War crimes prosecutors have delayed a decision on whether to launch a full-blown probe into crimes committed in war-torn Afghanistan following “substantial” new information from Kabul, their office said yesterday. The move comes after Kabul responded to a call by the International Criminal Court’s prosecutors asking for more information about possible crimes committed by Taliban, Afghan government and US military forces — including the CIA — since the US-led invasion more than 15 years ago. “The report triggered reaction, notably from the government of Afghanistan, which subsequently submitted substantial information to the (prosecutor’s) office earlier this year,” the prosecutors said. “The information requires careful review by the office, which is currently ongoing,” they added in an e-mail sent to AFP. Once the review is completed, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda “will make a final decision” on whether to ask judges to authorise a full-blown investigation. Bensouda said in November her office was “concluding its assessment” and that a decision on whether to ask the ICC’s judges to open a full-blown probe was “imminent”. She said US forces may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan by torturing prisoners in what may have been a deliberate policy. She stressed the Taliban militia and the affiliated Haqqani network, Afghan government forces and US troops as well as the CIA all appeared to have carried out war crimes since the Islamic militia was ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001 which followed the September 11 attacks that year. And Bensouda blamed the Taliban and its allies for the deaths of some 17,000 civilians since 2007 to December 2015 in a brutal insurgency with “numerous attacks” on schools, hospitals and mosques. However, the prosecutor’s office yesterday emphasised that their review of the new information “will not take longer than is required for a thorough internal assessment”. “The prosecutor is committed to arriving at a final determination without further delay following this requisite process,” her office said. Afghanistan is experiencing a wave of intensified violence, with the United States considering sending more US troops to shore up its presence. The American military in Afghanistan says it will delay announcing troop casualties until after next of kin have been notified, potentially leaving casualties unreported for days. The change in policy was instituted by General John Nicholson, the senior US commander in Kabul, over fears that families could be left guessing for days after casualties were announced but not identified and before families could be notified, said military spokesman Captain Bill Salvin. “It’s a balance we’re trying to strike between trying to provide all the support we can to families, while also informing the public,” he told Reuters. Previously, the US military command in Kabul issued a initial announcement only stating that a soldier had been killed, often including a general location within Afghanistan, but not identifying him. Once the soldier’s family or next of kin had been notified, the Pentagon would release more details, including names and home units. The change in policy was revealed this week when US Army Private First Class Hansen Kirkpatrick was killed in Afghanistan’s Helmand province on Monday, but officials did not announce that a soldier had been killed until Wednesday, when his death and identity was released. A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the policy only applied to Nicholson’s command, leaving other war zones like Iraq or Syria guided by the usual US reporting requirements. Military spokesmen in Afghanistan would continue to release casualty reports, albeit on a more delayed schedule, Salvin said. “There might be a bit longer period before we report it,” he said. About 13,000 US and allied troops in a Nato-led force are deployed in Afghanistan to train and advise the security forces fighting Taliban insurgents. More than 3,500 of the coalition troops have been killed since the fighting began in late 2001. Several thousand additional American forces operate in a separate counter-terrorism mission in the country. Kirkpatrick was part of that mission. Salvin said the US military would still respond to public reports of casualties, as occasionally happens when Afghan officials report casualties among foreign troops.
Two Afghan girls refused visas to the United States for a robot-building competition said on Tuesday they were mystified by the decision, as the contest’s organisers said teams from Iran and Sudan as well as a de facto Syrian team had gained visas. The unusual story of the Afghan all-girl team of robotics students emerged as the United States grapples with the legality of President Donald Trump’s order to temporarily ban travel from six Muslim-majority countries. Afghanistan itself is not on the list and Team Afghanistan’s robot, unlike its creators, has been allowed entry to the United States. Asked by Reuters on Tuesday why the girls were banned, a US State Department spokesperson cited regulations prohibiting the agency from discussing individual visa cases. So the six team members will watch the ball-sorting machine compete in Washington DC via video link during the July 16-18 event from their hometown of Herat, in western Afghanistan, according to the FIRST Global contest organisers. “We still don’t know the reason why we were not granted visas, because other countries participating in the competition have been given visas,” said 14-year-old Fatemah Qaderyan, part of the team that made two journeys to the US embassy in the Afghan capital Kabul to apply for their papers. “No one knows about the future but..we did our best and we hope that our robot could get a position along other robots from other countries,” Qaderyan said. Most of the female team members were either infants or not yet born at the time of the US-backed military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime — whose Shariah law banned girls from school, women from working outside the home and all females from leaving home without a male relative. More than 15 years later, around 10,000 US and allied international troops remain in Afghanistan to support an elected government in Kabul that constitutionally guarantees women’s rights but is increasingly losing ground to a Taliban insurgency that now controls or contests some 40% of territory. Qaderyan’s teammate from Herat, 17-year-old Lida Azizi, was less forgiving of the US visa decision. “All of the countries can participate in the competitions, but we can’t. So it’s a clear insult for the people of Afghanistan,” Azizi said. FIRST Global’s president, Joe Sestak, said in a post on the organisation’s Facebook page that he was “saddened” by the US decision but the Afghan team would be able to connect with the competition via a live Skype video link. “That is how we must now honour our fellow teammates, those brave girls from Afghanistan,” he said. He added that the teams of 156 countries — including from Iran and Sudan, which are on Trump’s list of countries whose citizens are banned from entry — had received their visas. “The support of the US State Department (including its embassies) has been simply nothing short of amazing,” Sestak said in the post, adding that one other team, from Gambia, had been also denied visas. Also approved for visas was “Team Hope,” a group of Syrian refugees, he said. Syria is among the Muslim-majority countries named in Trump’s executive order prohibiting all citizens from entry for 90 days. The other countries, apart from Iran, Syria and Sudan, are Libya, Somalia and Yemen. In a June 26 ruling, the US Supreme Court revived parts of Trump’s March 6 executive order that had been blocked by lower courts. The highest court let the ban go forward with a limited scope, saying that it cannot apply to anyone with credible “bona fide relationship” with a US person or entity.
A US soldier has been killed and two others wounded in an attack in Afghanistan's Helmand province, US military officials said on Wednesday. Private First Class Hansen Kirkpatrick, 19, of Wasilla, Alaska died on Monday following the "indirect fire" assault, which means he was hit by a mortar or some other incoming round. The wounds sustained by the two soldiers were not considered life threatening, and they were being treated at a coalition medical facility, US Forces-Afghanistan said in a statement. "At a time when we remember the patriots who founded our nation in freedom, we are saddened by the loss of one of our comrades who was here protecting our freedom at home," said General John Nicholson, who commands US Forces-Afghanistan, referring to America's July 4 Independence Day commemorations. Officials did not say who conducted the attack but the Taliban control large parts of Helmand province. Pentagon chief Jim Mattis is expected to present President Donald Trump this month with a revamped Afghanistan strategy aimed at breaking a stalemate with the Taliban.
US Senator John McCain visited Kabul yesterday and warned neighbouring Pakistan that Washington was counting on its support to eliminate militancy and in particular the Haqqani network, responsible for numerous attacks on Afghan territory. The relationship between the US and Pakistan has been strained at times, with some in Washington believing Islamabad has not done enough to bring its influence to bear to persuade the Afghan Taliban to renounce violence. McCain’s statement came one day after he and a bi-partisan Senate delegation visited Islamabad, where Pakistani officials said he reinforced the country’s essential role in regional stability. “We made it very clear that we expect they (Pakistan) will co-operate with us, particularly against the Haqqani network and against terrorist organisations,” said McCain, chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, in Kabul. “If they don’t change their behaviour maybe we should change our behaviour towards Pakistan as a nation,” he insisted. Pakistan has received billions in US aid since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, based in the border areas between the two countries, has long been thought to have ties to Pakistan’s shadowy military establishment. Led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is also the Taliban’s deputy leader, they have carried out numerous operations deep in the heart of Kabul, and have been blamed by Afghanistan for a devastating truck bombing which killed more than 150 people in the capital in May. The Senate visit to Islamabad and Kabul comes as the US is gearing up to send more troops to Afghanistan to support Afghan forces straining to beat back the resurgent Taliban. McCain called for more than just troops, however, urging “a strategy to win” the war which has dragged on for nearly 16 years and which even US generals concede is at a “stalemate”. “The strongest nation on earth in this world should be able to win this conflict,” he said, calling for diplomatic efforts alongside a military push. The US currently has 8,400 troops deployed under the Nato banner, and is thought to be mulling sending up to 4,000 more. Pentagon chief Jim Mattis has stressed his new approach, due to be presented to US President Donald Trump by mid-July, will have a broader “regional” emphasis, with no set timetable.
At least 34 people were killed yesterday when a Taliban car bomb struck a bank in Afghanistan’s Lashkar Gah city as people were queueing to withdraw salaries, the latest bloody attack during the holy month of Ramadan. Dozens of wounded people were rushed to hospital on makeshift stretchers after the bombing at New Kabul Bank which upturned vehicles, left the area littered with charred debris, and sent a plume of smoke into the sky. The attack comes as the Taliban ramp up their nationwide spring offensive despite government calls for a ceasefire during Ramadan and as the US appears set to boost its troop presence in the country. The bomb tore through a queue of civilians and government employees who had lined up outside the bank to collect their salaries ahead of the Eid holidays marking the end of Ramadan. “At least 34 people were killed and 58 others wounded in today’s bombing,” the provincial government said in a statement. This was the third attack on this bank since 2014, with the Taliban claiming their target was Afghan soldiers and police on their way to draw salaries. But the government said most of the victims were civilians, including women and children. For years Helmand province, of which Lashkar Gah is the capital, was the centrepiece of the Western military intervention in Afghanistan, but it has recently slipped deeper into a quagmire of instability. The Taliban effectively control or contest 10 of the 14 districts in Helmand, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency, and have repeatedly threatened to seize Lashkar Gah. Intense fighting last year forced thousands of people to flee to Lashkar Gah from neighbouring districts. Since they launched their spring offensive in late April, the Taliban have been mounting lethal assaults on the Afghan army and police outposts in Helmand. Washington is soon expected to announce an increase in the US military deployment to bolster Afghan forces as they struggle to contain the insurgency. American military commanders in Afghanistan have requested thousands of extra boots on the ground. US troops in Afghanistan now number about 8,400, and there are another 5,000 from Nato allies, a far cry from the US presence of more than 100,000 six years ago. They mainly serve as trainers and advisers. Pentagon chief Jim Mattis this month acknowledged that America is still “not winning” in Afghanistan nearly 16 years after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime. Mattis said he will present a new US military strategy for Afghanistanin the coming weeks .
At least 29 people were killed on Thursday when a powerful car bomb struck a bank in Afghanistan's Lashkar Gah city as people were queueing to withdraw salaries, the latest bloody attack during the holy month of Ramadan. Sixty wounded people were rushed to hospital after the bombing at New Kabul Bank which upturned vehicles, left the area littered with charred debris, and sent a plume of smoke into the sky. No group has claimed responsibility for the brazen attack, but it comes as the Taliban ramp up their nationwide spring offensive despite government calls for a ceasefire during Ramadan. The bomb tore through a queue of civilians and government employees who had lined up outside the bank to collect their salaries ahead of the Eid holidays marking the end of Ramadan. "At least 29 people were killed and 60 others wounded in today's bombing," Mullah Dad Tabidar, head of Bost government hospital, told AFP as bloodied victims were rushed in on makeshift stretchers. For years Helmand province, of which Lashkar Gah is the capital, was the centrepiece of the Western military intervention in Afghanistan, but it has recently slipped deeper into a quagmire of instability. The insurgents control vast swathes of the province, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency, and have repeatedly threatened to seize Lashkar Gah. The Taliban effectively control or contest 10 of the 14 districts in Helmand, the deadliest province for British and US troops over the past decade. Intensified fighting last year forced thousands of people to flee to Lashkar Gah from neighbouring districts. Since they launched their spring offensive in late April, the Taliban have been mounting lethal assaults on the Afghan army and police outposts in Helmand. Washington is soon expected to announce an increase in the US military deployment to bolster Afghan forces as they struggle to contain the insurgency. American military commanders in Afghanistan have requested thousands of extra boots on the ground. US troops in Afghanistan now number about 8,400, and there are another 5,000 from Nato allies, a far cry from the US presence of more than 100,000 six years ago. They mainly serve as trainers and advisers. Pentagon chief Jim Mattis this month acknowledged that America still is "not winning" in Afghanistan nearly 16 years after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime. Mattis said he will present a new US military strategy for Afghanistan, along with adjusted troop numbers, in the coming weeks to President Donald Trump. The Afghan conflict is the longest in American history, with US-led forces at war since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.
Taliban gunmen have killed eight Afghan guards working at the largest American base in Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday, as the US appears set to boost its troop presence in the country. The guards were ambushed near Bagram base north of Kabul as they were driving home in a convoy late Monday, said district governor Abdul Shakoor Quddusi. ‘They were all local residents serving as guards at Bagram,’ he said, adding that two other guards were wounded. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which came as the insurgents intensify their nationwide spring offensive against Western and government targets. Washington is soon expected to announce an increase in the US military deployment to bolster Afghan forces, who are struggling to contain the insurgency. American military commanders in Afghanistan have requested thousands of extra boots on the ground. US troops in Afghanistan now number about 8,400, and there are another 5,000 from NATO allies, a far cry from the US presence of more than 100,000 six years ago. They mainly serve as trainers and advisers. Bagram, around 50 kilometres (31 miles) north of Kabul, houses the largest contingent of US soldiers in the country. The assault comes after seven American soldiers were wounded Saturday when an Afghan soldier opened fire at them inside a northern military base, the second ‘insider’ attack in a week. Analysts say such attacks are expected to increase this year as US troops engage with the Afghan military to double the size of its special forces, considered to be effective in the fight against insurgents. The Afghan conflict is the longest in American history, with US-led forces at war since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.
Taliban attackers stormed a regional police headquarters in eastern Afghanistan yesterday, killing five officers and injuring 22 people in an assault launched by a suicide bomber. Of the seven attackers involved, one blew himself up in a car at the entrance to clear the way for the others to rush into the building, the office of the Paktia provincial governor said in a statement announcing the end of the raid. Special forces killed four of the insurgents but two held out for several hours, it said, adding that nine police and 13 civilians were wounded in addition to the dead. The attack on the base in the centre of the city of Gardez — part of the Taliban’s all-out assault during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan — was launched at 6am. The base houses both regular policemen and police special forces. “One (attacker) blew up his vehicle at the entrance of the headquarters, opening the way for... others who opened fire on the security forces,” regional police commander, Asadullah Shirzad, told AFP. The head of the police hospital, Dr Shir Mohamed, confirmed the five fatalities. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the raid. “Around 6:20 this morning a martyr attack was conducted by our mujahideen against a special forces base in Gardez, Paktia,” he said in a statement. “First a car bomb detonated then our mujahideen entered the building, opening fire on police.” Since they launched their spring offensive in late April, the Taliban have been mounting lethal assaults on positions of the Afghan army and police, who have lost several dozen men in recent weeks. About sixty soldiers were killed on their bases, mostly at night, in the southern province of Kandahar alone around the end of May. The insurgents are also targeting the international coalition supporting Afghan forces. Seven US soldiers were injured on Saturday in an insider attack by an Afghan soldier who turned his weapon on his instructors and advisers. The Taliban did not directly claim the attack but described the soldier, who was killed, as a “patriot.” On June 11 the insurgents claimed responsibility for a similar attack in which an Afghan soldier killed three US soldiers and wounded a fourth in the eastern province of Nangarhar. The Pentagon is set to announce it is sending another 4,000 US troops to the country to counter the increasingly aggressive insurgents. US troops in Afghanistan currently number about 8,400, with another 5,000 from Nato allies. They mainly serve in a training and advisory capacity.
A Taliban suicide bomb and gun attack on a police headquarters in eastern Afghanistan killed at least five officers and injured 18 other people Sunday, authorities said. The attack -- part of the Taliban's all-out assault during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan -- was launched at 6:00 am and was still continuing more than six hours later, said the regional police commander, Asadullah Shirzad. In addition to the dead, nine police officers and nine civilians were wounded, he said. The attack involved at least five Taliban, one of whom blew himself up at the entrance to the site in the city of Gardez to clear the way for the others. One was still holding out more than six hours later, said Shirzad, whose base in the city centre houses both regular policemen and police special forces. His description of the attack suggested a well-prepared and coordinated assault. ‘One (attacker) blew up his vehicle at the entrance of the headquarters, opening the way for two others who opened fire on the security forces. Another suicide bomber was killed,’ he told AFP. The head of the police hospital, Dr. Shir Mohammad, confirmed the five fatalities. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the operation in a statement. ‘Around 6:20 this morning a martyr attack was conducted by our mujahideen against a special forces base in Gardez, Paktia,’ he wrote. ‘First a car bomb detonated then our mujahideen entered the building, opening fire on police.’ Since they launched their spring offensive in late April, the Taliban have been mounting lethal assaults on positions of the Afghan army and police, who have lost several dozen men in recent weeks. About sixty soldiers were killed on their bases, mostly at night, in the southern province of Kandahar alone around the end of May. The insurgents are also targeting the international coalition supporting Afghan forces. Seven US soldiers were injured on Saturday in an insider attack by an Afghan soldier who turned his weapon on his instructors and advisers. The Taliban did not directly claim the attack but described the soldier, who was killed, as a ‘patriot.’ On June 11 the insurgents claimed responsibility for a similar attack in which an Afghan soldier killed three US soldiers and wounded a fourth in the eastern province of Nangarhar. The Pentagon is set to announce it is sending another 4,000 US troops to the country to counter the increasingly aggressive insurgents. US troops in Afghanistan currently number about 8,400, with another 5,000 from NATO allies. They mainly serve in a training and advisory capacity.
Seven American troops were wounded Saturday in an insider attack by an Afghan soldier at a military base, as the US appears set to boost its troop presence in the country. The shootout at Camp Shaheen near northern Mazar-i-Sharif city is the second "green-on-blue" attack -- where Afghan soldiers turn their weapons on international forces assisting them -- reported this week. It comes as Washington is expected to announce an increase in the US military deployment in the country to bolster Afghan forces who are struggling to contain the Taliban's nationwide offensive. "Seven US service members wounded, evacuated for treatment," US-led NATO forces said in a brief statement on Twitter. "Insider attack Camp Shaheen, Mazar-e Sharif under investigation." The military coalition had earlier said that one Afghan soldier had been killed and another wounded in the incident. The Taliban in a statement did not say if they were directly behind the attack, only crediting a "patriotic Afghan soldier" for the assault. The latest attack comes just a week after an Afghan commando killed three American troops and wounded another in eastern Nangarhar province, in an insider attack that was claimed by the Taliban. Camp Shaheen is the headquarters of the Afghan army's 209th Corps where around 150 Afghan soldiers and policemen were killed in April when it was stormed by Taliban fighters dressed in military uniforms and armed with suicide vests. Green-on-blue attacks have been a major problem during NATO's long years fighting alongside Afghan forces. Western officials say most insider attacks stem from personal grudges and cultural misunderstandings rather than insurgent plots. Analysts say such attacks are expected to increase this year as US troops engage with the Afghan military to double the size of its special forces, considered to be effective in the fight against insurgents. The latest insider attack comes at a time of intensified violence and when the United States is actively considering sending more troops to Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this week that he will present a new US military strategy for Afghanistan, along with adjusted troop numbers, in the coming weeks to President Donald Trump. American military commanders in Afghanistan have requested thousands of additional boots on the ground to boost the NATO troop presence in the country. US troops in Afghanistan currently number about 8,400, with another 5,000 from NATO allies, who mainly serve in a training and advisory capacity. The Afghan conflict is the longest in American history, with US-led forces at war there since 2001, after the ousting of the Taliban regime.
A rare Afghan marsh that was once a royal hunting ground is set to come under the official protection of the UN environment agency, with the aim of saving hundreds of migratory bird species. On the long, arid journey to the Caucasus and Siberia, across the Hindu Kush massif, the Kol-e-Hashmat Khan wetlands outside Kabul provide sanctuary for the thousands of storks, egrets, pelicans and flamingos that head north every spring from southern India. But after 40 years of conflict and neglect, their habitat is being threatened by the growth in new homes, irrigation systems, rubbish and global warming which is gradually changing the local environment. Now the UN has designated the wetlands a conservation site, the Afghan government said on Sunday, as it also looks to help preserve the water supply of the capital. “There are probably more than 300 or 400 species that pass through, though without an accurate count it is hard to be sure,” says Andrew Scanlon, head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Afghanistan. They are migratory birds and “tourists” who stay for a very short period of time to find food, he adds. At daybreak, the marsh comes alive with the morning chatter of the birds hungry for breakfast. Binoculars in hand, Scanlon stands atop a tower that dominates the landscape. In the distance is the silhouette of Bala Hissar, an ancient fortress that defended the city for centuries. Opposite, mud houses and sturdier dwellings made from bricks seem to spring up at random, hurriedly erected during wars for tides of refugees and displaced people. It was once a favoured place for royals to go hunting, though Scanlon stresses any activity would have been carried out “in a sustainable way”. But with the invasion of the Soviet army in 1979 and the succession of conflicts afterwards, including the civil war in the early 1990s, Afghans were preoccupied by their own survival and the environment suffered. War saw the marshes more or less abandoned until 2005, Scanlon explains. Scanlon says that land grabbing was common in the chaos of the 90s as Afghans fought for survival. The marshes became a sanctuary, providing safe haven and water. As Afghanistan’s population swelled with the return of refugees after the Taliban were toppled in 2001, he says the situation became a “tragedy of the commons”. The phrase refers to an economic theory in which individuals act in their own self-interest towards a shared resource but against the common good. “Everyone is taking a piece to survive but all together this is a tragedy, it’s no one’s fault but everybody is guilty,” he says. Taking advantage of the chaos, factional and party leaders built houses on the water’s edge. According to the UN, about 50 hectares of wild land were taken over, which the Afghan environmental protection agency, created in 2005, is now trying to recover. “Some politicians are reluctant” to act, but attitudes are changing, said Muhibullah Fazli, the agency’s biodiversity expert. The most important thing, he says, is to educate local residents. “The problem is the people taking their cattle to graze or cutting the reed, local people also pour their garbage in the river, they don’t know the scientific value of this area,” he said. Together with Qargha reservoir, Kol-e-Hashmat Khan, a marsh some eight metres deep at its centre, is one of Kabul’s two water sources. But experts are already worried about its falling water levels. NGO Afghanistan Youths Greens was ordered by UNEP to organise waste collection and educate the villagers who will continue to live on the shores. “At the beginning people didn’t accept us but finally we managed to convince them,” says the organisation’s director Mohamed Shafaq. “I told them what the Holy Qur’an has said,” adds Fazli. “Birds are a community just like yours... they need a habitat and they need food.”
As many as three Afghan civilians were killed early on Monday morning when American troops opened fire after their vehicle struck a roadside bomb, an official in eastern Nangarhar province said. A man and his two sons were killed at their home in Ghani Khel, a district in the south of Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan, said Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the provincial governor. ‘After the bomb blast hit them, the American forces then started shooting and killed one man and two children nearby,’ he said. The US military command in Kabul said it was investigating the reports. Civilian casualties have running at near record highs as fighting spreads to more areas of Afghanistan, according to the United Nations. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani generally has been less vocal than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, in publicly criticising the US military when troops are involved in incidents where civilians are killed. On Saturday, three American soldiers were killed and one wounded when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them in Nangarhar, where elite US troops have been helping Afghan forces battle Islamic State militants. Also over the weekend, an American air strike in southern Afghanistan killed at least three Afghan policemen and wounded several others during a joint operation by Afghan and US special forces. US and Afghan troops have been battling militants in Nangarhar province for months. Islamic State, or Daesh as it is generally known in Afghanistan, has established a stronghold in the region, which borders Pakistan. US military officials estimate there are about 600 to 800 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, mostly in Nangarhar, but also in the neighboring province of Kunar. The increase in involvement by U.S troops and warplanes comes as US President Donald Trump's administration weighs whether to deploy more troops in the war-torn country. Reuters reported in late April that the US administration was carrying out a review of Afghanistan and there were conversations over whether to send between 3,000 and 5,000 US and coalition troops to Afghanistan. Deliberations include giving more authority to forces on the ground and taking more aggressive action against Taliban fighters. This could allow US advisers to work with Afghan troops below the corps level, potentially putting them closer to fighting, a US official said.
A US air strike killed at least two Afghan policemen and wounded four others in Helmand, officials said yesterday, in apparently the first “friendly fire” incident since American Marines returned to the southern province in April. Afghan border police were on a patrol in the volatile district of Nad Ali when they came under fire during a military operation around midnight Friday. “We can confirm personnel from the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces were killed and wounded during overnight operations in Helmand Province,” the US military said in a statement, adding that an investigation had been launched. “We would like to express our deepest condolences to the families of the ABP members affected by this unfortunate incident.” The policemen were patrolling too close to a Taliban base when they came under attack, provincial spokesman Omar Zhwak told AFP. “Two police officers were killed and four others wounded. A number of Taliban were also killed in the air strike,” Zhwak said. Helmand for years was the centrepiece of the US and British military intervention in Afghanistan — only for it to slip deeper into a quagmire of instability. The Taliban effectively control or contest 10 of Helmand’s 14 districts, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency. Separately, an Afghan commando yesterday killed two American soldiers and wounded two others during a joint operation in eastern Nangarhar province, a stronghold of Islamic State militants, an official said. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the insider attack in the volatile district of Achin, saying it was carried out by an infiltrator. “Today around noon an Afghan commando opened fire on US troops in Achin district, killing two American soldiers,” provincial spokesman Attaullah Khogyani told AFP. “The (Afghan) soldier was also killed in the return fire.” Nato forces in Kabul declined to immediately comment on the killings. “We are aware of an incident in eastern Afghanistan,” the US-led military coalition said in a brief statement. “We will release more information when appropriate.”
Comedy can be a dangerous business in Afghanistan, but the stars of TV show Shabak-e-Khanda - or Laughter Network - are unabashed even in the face of threats of violence. Their skits calling out wrongdoing and incompetence with tongue-in-cheek nonchalance have garnered an avid following since the series first launched on Tolo Television. A recent episode took a swipe at a senior minister who had a reputation for drifting off to sleep in official meetings. “Wazir sahib, when should I wake you up to defend the country?” the anchor crooned to a broken harmonium, reflecting public frustration over growing insecurity in Afghanistan. “You were sleeping when suicide bombers came to attack us,” he joked. Another episode parodied a military commander who bet - and lost - a government humvee in a gambling spree. And another lampooned a policeman who was dismissed for misdemeanours. “Through comedy we show the reality of life in Afghanistan,” said the show’s 27-year-old producer Rafi Tabee. “Comedy is funnier when there is truth to it. In a country full of tragedies, we make people laugh.” The show is a rare uncensored voice that has built a reputation for poking the bear in the eye and speaking truth to power. And it appears to be getting more daring with each episode. A popular target is a formidable former warlord known for his misdemeanours. Another audience favourite was a skit showing Afghanistan’s president trying to coax another former warlord over the phone not to engage in celebratory shellfire after signing a government peace accord. “No celebratory fire is like making Kabuli pilaf without rice,” reasons the stubborn warlord, flanked by a rocket launcher. The line between satire and reality blurred to the point of vanishing when the show parodied a powerful MP whose electricity was cut off for not paying his utility bills. “If you don’t switch it back on, I will switch you off,” the MP is shown threatening a power company official. In reality, the lawmaker got away with not paying. But sometimes the humour cuts too close to the bone. In Afghan society, being laughed at is the cultural equivalent of being emasculated, the ultimate humiliation that can easily devolve into violence. “Two armed men came to my house and said ‘You make fun of our leaders? This should be the last time’,” said Siar Matin, one of the show’s comedians. Supporters of President Ashraf Ghani also warned another star of the show, Ibrahim Abed, against mocking him. He has gained popularity for near-perfect mimicry of the mercurial leader’s sudden finger-jabbing outbursts. “Doing comedy is as dangerous as killing a cow in India,” where the animals are worshipped, joked comedian Nabi Roashan. But such is the power of outraged mockery that ordinary Afghans have started courting Shabak-e-Khanda’s crew to expose wrongdoings and shame inept officials. “People come to us instead of going to MPs with their problems,” said Siar. Humour is also a source of solace and escapism in a country where hope is fast receding, amid a worsening conflict, rising unemployment and political dysfunction. “In Afghanistan they say laughing is a sin,” said Roashan. “But people tell us ‘you are doing the best job by making people laugh’.” The programme’s rising popularity mirrors the evolution of the media in post-Taliban Afghanistan into a feisty watchdog despite funding pressures and the ever- growing threat of violence. Most episodes feature impromptu performances without proper scripts. “We laugh and perform. We perform and laugh,” said Tabee, the producer. There is no dearth of powerful subjects worthy of ridicule. Massood Sanjer, the head of Tolo TV, explained: “People say ‘don’t do bad things or Shabak-e-Khanda will make a show on you’.”
Afghan authorities warned anti-government protesters of legal action yesterday as demonstrators set up new sit-in camps around Kabul, raising security alarms after a week of deadly bombings and street clashes. Tensions have been high in Kabul since a truck bomb last Wednesday killed more than 150 people and wounded hundreds in the fortified diplomatic quarter, the deadliest attack in the Afghan capital since 2001. Protesters enraged by spiralling insecurity have established sit-in camps in at least six locations around Kabul, including one near the bombing site, demanding the resignation of President Ashraf Ghani’s government. Ghani has roundly rejected their demands, including calls to sack his powerful national security advisor Hanif Atmar, while demanding an immediate end to the protests. “We ask our countrymen to end their protests which have caused problems considering the sensitive security situation and...open the roads for traffic,” the presidential palace said in a statement. “If the protests continue, the government will take legal action against the demonstrators to ensure security for our people.” Protesters are refusing to give in despite insurgent threats still looming over the city. Much of Kabul is on lockdown, with many streets blocked with shipping containers and armoured vehicles, but that has not stopped hundreds of people from joining the sit-ins. “We must clearly say that any use of force against our civil protest will lead to catastrophe,” protest leader Asaar Hakimi warned on Facebook. “We will continue our protests until our demands are met.” Any violent showdown between authorities and protesters could spiral into chaos, a threat that has prompted government allies including former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to call for peace. Last Friday at least four people were killed when hundreds of protesters clashed with police, prompting officials to beat them back with live rounds fired into the air, tear gas and water cannon. “Unruly protests have proved bloody in the past, and these unfortunate events should not be repeated,” Hekmatyar said. “I ask the protesters to remove their tents. Roads and streets are public property and nobody has the right to block them.” The Italian-run Emergency hospital, seen as a medical lifeline in Kabul, has also voiced fears for the safety of its staff with protesters camped near their facility. The attacks have exacerbated tensions between rival ethnic groups and raised the prospect of a political crisis. Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, who heads the mainly Tajik Jamiat political group, also called on Ghani — an ethnic Pashtun — to dismiss Atmar. Rabbani survived an attack at the funeral of one of the protesters on Saturday where suicide bombers tore through a row of mourners. He blamed “terrorists within the system” for the blasts, suggesting it was an inside job. The government has accused the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network of Wednesday’s bombing and said the funeral was targeted by bombers trained at a religious seminary in Pakistan.
A suspected bomb outside a historic mosque in the Afghan city of Herat killed at least seven people and wounded 15 yesterday, police said, the latest casualties in a particularly bloody week in Afghanistan. Officials in the western city believe explosives were hidden in a motorcycle left in a parking area outside the Jama Masjid, a large mosque dating from the 12th century, known for its intricate blue tiles. Abdul Ahad Walizada, spokesman for Herat police, said at least seven people were killed and 15 wounded as they made their way to the mosque for prayers during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. A spokesman for the Taliban, which has been waging a 16-year insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government, denied involvement in the attack. Near the border with Iran, Herat is one of Afghanistan’s largest cities. The attack came after a spate of violence in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, where on Wednesday more than 150 people were killed and hundreds wounded in a suicide truck-bomb attack. Several protesters were killed in clashes with police on Friday at the bomb site, and at least a dozen people were killed when suicide bombers attacked the funeral for one of the dead protesters on Saturday.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued an ultimatum to the Taliban yesterday, warning them to embrace peace or “face consequences” after announcing that the death toll from last week’s devastating truck bombing had passed 150. Ghani has come under mounting criticism over the bombing, the deadliest in Kabul since 2001, with protests and deadly street clashes roiling the Afghan capital as people incensed by spiralling insecurity call for his government’s resignation. The president made a strong plea for peace at an international conference on Afghanistan attended by around two dozen countries, which was held under tight security as armoured vehicles patrolled the streets and fighter jets roared over the capital. “We are offering a chance for peace but this is not an open-ended offer,” Ghani said. “Time is running out...this is the last chance: take it or face consequences.” The conference, labelled the “Kabul Process”, aims to build international support for ways to restore security in Afghanistan. The militants have said no talks are possible until all foreign troops leave. “In the presence of invaders, peace negotiations will mean nothing,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. “Any meeting that leads to an expansion of the invasion of Afghanistan is ineffective and Afghans will not believe in it. But if it ends the invasion and helps all foreign forces to withdraw, Afghans will welcome that.” The last significant peace effort foundered in 2015 when news broke that long-time Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar had died. Kabul has been on edge since the massive truck bomb last Wednesday ripped through the city’s highly fortified diplomatic quarter, home to the presidential palace and a host of foreign embassies. The death toll has jumped to more than 150 people, while over 300 wounded were brought to hospitals, many with burns and amputations, Ghani told the conference. “We are a nation of survivors. Terrorists can shed our blood but they cannot break our will,” he said. Officials had previously placed the death toll the attack at 90. Ghani did not explain the dramatic jump but Afghan authorities have played down casualty figures in the past. Ghani offered the Taliban the opportunity to open a representative office, adding that he was flexible about the location of future talks. The insurgents responded to the conference by firing a rocket at what they claimed was Nato’s headquarters. It landed inside the Indian ambassador’s residence and no one was hurt. Underscoring the growing insecurity, a motorcycle bomb exploded near the Grand Mosque in the western city of Herat, killing seven people and wounding 16 according to the interior ministry. Ghani has faced growing calls to step down since four people were killed on Friday when hundreds of protesters incensed by the truck bombing in Kabul clashed with police, prompting officials to respond with live rounds fired in the air. The protesters, holding a sit-in for a fifth day yesterday near the bombing site, have also demanded the resignation of security chiefs including national security adviser Hanif Atmar. The attacks have worsened tensions between rival ethnic groups and raised the prospect of a political crisis. Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, who heads the mainly ethnic Tajik Jamiat political group, also called for Atmar’s dismissal on Monday. But Ghani, who like Atmar is from the majority Pashtun ethnic group, firmly rejected the demand. Rabbani survived an attack at the funeral of one of the protesters on Saturday, when a suicide bomb tore through a row of mourners and killed seven more people. He blamed “terrorists within the system” for the funeral blasts, suggesting they were an inside job. The government has accused the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network of carrying out Wednesday’s attack, and said the funeral was targeted by bombers trained at a religious seminary in Pakistan. Previous international efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table have failed, but diplomats in Kabul hailed yesterday’s conference as a stepping stone to peace. “The launch of the Kabul Process tomorrow is an important marker for each and every country in the region to show its true support for Afghanistan’s aspirations for peace,” said British ambassador Dominic Jermey on Monday. The push for a new peace process comes as US President Donald Trump has yet to announce his plans for the region, with at least 8,400 American troops training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations. Another 6,000 foreign troops contribute to the advising mission. US military commanders have proposed sending 3,000 to 5,000 more advisers to Afghanistan in a bid to break the “stalemate”. US Charge d’Affaires Hugo Llorens, who is overseeing the American embassy as no new ambassador has been nominated by Trump, said the conference was a chance to send the message that “the enemies of Afghanistan cannot win”. “The conference will be a visible reminder to all those who seek to harm Afghanistan that the Afghan people are never alone, especially in the wake of last week’s attack,” Llorens said in a statement. But some analysts were sceptical that the Kabul Process meetings would lead to peace talks. “Signing mutual non-interference or anti-terror support agreements won’t change anything,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, noting that similar accords had been signed in the past.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued an ultimatum to the Taliban Tuesday, warning them to embrace peace or ‘face consequences’ after announcing that the death toll from last week's truck bombing had passed 150. Ghani has come under mounting public criticism for spiralling insecurity, with a wave of protests and deadly street clashes roiling the Afghan capital as people incensed by the violence call for his government's resignation. The president made a strong plea for security at an international peace conference on Afghanistan attended by around two dozen countries. Armoured vehicles patrolled the streets as part of tight security and fighter jets roared over the capital. ‘We are offering a chance for peace but this is not an open-ended offer,’ Ghani said. ‘Time is running out... this is the last chance: take it or face consequences.’ The conference, labelled the ‘Kabul Process’, aims to build international support for peace. There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban to Ghani's comments. Kabul has been on edge since the massive truck bomb last Wednesday ripped through the city's highly fortified diplomatic quarter, home to the presidential palace and a host of foreign embassies. The death toll from the devastating attack has jumped to more than 150 people, while over 300 wounded were brought to hospitals, many with burns and amputations, Ghani told the conference. Previously officials had put the number of dead at 90. Ghani did not immediately explain the much higher figure. Four more people were killed Friday when hundreds of protesters incensed by the bombing clashed with police, prompting officials to force them back with live rounds fired in the air, tear gas and water cannon. The protesters, holding a sit-in for a fifth day Tuesday near the bombing site, have demanded the resignation of Afghanistan's security chiefs, including national security adviser Hanif Atmar. The attacks have worsened tensions between rival ethnic groups and raised the prospect of a political crisis. Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, who heads the mainly Tajik Jamiat political group, also called for Atmar's dismissal on Monday. But Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, firmly rejected the demand. Rabbani survived an attack at the funeral of one of the protesters on Saturday where suicide bombers tore through a row of mourners and killed seven more people. He blamed ‘terrorists within the system’ for the funeral blasts, suggesting they were an inside job. The government has accused the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network of carrying out Wednesday's attack, and said the funeral was targeted by bombers trained at a religious seminary in Pakistan. Previous international efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table have failed, but diplomats in Kabul hailed Tuesday's conference as a stepping stone to peace.
From his sandbagged command post outside the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, Brigadier General Mohamed Nasim Sangin says he needs more troops and equipment to beat the Taliban and hold on to ground his soldiers take. But one thing he does not want is foreign troops returning to front-line combat in Afghanistan. “We know our own country better and we can defeat our enemies ourselves,” he says. “Nato can help Afghan forces with training, they can provide more equipment but we will recruit Afghans.” As US and Nato officials contemplate the way forward in Afghanistan, government soldiers face a resilient enemy and an array of problems from lack of equipment, poor leadership, political interference and chronic corruption. While high-profile attacks in the capital Kabul, such as the truck bomb that killed more than 80 people last week, grab headlines, a grinding conflict in the provinces is costing the lives of hundreds of soldiers and police a month. A soldier since his teenage years with the anti-Soviet mujahideen in the 1980s, Sangin has been leading his brigade in a clearing operation to drive insurgent fighters out of Chaparhar, a district of mud-walled compounds dotted with poppy fields ready for harvest. The occasional rattle of machine gun fire can be heard from the fighting a couple of kilometres away but he says the operation has gone well, with the district centre now clear at the cost of only a handful of casualties. However, experience has shown that there is no certainty of holding on to the gains. “We launch operations, we carry out searches and push the insurgents to the mountains. Later, I have to take my forces to other places for operations and as soon as we leave the area the insurgents return,” he said. US officials are preparing plans that have been expected to see some 3,000-5,000 more military trainers sent to Afghanistan and fears have grown that this could be a prelude to the United States being sucked back into the war. Sixteen years after the US-led campaign that ousted the Taliban, more than 13,000 foreign troops remain in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000, but Nato officials have said repeatedly they will not resume the combat mission they ended in 2014. However, officials say plans are being considered which would see more trainers at times move out of Corps headquarters down to brigade-level operations such as the one being carried out by Sangin’s men in Chaparhar, increasing the likelihood of their being drawn into fighting. Despite assurances from foreign and Afghan officials about progress in improving leadership and tackling corruption, security forces have struggled to contain the insurgency and now control no more than 60 % of the country. Most of the issues the troops talk about — lack of reinforcements and equipment, endless tours of duty — are well known despite promises of improvement. At the same time, security forces have suffered what the US Congressional watchdog SIGAR described as “shockingly high” casualties. Official figures are patchy but at least 807 soldiers and police were killed in the first six weeks of the year after 6,785 in the first 10 months of 2016. Privately, many officials say the real numbers are even higher. The heavy casualties have also contributed to the other persistent problem facing the army, maintaining the strength of the units doing the fighting. A third of the security forces’ personnel does not re-enlist every year and the actual number of troops available for duty is far below official totals, leaving front-line troops increasingly stretched. “It was very dangerous and busy last year but this year, it’s been busier,” said Assadullah, a sergeant who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. “We were in Achin and when that operation we were in Torkham and now we’re in Chaparhar without any break.” “I haven’t been home in seven months. I go from one position to another. We’re tired but there’s no alternative.” Even in Nangarhar, where Islamic State has established a foothold but is otherwise a relatively stable province, the army is conducting active operations in nine districts, compared with just three last year, officers said. In other parts of the country, like the opium-rich Taliban heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar in the south and Badakhshan and Kunduz in the north, the situation is much worse. Although General Sangin and his commanders say morale is good among their men, several of whom have the red, black and green of the Afghan flag strapped jauntily around their magazine clips, it does not take much effort to hear other points of view. As well as high casualties and the relentless tempo of operations, morale is sapped by political corruption that persists despite President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to stamp it out, leading some soldiers to ask what they are fighting for. In Chaparhar, where the poppy fields reach into the district centre, powerful interests follow operations closely. “We are not fighting for the nation, we are fighting for a mafia,” said one officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’ll arrest some insurgents during an operation and soon we get a call from powerful figures inside government to let them go.” “We are soldiers and we have to obey orders. But the next day, when we go to another operation, our soldiers do not fight the way they were fighting previously. They believe that this is a fight for no reason,” the officer said. It is hard to know how widespread such feelings are but soldiers have continued to fight and die in numbers that underline the resilience of the troops, however battered their morale. Despite the setbacks, they have held up. Sangin, a stocky, confident figure with thick black eyebrows and a salt and pepper beard says that after more than three decades, warfare has become a way of life. “I’ve always been at war. All the time. It hasn’t been comfortable.”
A series of blasts in Kabul yesterday killed at least 19 people at a funeral for one of the victims of clashes between police and protesters a day before. The latest explosions continued a wave of violence in the capital since a devastating truck bomb on Wednesday. Yesterday’s blasts shattered an uneasy calm which had descended after authorities blocked the streets of Kabul in a bid to prevent a repeat of the bloody confrontation between protesters and police on Friday. The violence, fuelled by public anger over the inability of President Ashraf Ghani’s divided government to ensure security in Kabul, has exacerbated political tensions between rival factions, and Ghani issued a call for unity. “The country is under attack,” Ghani said in a message on Twitter. “We must be strong and united.” Kabul’s Italian-run Emergency Hospital, which has treated a stream of wounded over the past few days, said 19 people had been reported killed and 16 wounded had been brought to the hospital. The interior ministry said there were six dead and 87 wounded. Government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah was at the funeral but was unharmed, while survivors said a series of explosions had ripped through the crowd, most of whom appeared to be linked to Abdullah’s mainly Tajik Jamiat-e-Islami party. “There were sounds of explosions everywhere and I saw my hands and face were on fire,” said Mohamed Azim, who was being treated for burns at the Emergency Hospital. “There were parts of human bodies everywhere.” One of the most bloody weeks in Kabul for months began with the devastating truck bomb attack in the city’s diplomatic zone on Wednesday morning which killed more than 80 people and wounded more than 460. That was followed by five more deaths on Friday during clashes which broke out between protesters and police at a rally demanding the resignations of Ghani and Abdullah over repeated security failures. As the violence has continued, it has become increasingly politicised, exacerbating tensions between rival ethnically based political groups. The Taliban, which has often carried out bomb attacks in the past, issued a swift denial that it had any role and instead blamed factional rivalries in the government’s own camp, the group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. Yesterday’s blasts occurred at the funeral of the son of the deputy Senate speaker, Mohamed Alam Izadyar, an ethnic Tajik ally of Abdullah. He died after being seriously injured in clashes during Friday’s protest. Rahmatullah Begana, who was at the funeral, said the first explosion occurred as the mullah made the first call to prayer and as people scattered, it was followed by another. “I saw a lot of people lying on the ground,” he said. The violence further complicates the situation confronting US and coalition officials as they work on plans expected to see an increase of between 3,000 and 5,000 in the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan. As anger against the government has grown, Ghani’s international partners have become increasingly alarmed, with the United Nations calling for restraint and the US embassy in Kabul warning against letting protests be taken over. “While peaceful demonstrations are welcome in a democracy, some narrow political elements used this opportunity to spark violence, resulting in more death and suffering,” the embassy said. The statement was released after Friday’s clashes but before the latest attacks yesterday. With much of the capital locked down by security forces, a group of around 200 protesters remained near the blast site in the centre of town, sheltering from the sun in open tents. Otherwise, security authorities in Kabul told people not to attend protests and demonstrations, citing the risk of attacks on large gatherings of people. While unusually large, Wednesday’s truck bomb scarcely differed from a long series of previous high-profile militant attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan since most international forces left the country in 2014. In the first three months of the year at least 715 civilians were killed across the country, after almost 3,500 in 2016, the deadliest year on record for Afghan civilians.