One of the reasons why there’s no effort to counter the claims of ISPR is that the situation on the ground has improved drastically. It’s a big thing for me: I used to report on 50 dead, 40 dead, 30 dead almost every day, and there’s nothing of this sort now.”
Mr. Jawad is no apologist for the military, however. He was on a cellphone call in 2014 with the channel’s news anchor in Karachi, Hamid Mir, when an attacker shot Mr. Mir six times. “It was terrible; I could hear his screams and helplessness and the shots,” Mr. Jawad said.
GEO journalists blamed the military’s powerful intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, and the channel even broadcast a picture of the agency’s leader at the time, Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam, which some saw as an implication that he had been behind the attack. That led to legal action against the channel that continues, and some local cable operators have refused to carry GEO.
“We suffered a lot from the military,” Mr. Jawad said. “We were beaten, hounded, brought to our knees by the powerful military, so we know.” Nonetheless, he added: “I see a marked improvement in the security environment in Pakistan, fewer and fewer Pakistanis dying unnecessarily, and I cannot reject this.”
The military’s triumphant crackdown on militants has had little effect on the war next door in Afghanistan, however, and the command still appears to be playing a double game when it comes to using some militants as proxies.
In particular, military analysts said, the pressure does not extend to the Afghan Taliban, many of whose leaders live openly in the Pakistani city of Quetta. And the military has avoided tangling with the Haqqani network, a close Afghan Taliban ally whose members have carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan but are mostly based in remote districts of Pakistan near the border.
The double standard led to the blocking of one American military aid payment of $300 million to the Pakistani military this year, under a congressionally mandated requirement to certify progress in fighting the Haqqanis. An additional $1 billion in military aid under a separate program this year was not affected by that requirement, however.
Amid the Pakistani command’s clearly ascendant streak, Mr. Masood, the military analyst and former lieutenant general, worries that the military may go too far, preventing the country’s still-immature democratic institutions from developing.
“Success speaks for itself. They did clear Waziristan, and General Sharif does get credit for that,” he said. “But success can change. If they overplay the military card and continue to build an inflated image, it could boomerang. They need to allow civilians their space. But I’m afraid the lust for power is such that they don’t always understand that.”
WASHINGTON, Oct 15 — The United States will halt its military withdrawal from Afghanistan and instead keep thousands of troops in the country through the end of his term in 2017, President Obama announced on Thursday, prolonging the American role in a war that has now stretched on for 14 years.
In a brief statement from the Roosevelt Room in the White House, Mr. Obama said he did not support the idea of “endless war” but was convinced that a prolonged American presence in Afghanistan was vital to that country’s future and to the national security of the United States.
“While America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures,” said Mr. Obama, flanked by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his top military leaders. “I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”
The current American force in Afghanistan of 9,800 troops will remain in place through most of 2016 under the administration’s revised plans, before dropping to about 5,500 at the end of next year or in early 2017, Mr. Obama said. He called it a “modest but meaningful expansion of our presence” in that country.
The president, who has long sought to end America’s two wars before he leaves office, said he was not disappointed by the decision. He said the administration had always understood the potential for adjustments in troop levels even as the military sought to withdraw troops from battle.
But the announcement underscores the difficulty Mr. Obama has had in achieving one of the central promises of his presidency in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Obama conceded that despite more than a decade of fighting and training, Afghan forces are not fully up to the task of protecting their country.
Mr. Obama noted the dangers, saying, “In key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some areas, there is risk of deterioration.” After 2017, he said, American forces will remain in several bases in the country to “give us the presence and the reach our forces require to achieve their mission.”
He did not specifically mention Iraq, where a full troop withdrawal has been followed by a surge in violence from the Islamic State. But he said the mission in Afghanistan had the benefit of a clear objective, a supportive government and legal agreements that protect American forces — three factors not present in Iraq.
“Every single day, Afghan forces are out there fighting and dying to protect their country. They’re not looking for us to do it for them,” Mr. Obama said. He added, “If they were to fail, it would endanger the security of us all.”
After the president’s remarks, White House officials reiterated to reporters that the missions of American soldiers in Afghanistan would not change. Some of the troops will continue to train and advise Afghan forces, while others will carry on the search for Qaeda fighters, militants from the Islamic State and other groups that have found a haven in Afghanistan.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said politics played “absolutely no role” in the president’s decision to extend the American military presence in Afghanistan.
But Mr. Earnest acknowledged the 2016 presidential election, saying that the next president — Democrat or Republican — will inherit a situation in the country that is a “dramatically improved one when compared to the situation that President Obama inherited.”
Some critics of the administration, who have long urged the president to leave more troops in Afghanistan, said Mr. Obama’s actions did not go far enough to confront Al Qaeda and other threats there.
“While this new plan avoids a disaster, it is certainly not a plan for success,” Representative Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
House Speaker John A. Boehner said in a separate statement that he was “glad the administration finally admits President Obama’s arbitrary political deadlines are ‘self-defeating.’ ” He added: “The president’s half-measures and failed leadership have emboldened our enemies and allowed for ISIL’s rise. It’s time for a change.”
Even before Kunduz fell to the Taliban, the administration had been under growing pressure from the military and others in Washington, including Congress, to abandon plans that would have cut by about half the number of troops in Afghanistan next year, and then drop the American force to about 1,000 troops based only at the embassy in Kabul by the start of 2017.
Obama’s Evolving Stance on Afghanistan
Important speeches illustrate President Obama’s shifting stance on keeping troops in Afghanistan, beginning with his days as a senator.
Now, instead of falling back to the American Embassy — a heavily fortified compound in the center of Kabul — Mr. Obama said that the military would be able to maintain its operations at Bagram Air Field to the north of Kabul, the main American hub in Afghanistan, and at bases outside Kandahar in the country’s south and Jalalabad in the east.
All three bases are crucial for counterterrorism operations and for flying drones that are used by the military and the C.I.A., which had also argued for keeping troops in Afghanistan to help protect its own assets.
There was no set date for the military to decrease the number of troops in Afghanistan to 5,500. The pace of that troop reduction would be determined largely by commanders on the ground, and the timing would also most likely provide flexibility to whoever succeeds Mr. Obama.
President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan had also pressed for Mr. Obama to keep more troops, and many in Washington who have worked closely with the Afghans over the past several years were loath for the United States to pull back just when it had an Afghan leader who has proved to be a willing partner, unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
Mr. Ghani is acutely aware of his country’s need for help from the United States and its NATO allies. The American military has repeatedly stepped in this year to aid Afghan forces battling the Taliban, launching airstrikes and at times sending Special Operations troops to join the fight, despite Mr. Obama’s declaration that the American war in Afghanistan had ended.
But the recent fighting in Kunduz also exposed the limits of foreign forces now in Afghanistan, which total 17,000, including American and NATO troops. It took only a few hundred Taliban members to chase thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers from Kunduz, and the Afghans struggled to take back the city even with help from American airstrikes and Special Operations forces.
Mr. Obama apologized for the attack, which may have violated guidelines laid down by the administration for the use of force by the military after the American combat mission ended last year. Under the rules, airstrikes are authorized to kill terrorists, protect American troops and help Afghans who request support in battles — like those in Kunduz, recently taken over by the Taliban — that can change the military landscape.
The idea behind the guidelines was to give troops leeway and to keep Americans out of daily, open-ended combat. But how much latitude Mr. Obama would allow the military moving forward was unclear.
It is not the first time the administration has revised the withdrawal plans. During Mr. Ghani’s visit in March, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2015, instead of cutting the force in half, as had been originally planned. At the time, the White House still maintained that almost all the troops would be pulled out by 2017.
But with the situation in Afghanistan continuing to deteriorate, the military presented the administration with new options this summer. The plan that has been decided on for 2017 and beyond hewed closely to a proposal made by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mr. Obama said that 5,500 troops, along with contributions from NATO allies, which have yet to be agreed upon, would provide enough power to protect the force and continue the advisory and counterterrorism missions.
His announcement will allow the military to continue carrying out secret operations against suspected militant leaders focused primarily in eastern Afghanistan. In recent years, the United States shifted away from counterinsurgency operations that involved tens of thousands of troops patrolling the countryside and toward a so-called “lighter footprint” model of targeted strikes.
New details about such operations were disclosed on Thursday in classified documents published by The Intercept, a national security news website. The documents – part of a larger group of military files providing details about the Pentagon’s drone war from 2011 to early 2013 – included a set of briefing slides assessing Operation Haymaker, an effort to hunt down Taliban and Qaeda militants in Afghanistan from January 2012 to February 2013.
During that period, there were 56 airstrikes that killed 35 suspected militants who the military had been tracking. Those strikes also killed 219 other people who do not appear to have been specifically targeted but were labeled “enemy killed in action,” the documents showed.
WASHINGTON, Oct 15: US President Barack Obama on Thursday, in an address to his nation from the White House, said he would meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on October 22 to discuss his plan for peace in the Pak-Afghan region.
Obama also announced a plan to keep 5,500 American troops in Afghanistan into 2017, cancelling his earlier plan to bring home most of the troops before he leaves office.
The US president said he held extensive consultations with his commanders in Afghanistan, the US national security team, international partners and Afghan leaders before making the announcement.
Obama also spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday to discuss this plan and also discussed with him the Afghan-led reconciliation process.
The US troops will operate from three bases in Bagram, Jalalabad and Qandahar and will be able to operate quickly when needed.
He also slowed the pace of the reduction of American forces and plans to maintain the current US force of 9,800 through most of 2016.
Obama called the new war plan a “modest but meaningful” extension of the US military mission in Afghanistan, which he originally planned to end next year.
The US president acknowledged his country’s weariness of the lengthy conflict but said he was “firmly convinced we should make this extra effort.”
Military leaders have argued for months that the Afghans needed additional assistance and support from the US to beat back a resurgent Taliban and hold onto gains made over the past 14 years of American bloodshed and billions of dollars in aid.
It will be up to Obama’s successor — the third US commander in chief to oversee the war — to decide how to proceed from there.
“I suspect that we will continue to evaluate this going forward, as will the next president,” Obama said, standing alongside Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford as he announced the plan.
KABUL, Afghanistan — If ever there was a Taliban bureaucrat who seemed set on a less than stellar career path, it was Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour.
In the 1990s, he was the Taliban government’s chief of aviation while Afghanistan had few planes in the air. He also oversaw the tourism department for what was one of the world’s most sealed-off countries at the time.
In short, there was little hint back then that he would someday emerge as the Taliban’s supreme commander, and the successor to the group’s legendary founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar.
But in the years since the Taliban leadership was driven into exile in Pakistan in 2001, Mullah Mansour became central to the group’s reincarnation as a powerful insurgency that survived NATO offensives to pose a grave threat now to the Western-backed Afghan government.
Details of his rise, filled in through interviews with current and former Taliban commanders, Western and Afghan officials, paint a portrait of an insurgent leader with a distinct flair for intrigue.
As acting leader of the Taliban over the past few years, he closely kept the secret that Mullah Omar had been dead since 2013. And he wielded that edge powerfully, issuing orders in Mullah Omar’s name, moving against rival Taliban commanders and steadily consolidating power, according to Afghan and Taliban officials.
He has also benefited from a powerful alliance with the Pakistani military spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, the original sponsor of the Afghan Taliban insurgency. That relationship, along with a hefty dose of cash payouts to fellow commanders, was a crucial factor in his ability to manage the succession crisis this summer after news of Mullah Omar’s death finally got out, Taliban and Afghan officials said.
Pakistan’s role in Mullah Mansour’s rise and rule has offered a bit of hope to Afghan and Western officials that Pakistani officials might be persuaded to force the Taliban to accept a peace deal.
But it has also sometimes been a political liability for Mullah Mansour, embittering some Taliban figures who resent Pakistan’s influence on the leadership and who are not likely to forgive his deception about Mullah Omar’s death. Some alienated commanders have sought a new direction with the Islamic State offshoot that is growing in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mullah Mansour’s biggest mystery to Western and Afghan officials is wrapped up in the question of how he will try to shape Afghanistan’s future now that he has consolidated power: Will he attempt to return the Taliban to power as conquerors, or will he try to turn military victories into a strong hand in peace talks?
Riches in Exile
Mullah Mansour, a stout man believed to be just under 50, does not, unlike his famously reclusive predecessor, live in hiding. His circumstances are not those of a jihadist leader living a fugitive existence, fearing drone strokes and avoiding cellphones in case they are tracked — in fact, one person who knows him says the Taliban leader owns a cellphone company.
Some of the time, he lives in a southern neighborhood of Quetta, Pakistan, known as Satellite Town, in an enclave where he and some other Taliban leaders from the same Pashtun tribe, the Ishaqzai, have built homes, according to interviews with a range of people who know him, including high-ranking Taliban leaders. As with many of the people interviewed about Mullah Mansour, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending or prompting revenge.
But Quetta is not his only option. Although he is on the United Nations no-fly list, Mullah Mansour has repeatedly taken flights in and out of Pakistan, according to a senior Afghan intelligence official. Often, his destination has been Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where he has a house and several investments under different names, the official said.
That freedom alone would support widespread claims that he enjoys special status from the Pakistani authorities. Also telling is the large detachment of plainclothes security officers in his part of Satellite Town that notably grew around the time he was announced as the Taliban’s leader, neighborhood residents say.
Although he has benefited from his Pakistani contacts, they come with strings. Intelligence officials say that Mullah Mansour is wealthy by any standard, partly because of his ties to Ishaqzai narcotics traffickers. But some of that wealth has occasionally been frozen by Pakistani officials, the Afghan intelligence official said. One such time came this year when Pakistan was seeking to broker a round of talks between the Taliban leadership and the Afghan government and wanted Mullah Mansour to go along with it, the official said.
Such details present, for the Taliban, an uncomfortable contrast to the austere lives their leaders supposedly lived when they governed the country. A biography of Mullah Mansour recently issued by the Taliban seemed intent on rebutting that impression.
“He likes and wears loose, neat and clean clothes,” the biography reads. “He dislikes and avoids extravagance and prodigality in dressing, eating and all other needs of everyday life.”
Mullah Mansour is one of the last senior members of Mullah Omar’s original government still with the insurgency. Of those still alive, some have reconciled with the Afghan government and now live in Kabul. To them, it is surprising that Mullah Mansour is what he is today.
Mullah Salaam Alizai, who was close to Mullah Omar during the Taliban government in the 1990s and later spent years as an insurgent commander, described Mullah Mansour as unpredictable and an opportunist. “The kind of person who doesn’t have his own ideology, the kind of person who doesn’t care about how much destruction occurs,” he said in a phone interview.
“If he is told to destroy one road, he will destroy 10, if he is told to kill one person, he will kill 100,” added Mullah Alizai, who reconciled with the government about eight years ago.
Maulawi Qalamuddin, who ran the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice in the Taliban government, remembered Mullah Mansour as a hard-working administrator.
“Mullah Mansour was not a notorious figure and he was not fundamentalist, either,” said Maulawi Qalamuddin, who is now on the Afghan government’s peace commission. “People didn’t grumble or complain about him.”
A Violent Operator
Those seeking evidence that Mullah Mansour’s priority is to wage war rather than pursue peace talks will have no difficulty finding it. He was one of the early organizers of the insurgency after the United States toppled the Taliban government in 2001, becoming a major battlefield commander.
Leaked United States military intelligence logs present a snapshot of him sowing violence across southern Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. They show that he attended strategy sessions where suicide bombings were planned, back when that was still a relatively new tactic for the Taliban.
If the boundaries between the Taliban and opium and heroin traffickers in Afghanistan are now blurred, that is in no small part because of Mullah Mansour. He was among the first major Taliban officials to be linked to the drug trade, according to a 2008 United Nations report, and later became the Taliban’s main tax collector for the narcotics trade — creating immense profits for the Taliban as opium and heroin exports soared.
The Taliban biography of Mullah Mansour on its English website relishes in tracing how the ferocity of the Taliban’s war against American and coalition forces seems to track each of Mullah Mansour’s promotions up the group’s ranks.
Despite his rising profile within the Taliban, he remained something of an unknown to his enemies. Of that there is no better measure than a bizarre episode in 2010, when an impostor claiming to be Mullah Mansour sought to engage in secret peace talks.
The Afghan government and the American-led military coalition were hopeful, especially when they heard the man’s modest demands for an end to the war: amnesty for Taliban leaders and jobs for Taliban soldiers. The military showered the man with money, flew him to Kabul for meetings, and struggled to keep expectations in check.
In 2010, Pakistani officials arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Omar’s top deputy. Afghan and Western officials later said he was detained because he had been negotiating with Afghan officials without Pakistan’s involvement.
Two commanders rose to more prominence in the wake of Mullah Baradar’s arrest: One was Mullah Mansour, the other was Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a young former detainee at the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who had a reputation as a tough commander in southern Afghanistan.
For a while, the two coexisted uncomfortably as co-deputies. But Mullah Mansour clearly gained the upper hand, becoming the acting leader of the Taliban, said Rahmatullah Nabil, the head of the Afghan intelligence agency, in an interview last year.
Afghan and Western officials said he had become the sole supposed conduit to Mullah Omar, in whose name annual announcements were made, but whom even senior Taliban commanders had not seen in years — to their growing anger and skepticism.
But Mullah Mansour was confident enough to begin placing his loyalists in important spots, and to move against those who doubted him.
In spring last year, Mullah Mansour served notice to Mullah Zakir that he was being fired because Mullah Omar was dissatisfied with the commander’s military strategy. But Mullah Zakir called his bluff, demanding proof that Mullah Omar was both alive and did in fact want him gone, three Afghan and Western officials said. Mullah Mansour showed a letter attributed to Mullah Omar, but could not produce compelling evidence. The gamble had failed, and the issue festered, giving wider circulation to rumors that Mullah Omar was dead and Mullah Mansour was deceiving his comrades.
A Power Struggle
Those rumors dogged Mullah Mansour through the first half of the year, when Pakistan began pushing the Taliban leadership to officially meet for the first time an Afghan government delegation, as a prelude to peace talks.
Until that meeting, in early July near Islamabad, the Taliban had long refused to meet with the Afghan government. But diplomats in attendance at the Pakistani-brokered talks were told that Mullah Mansour himself had authorized the meeting, one of the Afghan delegates, Hekmat Karzai, later said.
The senior Afghan official said that Mullah Mansour had, in fact, acquiesced to sending a delegation to the meeting, under heavy pressure from Pakistani officials. But as the talks were being prepared, he suddenly shifted tack, instructing several possible Taliban emissaries that they should refuse to attend. Then Mullah Mansour disappeared for a while.
“Mansour’s phones were turned off, he went missing,” one senior Afghan official said.
Why Mullah Mansour tried to sink the talks is unclear, but the Afghan intelligence official and a Western diplomat who had read intelligence reports on the issue said Mullah Mansour was probably worried he would lose the loyalty of Taliban commanders.
“It is not that Mansour is not obedient to Pakistan — it’s just that he is afraid of the movement falling apart,” the senior Afghan official said.
Pakistan was left scrambling to find Taliban figures who were willing to participate, leading to a smaller and less impressive delegation than the Afghan government had hoped for at the July 7 meetings. Still, the talks were hailed as the historic beginning of a long-sought peace process.
But Mullah Mansour’s apparent concerns were coming true. Within the Taliban, the talks — and Mullah Mansour’s perceived acquiescence to them — had cleaved the senior ranks. Senior Taliban figures began discussing the need for guidance from Mullah Omar, which in turn provoked renewed questions about whether he was even alive, two Afghan officials and a Western envoy said.
In July, word that Mullah Omar had long been dead suddenly began to circulate among commanders, according to Afghan officials. Precisely how the news broke was unclear, but one theory is that with peace talks looming, Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, began to confide to other senior Taliban leaders, according to an Afghan and a Western official.
On July 29, the Afghan government made it public, proclaiming that Mullah Omar had in fact died two years earlier in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan.
Mullah Mansour immediately tried to get ahead of a potential succession struggle. In a few days of masterful constituency building — with the help of cash payouts and Pakistani influence, according to Afghan and Western officials — he secured the loyalty of possible rivals. In a series of shuras — consultative councils that his detractors claimed had been packed with his friends and tribesmen — he manufactured consent.
But others rallied behind Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoub. Those supporters included Mullah Zakir and, reportedly, the leadership of the Haqqani network, an influential wing of the Taliban known for its brutal terrorist tactics and fund-raising mastery, according to members of the Taliban leadership council.
Then, Mullah Mansour let the world know that he had cut the heart out of his opposition.
The Taliban announced on July 31 that not only had Mullah Mansour been officially declared the new supreme leader, but that both of his deputies had also been chosen from the Haqqani network’s leadership, some of Mullah Yaqoub’s supposed backers. Two weeks later, the Taliban released a statement that Mullah Yaqoub and his family members had agreed to pledge their loyalty to Mullah Mansour’s leadership.
Mullah Zakir, however, would not go easily.
Officials with the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service, said they had intercepted a message in which Mullah Mansour offered more than $14 million to Mullah Zakir through an intermediary in Helmand Province. The senior Afghan intelligence official claimed that after a payoff was made, of an unknown sum, Mullah Zakir demanded that he lead the Taliban military commission and that Mullah Mansour pledge not to engage in peace talks. However, those claims could not be confirmed in interviews with Taliban officials.
In any case, after he was anointed as Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Mansour had some consolidating to do. He disowned the July 7 peace meeting with the Afghan government, telling his supporters that they should dismiss talk of a peace process as propaganda — “the words of the enemies,” according to a recording the Taliban released.
Yet even then his speech was met with some degree of hope in Kabul, where diplomats noted that he had not explicitly ruled out future negotiations with the Afghan government.
“The doors of indirect meetings with the enemy in regards to independence of Afghanistan and the end of occupation were and still are open,” the Taliban said in another statement on their website.
The deftness with which Mullah Mansour emerged as the new leader speaks to his political talents. But some Taliban leaders see it more as evidence of Pakistan’s support.
One of the insurgency’s most senior officials, Tayyeb Agha, resigned in August, saying he was dismayed that Mullah Mansour’s selection occurred outside Afghanistan.
In a lengthy statement, Mr. Agha, who was the Taliban’s chief foreign emissary, said choosing a leader in Pakistan was “a great historical mistake” and that Taliban leaders should relocate to Afghanistan from their exile in Pakistan to “preserve their independence.”
Within the insurgency, an aversion to peace talks and Mullah Mansour’s close ties with Pakistan remain potent issues for those who have not yet accepted his leadership.
But in recent days, Mullah Mansour has swept aside attention from internal tensions by presiding over the Taliban’s most consequential military victory since their government was ousted in 2001. After two years of steady infiltration into the north, and a patient encirclement campaign in Kunduz Province, Taliban fighters planted the white Taliban flag in the heart of Kunduz on Sept. 28.
The changes on the Afghan battlefield have for now made peace talks almost an afterthought. Afghan and Western officials hope that will not always be the case. But even those who have examined Mullah Mansour’s statements and career closely for clues are hard pressed to say what his long-term intentions might be.
“I’ll tell you who he isn’t,” Barnett Rubin, a scholar of Afghanistan who has worked in the United States government on Afghanistan policy, said in an interview. “He is not a moderate or extremist Talib, because his life is not lived according to our categories. People are trying to pigeonhole him into something they understand.”
Mujib Mashal, Ahmad Shakib and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
KABUL, Sept 30 — The test facing the Afghan government now is not just whether it can quickly mount a counterattack and retake Kunduz, the northern city that fell to the Taliban on Monday, but whether it can prevent a nearby provincial capital from falling as well.
Accounts from the neighboring province of Baghlan on Wednesday showed that the collapse of government forces in Kunduz against less numerous Taliban forces was prompting a crisis of confidence in the neighboring province of Baghlan, where wealthier citizens and those with government connections have begun to leave for the relative safety of their hometowns.
In the midst of one of the gravest moments for the American-backed government in Kabul, military leaders spoke for a third day about launching a decisive counterattack against the Taliban in Kunduz. But it was becoming clear that most of the reinforcements for such an attack had been waylaid in Baghlan.
The reinforcements “will not be able to reach Kunduz without a big fight,” said Ted Callahan, a Western security adviser based in northeastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban have proven in the last few days just how tight a grip they hold on a stretch of northern Baghlan that abuts Kunduz Province. Reinforcements coming from either Kabul or the government stronghold in Mazar-i-Sharif must pass through the area to reach Kunduz city, and a number of convoys have been ambushed there.
It was not clear on Wednesday whether the front line in the north was still in Kunduz or was rapidly shifting south into Baghlan. That, at least, was how residents of Baghlan’s provincial capital, Pul-i-Kumri, were feeling.
“It is true, people are evacuating the city today,” Zabihullah Rustami, a former member of the provincial council, said by telephone. He had done so himself, he said, relocating to his rural district to the east. “People who are enemies of the Taliban are leaving,” he said, and the city was rife with “rumors that the Taliban might attack and take over the city.”
Pul-i-Kumri, about 90 miles north of Kabul, could become the next flash point if the Taliban’s momentum in the north is not checked in the next few days.
Taliban fighters have been creeping up to the city’s outskirts over the last six months. Gun and mortar fire are frequently heard, and skirmishes have become regular occurrences on three sides of the city.
“In Pul-i-Kumri, the situation is not in the favor of the government,” Mr. Rustami said. “If any Taliban come out and shout ‘Allahu akbar,’ the city will fall. The Taliban are close to the city.”
In a worrisome sign, two units of the Afghan Local Police surrendered their bases just outside Pul-i-Kumri to the Taliban on Wednesday and joined the insurgents, while a third base there was overrun, said Mohammad Leqaa, a former general who commanded police forces in several provinces. Other military units in the area were also said to have fled.
Mr. Leqaa estimated that as much as 10 percent of the city’s population left on Wednesday alone. “The residents were influenced by waves of people fleeing Kunduz by way of Baghlan,” he said. “We tried to announce to people not to panic and don’t leave. They weren’t listening.”
Mr. Callahan, the security adviser, said he expected government forces to put up more of a fight in Pul-i-Kumri than they did in Kunduz.
“I think you’ll see much more resistance” from the police and pro-government militias, Mr. Callahan said. “Mind you, Baghlan is big, and most of the security forces are drawn from the eastern parts of the province, so there is a big pool of potential reinforcements.”
Even so, he said, a strong defense could not be taken for granted because if panic took root in Pul-i-Kumri, a Taliban victory could be “a self-fulfilling prophecy,” and a small Taliban force could sow enough fear “to more or less walk in” as security forces retreated.
“It would be the same movie we’ve seen in Kunduz,” Mr. Callahan said.
The Taliban’s resurgence in Baghlan over the past two years is a complicated story of ethnic rivalry and local politics as much as ideology. Baghlan’s sprawling and populous northern district, known as Baghlani Jadid, is largely Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group — from which the Taliban traditionally draws its members.
Pashtuns live in settlements across the north, but they are outnumbered in the region by Afghanistan’s second largest group, the Tajiks. In Baghlan, many Pashtuns have felt left out of the provincial power structure, especially after a leading Pashtun candidate failed to win the provincial council chairmanship in last year’s election. Since then, Pashtun support for the government appears to have waned in northern Baghlan and insecurity has been rising, especially along the stretch of national highway running through the province.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, convoys of reinforcements headed toward Kunduz were fighting pitched battles with the Taliban in two areas, said Abdul Shaker Urfani, a member of a community council in northern Baghlan.
By his count, more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers bound for Kunduz were stuck in the province on Wednesday. “They can’t break through the Taliban resistance,” Mr. Urfani said.
The capture of Kunduz, a city of 300,000 people, three days ago appeared to be the Taliban’s largest military victory in a war that has gone on for more than a decade. Kunduz is the first urban center the Taliban have held since 2001.
Soon after it fell, Afghan military officials spoke of using the city’s airport, five miles to the south, as a staging ground for a swift counterattack. Now, though, the airport is imperiled as well, caught between Taliban forces approaching from Kunduz and the insurgent-controlled countryside in every other direction.
By Tuesday night, Taliban fighters had pushed through the airport perimeter, threatening several hundred soldiers and at least as many civilians who had fled to the airport from the city. One police officer was killed and at least 17 were wounded defending the area, officials said.
Their situation improved somewhat when American warplanes struck Taliban positions at 11:30 p.m. and again at 1 a.m., an American military spokesman said. The Afghan Air Force also fired weapons.
Around the same time, American Special Forces soldiers and Afghan commandos left the airport headed for Kunduz, according to Afghan government officials. Whether the Americans were there to take Taliban positions or to call in airstrikes was not known. By morning, the Americans appeared to have returned, said people there who spoke by telephone.
An American military spokesman refused to discuss the matter.
It appeared that at least one American operation in the city ended in failure. An Afghan security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that a group of 100 or more Afghan soldiers, trapped in an ancient fortress north of the city, had held the Taliban off for more than two days. But when American forces tried to airdrop ammunition and weapons to them, the official said, “they missed the base and dropped the weapons in the river.” It was not clear whether the weapons actually landed in the water of the nearby Kalagaw River or had merely missed the defenders’ position by a long distance.
That position fell Wednesday morning, and about 60 soldiers surrendered or were captured by the Taliban, although at least a few dozen managed to escape, the official said.
Questions about how thousands of army, police and militia defenders could continue to fare so poorly against a Taliban force that most local and military officials put only in the hundreds were hanging over President Ashraf Ghani’s government and its American allies.
The government forces and militiamen defending Kunduz Province were said to number more than 7,000 when the city fell. Some fell back to the airport, some fled to their homes, and some are unaccounted for.
Military officials in Kabul continued to promise an imminent counterattack, but an Afghan security official in Kabul who insisted on anonymity to discuss security matters said he was not aware that enough troops were in position to mount one.
“There is no counterattack,” he said, “not now, at least.”
KABUL, Afghanistan — Col. Qalandar Shah Qalandari, Afghanistan’s most decorated pilot, recently took command of what was meant to be the building blocks of his country’s new air force: a squadron of shiny American-made attack helicopters, intended to solve the chronic lack of close air support for Afghan troops.
Sixteen of the armed MD-530 scout helicopters were rushed here this year to great fanfare, and a dozen more are to join them. But Colonel Qalandari was not impressed. “This plane is a total mess,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t know why we have this plane here.”
An Afghan public affairs officer tried to shush the colonel as he spoke to a journalist at the Afghan Air Force base at Kabul airport. A United States Air Force public affairs officer looked on aghast.
But Colonel Qalandari kept on: “I will tell the truth. This is my country, and these are my men, and they deserve the truth.”
He tossed a map on the table, showing the effective range of the helicopter from its Kabul airfield: It cannot even reach areas where the Taliban normally operate. In summertime, its maximum altitude with a full load of fuel and ammunition is only 7,000 to 8,000 feet, he said — meaning it cannot cross most of the mountain ranges that encircle Kabul, which is itself at an elevation of about 6,000 feet.
“It’s unsafe to fly, the engine is too weak, the tail rotor is defective and it’s not armored. If we go down after the enemy we’re going to have enemy return fire, which we can’t survive. If we go up higher, we can’t visually target the enemy,” Colonel Qalandari said. “Even the guns are no good.”
Each helicopter carries two .50-caliber machine guns, mounted on pods on either side of the craft’s small bubble cockpit. “They keep jamming,” one of the colonel’s 10 newly American-trained pilots said.
Colonel Qalandari is not the first Afghan official to complain about the woeful state of efforts to build an air force to replace the Americans in carrying out airstrikes, medical evacuations and transport missions in a country with poor and dangerous roads. United States officials have long seen the aspirations as unrealistic, while Afghans have complained that their allies have ignored their views about what they need to fight the Taliban.
One of the Afghan Air Force’s primary assault vehicles is the MD-530 scout helicopter. Its range is about 83 miles. But it cannot operate above an elevation of 7,000 to 8,000 feet, which dramatically reduces the area it can patrol in Afghanistan’s mountainous landscape.
In the past, efforts were focused on reconstructing the air force left behind by the Soviets, or at least the helicopter transport and gunship parts of it. During the Soviet era, the Afghan Air Force even had MiG-21 jet fighters with Afghan pilots. What the Afghans have had lately is a fleet of prop-driven Cessna transport planes, and aging Russian MI-17 transport helicopters and MI-35 helicopter gunships, the kind Colonel Qalandari flew in the past.
American efforts to rebuild the Russian fleet stalled after the conflict in Ukraine brought Western sanctions on the Russians. That has made spare parts difficult to obtain and new Russian helicopters all but impossible to buy.
Of the Afghan legacy fleet of five MI-35 gunships — a fearsome aircraft well-suited to Afghan conditions — only one is still flying. “And that one won’t last much longer,” Colonel Qalandari said.
Some of the Russian MI-17s, normally used for transport, have been outfitted as gunships or medevac aircraft, but there are constant problems keeping them in service because of issues with maintenance and spare parts. Afghan V.I.P.s also tend to demand them for personal transportation when they travel around the country.
American officials hailed the MD-530 as a quick — and realistic — solution to Afghanistan’s air force needs.
Built by McDonnell Douglas, the two-seat helicopter has a 33-year history, serving as a Special Operations scout helicopter, and in the United States as a traffic and weather news helicopter, or for power line work.
It is simple to fly and repair, and could be put into action in Afghanistan quickly, American officials said. The first four of the MD-530 gunships to be battle-ready have already gone on two combat missions, in August, and Afghans and Americans both pronounced them a success.
American officers say that it would take much longer — many years — to train Afghan pilots to fly more advanced American military helicopters with advanced avionics and computerized controls. They are also extremely expensive to fly.
“This is a sustainable solution,” said Lt. Col. James Abbott, an Air Force trainer who put off retirement to help run the MD-530 program in Afghanistan. “You’re fighting guys with a gun in the back of a pickup truck: How much technology does that need?”
The new helicopters were procured and delivered, with enough Afghan pilots trained and ready to fly them, in less than a year. “It’s been pretty amazing what they’ve done in a short time,” Colonel Abbott said.
Some of the Afghan pilots have already qualified on the MD-530 as instructor pilots, and are training other Afghans. Training mechanics and maintainers will take longer, and American contractors are still doing most of that work.
The pilots inside the MI-17 helicopter. Spare parts for the Russian fleet are difficult to obtain, but many Afghans are dissatisfied with replacement American helicopters. Credit Andrew Quilty for The New York Times
Colonel Abbott said a lot of the Afghan criticism of the new aircraft was from pilots used to Russian equipment, and replacing that has become impossible. “It’s a tough sell for the legacy guys,” he said, “but the young pilots love it.”
As for the complaints about the helicopter’s troubles in the high altitudes and thin air of Afghan battlefields, he noted that those would be a problem for even most advanced aircraft.
Capt. Naiem Azadi — one of the new instructor pilots and a veteran of the MD-530’s first combat mission, in Jalalabad last month — is enthusiastic about the helicopter. But he wished it had gun sights, he said. As it is now, targeting is visual, and the twin .50-caliber machine guns are aimed by tilting the helicopter toward the target.
“If we don’t have ground controllers guiding us, it’s very hard to target safely,” Captain Azadi, 27, said.
Already, one of the new helicopters has crashed, while an American pilot was flying with an Afghan trainee near the 8,000-foot-high Lataband Pass, just east of Kabul.
Colonel Qalandari said the incident showed the limitations of the helicopter in Afghan terrain. After the helicopter landed, a recurring tail rotor problem, plus its light weight, caused it to tip over in a wind. While the crew escaped safely, the aircraft rolled down the mountainside, toppled off a cliff, and was completely destroyed.
“When my pilots fly in this, only God and I know what they’re going through,” the colonel said. “And I don’t know whether they’ll make it back.”
The MD-530 is not the only problem aircraft in the Afghan arsenal, according to Afghan officials.
They also have 25 C-208 transport planes, basically modified Cessna 12-seater prop planes, an aircraft the Americans praise for its simplicity and workhorse abilities.
The Afghan Air Force chief of staff disagreed. “The C-208 is not good for Afghan territory, it’s unacceptable to the geography of the country,” the senior officer, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Dawran, said in an interview. “We can’t keep them pressurized; they only have a 4,000- to 5,000-meter ceiling — no good in the hot weather. Only a single engine.”
General Dawran said that while he was grateful to the Americans for the help they had given, they had yet to accomplish nearly as much as the Russians did in creating an Afghan Air Force in the 1980s.
“Our international friends, especially the U.S.A., did a lot of good things to help the Afghan Air Force,” he said. “We began from zero, and now we’re in a better situation. But the Americans did not pay enough attention to what we wanted. They did not consult the Afghan side.”
The Afghan general was hopeful, however, about the planned delivery next year of 20 new Brazilian-made A-29 airplanes, a light attack aircraft purchased by the American military. Unlike the new helicopters, the A-29 will be able to drop laser-guided bombs and other high-tech arms.
“The nice thing about a laser-guided bomb,” said Colonel Abbott, “it doesn’t care what it gets dropped out of, it’s just as lethal.”
Brig. Gen. Chris Craige, the commander of the American Air Force training mission here, acknowledged that development of an Afghan Air Force had lagged behind other military training efforts. For one thing, the United States and its coalition allies did not even start working on training an Afghan Air Force until 2007, and efforts were complicated by the highly technical nature of air power and by the long periods of training needed for pilots and mechanics. Pilots in particular need English-language proficiency, which takes up most of the first year of their training.
The A-29, said General Craige, “is the absolutely right airplane for them. It will bring the next level of capability to them as far as not just machine guns and rockets, but also being able to drop bombs. And that’s where we really start getting the Afghan Air Force to a point where they can sustain themselves in those tough battles.”
Training on the A-29 does not begin until next year, and the full complement of 20 planes will not arrive until December 2018.
But Afghan ground forces are begging for air support as they face more determined ground challenges from the Taliban, who have boasted of how much easier it is to fight with fewer worries about American airstrikes.
Most American airstrikes in support of Afghan forces have to be approved on a case-by-case basis by Gen. John F. Campbell, the American commander in Afghanistan, and not all are.
One exception has been Musa Qala, a district of Helmand Province that fell to the Taliban on Aug. 26. Heavy American airstrikes rained down almost continuously on the district for weeks after that, according to Afghan officials and local residents.
But over all, General Craige said, “this is the first year where the coalition hasn’t come in and said, ‘We’ll take care of it.’”
That has been difficult for Afghans to accept. As another American general put it, speaking on the condition of anonymity while criticizing an ally, the heavy American use of air power in previous years has made Afghan government forces feel excessively dependent on it.
“The Taliban doesn’t complain about not getting air support,” the general said, “but they get it done.”
KARACHI, Sept 14: With a machine-gun in the back seat, his foot on the accelerator and wearing “Top Gun” style sunglasses, Azfar Mahesar pushes deeper into the heart of one of Karachi’s “Talibanised” areas.
“This used to be a war zone, but we have liberated it,” says the slightly chubby policeman with pride as his vehicle races through the city of 20 million, where Afghan intelligence says former Taliban leader Mullah Omar made his home in 2013.
Over the past few years, one word has been on everyone’s lips here: “Talibanisation”.
This photograph taken on August 21, 2015 shows Pakistani police officer Azfar Mahesar speaking during an interview in Karachi. PHOTO: AFP
If the remote mountains that straddle the Pakistan and Afghanistan border have been the militant group’s playground, Karachi has been the insurgents’ hideout and cash-cow.
The Taliban dug deep into areas populated by ethnic Pashtuns, creating virtual “no-go zones” and terrorising the local population with extortion and kidnappings for ransom to provide funding for their Mujahideen.
But, say Pakistani officials, that has all changed now.
“Talibanisation in Karachi has died down,” says Mahesar, a former soldier turned senior police officer in the most dangerous, western part of the city.
“I can say very confidently 70 to 80 per cent (are purged). There are a few remnants in Karachi but they are not as capable of coming back with the efficiency that they had a year or so ago,” he adds.
Today, policemen wearing flak jackets are advancing deep into the bowels of one of the remaining “no-go zones”, through dug-up streets and up rocky hills that mark the city’s western edge.
This photograph taken on August 21, 2015 shows Pakistani policemen taking a position at the destroyed hideouts of Taliban militants in the Manghopir area of Karachi. PHOTO: AFP
“This was a local Taliban HQ,” one says as he stands before a pulverised hovel. The Tehreek-e-Taliban has been the country’s public enemy number one since its formation in 2007.
Last December, the group carried out its deadliest attack ever, on a school in northwestern Peshawar, killing more than 150 people, mainly children.
In response, the government gave the police and paramilitaries permission to lay siege to Talibanised areas, killing hundreds of suspected insurgents, without worrying much about due process.
“Peshawar opened the world’s eyes. We had to act, even if it meant killing a thousand civilians,” says one policeman on the mission.
All this occurred as the military made gains in North Waziristan, from where the Taliban of Karachi received orders.
“The disconnection between Karachi and Miramshah (capital of North Waziristan) has helped law enforcers to keep the Pashtun parts of the city safe and clear of the militancy,” said Ziaur Rehman, an expert on security in Karachi.
Taliban fighters instead sought refuge in neighbouring Afghanistan, and Pakistan is now facing its lowest levels of terrorist violence in almost a decade.
In the Manghophir district of Karachi, residents now say business is picking up. Extortion and racketeering by the Taliban — or criminals posing as them — is now almost a thing of the past.
“God be thanked that the Taliban have gone. People were scared, they wouldn’t go out to the markets,” says elderly Fatima, dressed in a large and multicoloured shawl, in front of the shrine of the Sufi Saint Pir Haji Mangho — which serves as a barometer of militant presence.
Read: Crime rate in Karachi falls by 70%: police chief
Mystic and moderate Sufism were once the predominant forms of Islam practised by people in the country, but the sect is seen as heretical by the hardline Taliban.
This mausoleum, which was last attacked by militants in 2014, is guarded by crocodiles swimming in a green pond.
When the Taliban controlled the area, “the crocodiles barely got to eat,” says their guardian Khalifa Sajjad, a thin man wearing a red hat shimmering with tiny mirrors. “Now the followers have come back, and are giving their offerings of meat.”
In the hardscrabble Metroville district, where children bounce on a trampoline that has seen better days, Abdul Razzaq Khan, chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party in west Karachi, hails the anti-Taliban operation.
Read: Operation Zarb-e-Azb in final stages: Army chief
“God knows where they’ve gone. They’re maybe hiding out here, or they’ve returned to where they came from, that’s an unanswered question,” he says, though he still believes criminals posing as Taliban were a bigger threat than the group themselves.
But for Rauf Khan, a member of the secular ANP party, who last April survived the latest of several attempts on his life by militants, there is no doubt things have changed drastically.
“Now we are mentally liberated. It somehow hasn’t felt this way in 15 to 20 years,” he said.
“Yesterday, I went to the cinema and came home late. I haven’t done that in years.”
Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, has questioned the existence of al-Qaida, and denied that the 9/11 terror attacks which killed nearly 3,000 people were planned in Afghanistan.
On the eve of the anniversary of the 2001 attacks, Karzai, who left office last year after 12 years, used an interview with al Jazeera to express his doubt that the terrorist group led by the late Osama bin Laden was responsible for the operation which prompted the invasion of Afghanistan.
“I don’t know if al-Qaida existed and I don’t know if they exist,” said Karzai. “I have not seen them and I’ve not had any report about them, any report that would indicate that al-Qaida is operating in Afghanistan. It is for me a myth […] For us, they don’t exist.”
Karzai, who had a poor relationship with successive leaders in Pakistan, also claimed in the interview that Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are “definitely” members of “Pakistani militias”.
The former politician, who was the chosen candidate of the US to take over a new administration in the wake of the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan following the 2001 war, clashed repeatedly with Washington during his rule.
Appearing on Al Jazeera English’s new weekly show, UpFront, Karzai declared as “fact” that 9/11 was not plotted in Afghanistan, despite overwhelming proof that Bin Laden and close associates such as Khaled Sheikh Mohammed organised the operation while based in camps or houses in the east and south of the country between 1999 and 2001.
In the interview on Thursday, the former president said he had “never come across” al-Qaida.
When asked if he agreed that al-Qaida in Afghanistan had been behind the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC, Karzai replied: “I can tell you for a fact that the operation was neither conducted from Afghanistan, nor were the Afghan people responsible for that.”
Bin Laden claimed responsibility for the attacks on several occasions, and videoed testaments of participants in the attacks were recorded in Kandahar, where the men trained in al-Qaida camps.
Bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan in 1996, flying from Sudan where he had been living in exile since 1991. He was based first in hills south of the eastern city of Jalalabad before moving south to Kandahar, the spiritual and administrative headquarters of the Taliban.
Many witnesses have described Bin Laden’s movements in Afghanistan during 2001, while vast quantities of al-Qaida-related material was recovered from training camps across Afghanistan by journalists, soldiers and spies.
Al-Qaida has since been largely eclipsed by its own offshoot, the Islamic State, which has established a small but growing presence in Afghanistan.
Most analysts and security officials believe the group’s affiliate in Afghanistan is largely composed of disaffected members of the Taliban, but Karzai dismissed any Afghan connection with the group and pointed the finger at neighbouring Pakistan.
“[The Islamic State] … has no ground [in Afghanistan] at all. There is no element, there is no medium, for them to grow, or to rise, or to strengthen,” he said.
“Those who are working in the name of [the Islamic State inside Afghanistan] are definitely Pakistani militia forces,” he added. “Some of them have been captured and ID cards found on them, […] And they are very well supplied. That we know for a fact.”
In recent months, Karzai has repeatedly been accused of attempting to undermine his successor, Ashraf Ghani, but in the interview, he ruled out an attempt to return to the Afghan presidency.