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A threat at Kabul’s southern gate: a security overview of Logar province

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(Last Updated On: July 18, 2020)

A Kabul-based security analyst and former high-ranking Afghan government official has said the increase in insurgent activity in “contested” Logar province might be part of an encirclement strategy of Kabul by the Taliban for when foreign troops withdraw.

In a new report by Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) the volatility of the strategic province, which is the southern gateway to Kabul, was highlighted earlier this month during a visit to Logar by President Ashraf Ghani.

During the president’s visit, the Taliban hit the provincial capital with eight mortar rounds during and after his speech.

In the days leading up to the president’s visit, the Taliban also carried out attacks on police checkpoints on the outskirts of the provincial capital.

According to AAN, the government only controls parts of three of Logar’s seven districts, which provides the Taliban with positions closer to Kabul than anywhere else.

In its report, AAN said between April and mid-July 2020 it had analyzed Logar’s trends of insecurity and found that residents blame the insurgent activity on poor government leadership. However, the government blames a lack of cooperation by the population on the situation.

AAN stated they also found significant popular sympathies for the Taliban – with the local perception being the group was the powerful entity in the war.

Logar, with its provincial capital Pul-e Alam located only about 60 kilometers to the south of the capital Kabul, is a strategically extremely important province.

The province’s second-largest town, Muhammad Agha, is situated only 23 kilometers beyond Kabul’s city limits.

Out of the six rural districts and the one surrounding Logar’s capital Pul-e Alam, the government officially claims to control three: the provincial capital, Khoshai and Muhammad Agha.

But AAN reports that security analysts and local sources give a different picture.

Local sources interviewed by AAN say the Taliban are present in many villages just four kilometers from Pul-e Alam. Villages there were targets of recent Afghan government forces’ clearing operations.

In the three southern districts – Baraki Barak, Charkh and Kharwar – the government only holds the district centers or small areas around them. Local residents said Khoshai was also contested, with half of the district controlled by the Taliban and half by the government. The situation in Azra is even more precarious, AAN reported.

This degree of control provides the Taliban with positions closer to the capital than in almost any other province.

Earlier this year, on 11 April 2020, residents of a number of districts, including residents of Pul-e Alam, gathered in Logar’s capital and called on the Taliban to cease their operations, stop attacking the Afghan army and get ready for peace talks with the Afghan government. The participants included tribal elders and pro-government people.

AAN reported that last year, Taliban activity particularly increased along the Logar part of the Kabul-Gardez highway. Pul-e Alam and Muhammad Agha districts combined accounted for many Taliban attacks in 2019.

This led to increased counter-operations by Afghan and international troops in autumn of 2019, including “unprecedented” levels of airstrikes and night raids along the highway, but also against Taliban logistic structures deeper in the province and particularly against insurgent networks operating from Logar into Kabul.

As a result, analysts registered the “highest level” of monthly conflict intensity on record in July 2019.

Although this had somewhat “diminished” Taleban operational capacities, there were still between over 40 and 60 Taliban attacks per month from May to September 2019.

On average, this was ten less than in 2018 when the season of significant fighting was longer, from April to October.

Local residents in Pul-e Alam and in the districts told AAN that since the beginning of the new Afghan year (April) and the start of the ‘spring fighting season’ in the country in late March, the Taliban have intensified attacks on government security posts throughout all districts of the province as well as on the outskirts of the provincial capital, and on a stronger scale than in any other year since the insurgency started in this province.

According to them, they have rarely experienced a day or two in which the Taliban have not carried out an attack.

A tribal elder in Charkh district told AAN that some years ago, he had invited the district governor and other officials to his home around 35 kilometers away from the district center, and the district governor had indeed come. But now, he said, the district governor could not come to his district center without a huge number of armed forces protecting him.

This trend has been confirmed by the Kabul based security analysts who said that the number of security incidents in March this year was three and a half times more in Logar province than in March 2019.

AAN also reported that the wave of assassinations of people working in the current political system continued over the entire period.

The most high-profile case was the kidnapping and shooting of former senator Abdul Wali Ahmadzai on June 9.

Ahmadzai had at the time been working for the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG).

A spokesman for the provincial governor accused the Taliban of the killing.

In March, a member of the Logar Provincial Council was assassinated in Kabul and in early June the Taliban shot dead two sisters, one of them reportedly the wife of an intelligence official at the Ministry of Interior, the other a visitor.

On 6 July, Nafisa Hejran, a female provincial council (PC) member, and her driver were wounded in a shooting in the provincial capital. Her colleague Nasir Ghairat, along with three guards, was killed in Kabul on 8 March.

Most residents of Logar that AAN spoke with, believe that the Taliban are behind the recent killings.

According to AAN, there are several reasons why many residents of Logar have a certain sympathy for the Taliban and why, according to some residents, they have contributed a large number of fighters to the Taliban.

A Logar resident told AAN that local Taliban ranks have been increased over recent years by former Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police members who did not extend their contracts.

“It is not clear, though, how much of this was voluntary or the result of coercion – the Taliban are able to pressure families when their sons return to their villages of origin – or whether this includes infiltration in order to obtain military training,” AAN reported.

A civil society activist said he thinks this is due to the “abnormal situation” of war.

He said people witness that when a government soldier is killed, he or his family are not taken care of by the government, but if a Taliban fighter is killed, the Taliban writes “poems praising him and his bravery is sung everywhere,” reported AAN.

According to the network, the activist said this contributes to pulling parts of the young generation toward the Taliban. He said under normal conditions everyone would prefer the presence of the government.

AAN also stated that at a higher level, the fact that the Taliban’s political office in Qatar includes two prominent representatives from Logar, Mullah Abas Stanakzai, and Mawlawi Shahabuddin Delawar, also contributes to a level of grassroots support, i.e. pride in being represented.

Almost all the respondents told AAN that the increasingly abusive behavior of government security forces – including the uprising forces and Afghan Local Police – have caused the people to be sympathetic to the Taliban, which in turn further enforced their presence in Logar.

In conclusion, AAN stated that for the Taliban, Logar’s strategic importance lies in its proximity to Kabul.

Together with consolidated positions in neighboring provinces such as Maidan Wardak, western Nangarhar and Surobi, the eastern-most district of Kabul (where fighting had increased recently), Logar is part of a belt that could cut off the capital from southern and eastern Afghanistan if the military situation escalates into an endgame scenario.

In Logar itself, they have been able to regularly attack the government forces in both the provincial capital and the districts.

To read the full report CLICK HERE https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/a-threat-at-kabuls-southern-gate-a-security-overview-of-logar-province/

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Afghan Cricket Board agrees tour of Zimbabwe now ‘not feasible’

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(Last Updated On: August 9, 2020)

Responding to Zimbabwe’s announcement that it had canceled the T20I cricket series, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) said late Saturday night that it respects Cricket Zimbabwe’s decision and agrees it is not feasible for the series to be held given the continued COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a press release issued late Saturday night, the board said that the “ACB understands that under the current situation where the COVID-19 pandemic still poses a grave threat to the health and safety of everyone concerned, it is not currently feasible for the series to be held.”

The tour was scheduled to start later this month.

In the statement, the ACB said it had always adhered to health and safety guidelines around the  COVID-19 outbreak and pointed out that the pandemic has had an extreme impact on the cricketing calendar for 2020. 

“ACB, therefore, respects and conforms to Cricket Zimbabwe’s decision in this regard and cites it as a fair decision under the relevant circumstances and looks forward to bilateral cricket between both sides in future. 

“As ACB and Cricket Zimbabwe share a good history of bilateral cricket, the possibility of a series between the National teams of both countries will be discussed again once the threat of COVID-19 is tackled effectively,” the statement read. 

The planned Twenty20 International cricket tour was called off on Saturday by Zimbabwe after the host government declined to approve the tour, citing health risks.

 The tour was expected to start this month and despite the Zimbabwean cricket federation having applied to government for the tour to go ahead, the five-match series was canceled. 

Zimbabwe’s Sports and Recreation Commission’s (SRC) director-general Prince Mupazviriho said: “It will not be proper at the moment for foreigners to come to Zimbabwe for sport considering that there won’t be enough time to go through the required quarantine period.”

“We also took into consideration the recent spike in Covid-19 cases and felt that such a tour would put the players and everybody at great risk. So the minister responsible (Sports minister Kirsty Coventry) decided not to approve the tour.”

Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani said the Afghanistan series cancellation was a huge setback for his country’s cricket team but added that the country is now hoping to travel to Pakistan in October to begin it’s World Super League commitments, a new ICC model that creates a pathway to the 2023 World Cup.

 

 

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US to reduce troop levels to less than 5,000 by end of November

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(Last Updated On: August 9, 2020)

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Saturday that the United States will withdraw the number of troops in Afghanistan to below 5,000 by the end of November.

“We are going down to a number less than 5,000 before the end of November,” Esper said in an interview with Fox News.

Esper said the Pentagon would still need to brief members of Congress on the plan, and would also need to ensure the “United States is not threatened by terrorists coming out of Afghanistan.”

This comes after US President Donald Trump said in an interview with Axios last week, he would like to have “probably anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000” troops in Afghanistan by the time of the election on November 3.

Over the past six months, the US has reduced the number of troops to about 8,600 from 14,000. 

This was in accordance with the Doha agreement, signed in February, between Washington and the Taliban. 

However, US officials have stated that the second phase will be conditions-based, but have yet to define this. 

In his interview last week, Trump told Axios he will reduce American troop levels in Afghanistan down to about 4,000 “very soon”. 

He said: “We are largely out of Afghanistan”.

 “We’ll be down in a very short period of time to 8,000, then we’re going to be down to 4,000, we’re negotiating right now”, he said adding that the US had “been there now for 19 years and we will be getting out.”

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Loya Jirga urges govt to release prisoners in order to kick start peace talks

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(Last Updated On: August 8, 2020)

Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga, or grand council of tribal elders, community leaders, and politicians, on Saturday, urged the government to release the remaining 400 Taliban prisoners so as to move forward with intra-Afghan talks.

The Loya Jirga, called to determine the fate of the prisoners, convened Friday and wrapped up on Saturday. Over 3,200 delegates participated.

The delegates were split up into 50 working committees and discussed the prisoner release issue for two days.

Once each group had made their decision they submitted their recommendations to the Jirga’s administrative board.

All 50 committees recommended government free the 400 controversial prisoners.

Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council of National Reconciliation and the chair of the Loya Jirga, said Saturday that the committees recommended the prisoners be released but that the Jirga would officially “announce the outcome tomorrow.”

“I congratulate all Jirga members divided into 50 working committees for promptly ending their free deliberations. I welcome their input and recommendations as part of this important consultative exercise as we compile & announce the outcome tomorrow,” Abdullah said in a tweet.

Meanwhile, Abdullah said that the direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban would begin three days after the end of the Jirga.

“Three days after the end of the jirga, Afghan talks will begin and we are ready to move this process forward properly to end the war in Afghanistan,” Abdullah said.

A readout of their conclusions, seen by Ariana News, indicates that these committees urged the international community, especially the United States, to guarantee the start of intra-Afghan negotiations and a comprehensive ceasefire for the release of prisoners.

In their recommendations, the committees recommended that the government and the High Council of National Reconciliation consider the following points regarding the release of the prisoners and the hoped-for intra-Afghan peace talks:

  1. To achieve lasting and dignified peace, the parties must show the necessary flexibility;
  2. Release 400 remaining Taliban prisoners so that there is no excuse to postpone peace talks;
  3. Unconditional ceasefire shall be established with the release of Taliban prisoners and the parties shall remain committed to it;
  4. Peace talks should begin as soon as possible;
  5. The formation of an all-inclusive national body for peace negotiations capable of defending the values and achievements of the last 19 years;
  6. Afghan-led peace talks should preferably be held in Afghanistan;
  7. The countries involved in the Afghan issue should stop supporting the Taliban and not escalate tensions;
  8. The Taliban should no longer carry out terrorist attacks under the name of ISIS (Daesh);
  9. Prisoners should be released on national and international bail so that they do not rejoin the battlefield;
  10. Guarantee from the international community from the start and success of the talks and the establishment of lasting peace in Afghanistan;
  11. Release prisoners of the country’s security forces in order to prevent the weakening of their national spirit;
  12. Decisively defend the republic and the achievements of the last 19 years in the peace negotiations;
  13. Defend the constitution, especially the second chapter of the constitution and the democratic system in negotiations;
  14. Protect civil liberties and rights enshrined in the Constitution, especially the rights and freedoms of women;
  15. Preserve freedom of speech and freedom of the press;
  16. Share the progress of peace talks with the people of Afghanistan during the talks;
  17. The government must obtain the consent of the families of war victims;
  18. Involve all different sections of society, especially women and youth in the peace negotiating team;
  19. The negotiating team must have the full capacity for dialogue;
  20. Peace agreements under the supervision and guarantee of the United Nations, major world and regional powers;

“All the members of the relevant committees emphasized that the people of Afghanistan have been making sacrifices for years. War has taken a heavy toll on us. To achieve peace and stability and to end the devastating phenomenon of war, we agree to release Taliban prisoners, provided that the international community guarantees the success of the talks and the establishment of lasting peace,” the chairmen of the committees said.

The chairmen added: “Agreeing to release Taliban prisoners does not mean forgiving their crimes. No individual or institution has the right to do so. But achieving peace and stability in the country is a national priority and a public necessity.

“Therefore, to facilitate the success of the peace talks, it is necessary to pave the way for the start of negotiations.”

After submitting the report of the working committees, Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation and Chairman of the Grand Consultative Peace Jirga, meanwhile expressed his gratitude for the patience, comprehensive advice and constructive and comprehensive suggestions made by the members of the Jirga and said: “The High Council for National Reconciliation is very important and we will make great use of it in the negotiations.”

The Speaker of the Grand Consultative Peace Jirga expressed satisfaction with the successful completion of the working committees and said: “Afghanistan is at a critical and historic stage. It is a great success to understand the sensitivity of the situation and to give your advice in the light of the current situation and with the national interest in mind. However, the conditions are not favorable. But what definitely guarantees our victory is our unity.”

Meanwhile, some committees objected to the composition of the current negotiating team, urging the government to reconsider its make up and select new members for the team.

But sources close to the Taliban say that after the release of 400 prisoners, early talks are not possible and the demands of the parties involved have not been finalized.

Sayed Akbar Agha, a former member of the Taliban, said: “The Taliban are waiting for the release of 400 prisoners and the Taliban are ready for Afghan talks, but it is possible that other figures will join the government’s negotiating team and this will not be possible in a short time.”

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