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Concerns grow of US downplaying al-Qaeda numbers and strength

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(Last Updated On: October 17, 2020)

Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the United Nations monitoring team for Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and the Taliban warned on Friday that senior al-Qaeda members are still in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives. 

Speaking during a webinar on the future of Afghanistan, Fitton-Brown said: “[Al-Qaeda leader] Ayman al-Zawahiri remains close to the Taliban,” adding that the “Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaeda during the negotiations with the United States and they offered informal guarantees that [they] would honor their historic ties with al-Qaeda.”

This, however, is in contravention of the US-Taliban agreement signed in February in Doha which states the Taliban must break all ties with terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda. 

Fitton-Brown’s warning is not however new as a UN report issued in July stated the group is “covertly active in 12 Afghan provinces,” and that it likely commands 400 to 600 fighters.

Afghan officials have also rejected claims that the threat from al-Qaeda has disappeared. In May, the acting head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Zia Seraj, said: “The Taliban try to use these groups and organizations more than before in fighting inside Afghanistan.”

VOA reported that UN member states have further warned of additional armed support from the group al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), an affiliate that is thought to have another 150 to 200 fighters in Afghanistan’s Nimroz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

The report states that while international and Afghan counterterror officials see a growing threat, a number of key US officials continue to portray al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as a fading power.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said there are “fewer than 200 al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan,” while days later, National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller stated in written testimony to lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee that al-Qaeda’s presence in the country has been reduced to a few dozen fighters. 

But one international counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told VOA that such optimistic pronouncements are “hugely problematic.” Others warn the US is making a mistake by failing to account for substantial support from a vast majority of the 10,000 foreign fighters currently in Afghanistan.

However, other officials and experts fear the US assessments of a “few dozen” al-Qaeda fighters are not intended to be accurate, but rather to align with repeated calls by US President Donald Trump to get American troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.

A senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Thomas Joscelyn told VOA: “It’s just not credible to say that there are only a few dozen al-Qaeda guys running around Afghanistan.”

“There are so many pronouncements made by the military on al-Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan that were wrong over the years,” he said, noting earlier US estimates of as few as 50 operatives. “They just go from one inaccurate assessment to another.”

But Joscelyn added even the UN estimates of 400 to 600 al-Qaeda operatives might be too low.

“The Pakistani Taliban is known to have a very tight relationship with al-Qaeda,” Joscelyn told VOA. 

“How many of the Pakistani Taliban guys…are dual-hatted, they’re also al-Qaeda guys? Nobody can tell you, but we know that some of them are.”

COVID-19

Global coronavirus caseload crosses the 40 million mark

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(Last Updated On: October 19, 2020)

The number of COVID-19 cases worldwide passed the 40 million mark on Monday, according to a Reuters tally. 

Reuters reported that this comes as the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere appears to have fuelled a resurgence in the spread of the disease. 

Experts however believe the true numbers of both cases and deaths are likely much higher, given deficiencies in testing and potential under-reporting by some countries.

The Reuters data shows the pace of the pandemic continues to increase as it took just 32 days to go from 30 million global cases to 40 million, compared with the 38 days it took to get from 20 to 30 million, the 44 days between 10 and 20 million, and the three months it took to reach 10 million cases from when the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China, in early January.

Reuters also reported that record one-day increases in new infections were seen at the end of last week, with global coronavirus cases rising above 400,000 for the first time.

The United States, India, and Brazil remain the worst affected countries in the world. 

 

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UN secretary general condemns Ghor attack 

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(Last Updated On: October 19, 2020)

UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday strongly condemned the attack in Ghor province on Sunday that killed and wounded dozens of civilians. 

In a statement issued by the organization, Guterres said he “strongly condemns the indiscriminate attack today on a provincial police headquarters in Afghanistan’s province of Ghor, in an area where many civilians are present.”  

The UN stated that according to preliminary reports, the car bomb claimed the lives of at least 13 people and injured dozens of civilians, including women and children. 

“Those who carry out such crimes must be held accountable,” the statement read. 

“The Secretary-General expresses his deepest sympathies to the families of the victims and wishes a speedy recovery to those injured,” Guterres said.

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US peace envoy warns high levels of violence could derail peace process 

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(Last Updated On: October 19, 2020)

US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad warned that “distressingly” high levels of violence could derail the peace process and the understanding that there is no military solution to the war in Afghanistan. 

In a series of tweets overnight Monday, Khalilzad appeared to have been responding to Sunday’s spat between the Taliban and the US Forces Afghanistan after the insurgent group accused the US of violating the Doha agreement by carrying out airstrikes in Helmand and Farah provinces last week. 

The US Forces Afghanistan responded not long after rejecting the claim and said they were within the terms of the agreement as they had been defending the Afghan security forces who had come under attack by the Taliban. 

The Taliban also issued a veiled threat in their statement and said: “All responsibility and consequences from the continuation of such actions shall fall squarely on the shoulders of the American side.”

Khalilzad meanwhile said in his Twitter statement: “Unfounded charges of violations and inflammatory rhetoric do not advance peace. Instead, we should pursue strict adherence to all articles of the US-Taliban Agreement and US-Afghanistan Joint Declaration and not neglect the commitment to gradually reduce violence.

“Continued high levels of violence can threaten the peace process and the agreement and the core understanding that there is no military solution. Violence today remains distressingly high in spite of the recent reaffirmation of the need for substantial reduction.

“Taliban attacks in Helmand, including on the provincial capital; Taliban attacks against Afghan security forces; & Taliban complaints of ANSF operations and coalition strikes led to a recent meeting in Doha.

“All sides agreed to decrease attacks and strikes and reduce violence and casualties. Although violence in Helmand has decreased, violence overall in the country remains high.

“Our expectation has been and remains that violence comes down and stays down.

“It was a focus of the Agreement we signed, further highlighted in connection with the releases of the last batch of prisoners and reaffirmed again in the most recent commitment all sides made to adhere to all aspects of the deal,” Khalilzad said. 

Reacting to the car bombing on Sunday in Ghor province that killed at least 13 people, Khalilzad stated: “Violence has stalked Afghans for far too long. It has robbed far too many Afghans of their loved ones. The tragedy in Ghor today is the most recent example.”

He said: “The belief that says violence must escalate to win concessions at the negotiating table is very risky. Such an approach can undermine the peace process and repeats past miscalculations by Afghan leaders.

“We must adhere to the letter and spirit of what was negotiated and the recent understanding. They provide a path to minimizing Afghan loss of life and protecting an historic opportunity for peace which must not be missed,” Khalilzad said.

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