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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.”

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‘Digital Silk Road’ on track as Afghanistan and Turkmenistan connect 

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(Last Updated On: January 16, 2021)

Thursday marked another milestone in Afghanistan’s modern history when President Ashraf Ghani inaugurated the new fiber optic connection between Turkmenistan and the commercial port of Aqina in Afghanistan’s Faryab province.

Within four months of having signed the memorandum of understanding with government the Afghan Wireless Communication Company (AWCC) had successfully completed the task of connecting the two neighboring countries. 

In a virtual address at the launch, Dr Ehsan Bayat, the founder and chairman of AWCC, said he was “delighted” to celebrate the company’s success in connecting Afghanistan with its friends in Turkmenistan – especially given the past year that has involved unprecedented challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic, which also impacted people’s ability to connect with each other across the globe. 

“When Afghan Wireless embarked on the journey to build Afghanistan’s largest nationwide fiber network, we did so with the goal of realizing President Ghani’s vision to transform the country into a hub of digital data connectivity for Central Asia. 

“Today marks an important milestone in the building of a digital silk road across the region with Afghanistan at its center; a road that will connect millions of Afghans to the digital economy.

He said the latest optical fiber connection, between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, is the country’s fifth and sixth international border connections. Others include Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan. 

“From Mazar to Jalalabad, and from Kabul to Kandahar to Kunduz, communities across the country are benefiting from high-speed connectivity. And now our connection to Turkmenistan through Torghundi and Aqina will enable Herat and western cities to become Afghanistan’s next major bridge for digital transformation,” he said.

However, Bayat stated that the impact of AWCC’s project should not be measured in kilometers of fiber laid, or megabytes of data transmitted, or even money invested but instead, it should be measured by the industries revitalized, the local businesses boosted, the jobs created, the pace of economic development and the enhancement to critical services in health, education, commerce and finance.

“This project could not be delivered without Afghanistan and Turkmenistan working together. 

“Afghan Wireless’ optical fiber connection between the two countries that we are celebrating today is a powerful testament that when we work hand in hand with our neighbors, not only do we strengthen our countries individually, but we also strengthen our region together,” he said.

The Turkmenistan to Aqina cable has the capacity to transfer 2,500 megabits of the Internet and can therefore provide high quality and cheap Internet to Faryab province.

According to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, a fiber-optic network is the result of the rapid development of telecommunications and information technology, which has become an integral part of modern life.

The ministry states that along with the progression of technology and innovation, the shape and quality of tools have also changed to a great extent.

At the beginning of the invention of the telephone, copper cables were used to transmit information and sound, but today, with the advancement of technology and increasing human needs, these cables have been replaced by a new generation of signal conductors or fiber optics.

Because of the need for fast and cheap digital connectivity in the country, Government has already connected a total of 25 provinces in the country with the national fiber-optic network.

 

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Taliban drones bomb 217 Pamir Military Corps in Kunduz

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(Last Updated On: January 15, 2021)

Two Taliban drones hovered over 217 Pamir Corps in Kunduz for about half an hour on Friday and fired off a number of mortar rounds, officials said.

The corps commander General Murad Ali Yazdani said the Taliban drones had flown over the base for about half an hour and had fired off mortar rounds that landed on the football field. No casualties were reported, he said.

Military personnel are investigating the incident and trying to track where the drone was launched.

In addition to this attack, at least 12 soldiers were killed, five others were wounded and 10 soldiers captured in two separate attacks in Kunduz – one on an army base and another on a police base.

“For some time now, security in the whole city of Kunduz has deteriorated. People have become displaced and the local government must pay attention,” said Mohammad Yousof Ayoubi, provincial head council.

Meanwhile, at around 3 am on Friday, a Humvee tank loaded with explosives was detonated prematurely in Ghazni.

One civilian was killed and seven soldiers were wounded, officials said.

“At least one truck driver passing the area was killed. The wounded soldiers are in good condition now,” said Wahidullah Jumazadah, Ghazni governor spokesman.

Security forces in Ghazni said after the Humvee exploded, clashes between security forces and the Taliban broke out.

They said at least eight Taliban fighters were killed but with the help of air support the Taliban attack was repelled.

“The Taliban carried out large-scale attacks on security and defense forces in the center and districts of the province last night in five strongholds, but were repulsed by security forces,” said Fawad Aman, defense ministry spokesman.

In the past week, the Taliban has attacked several security and defense checkpoints in different parts of the country.

Experts believe that with the start of peace talks, the Taliban is changing its approach to war in order to gain more credit.

“The Taliban has changed the tactics of war; if the security teams are a little careful, they should bring this change themselves to prevent casualties,” said former chief of army staff Sher Mohammad Karimi.

The Taliban are also said to have attacked several security checkpoints in the Darqad district of Takhar last week; in the Akbar Bai district of Takhar; and in the Jurm district of Badakhshan – inflicting heavy casualties on the military.

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Zakhilwal says govt is being ‘forced to compromise’

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(Last Updated On: January 14, 2021)

Former Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan, Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal said President Ashraf Ghani has violated 80 percent of the constitution during his presidency.

In an exclusive interview with Ariana News, Zakhilwal stated: “The President himself has violated the constitution at different stages.”

Zakhilwal said that so many opportunities have been missed and now the Afghan government must compromise with the Taliban in order to secure peace.

He also stated that the Taliban could run in Afghan elections. “Why should we have to reject it (participation of the Taliban in elections), we have logic…when it is about Afghanistan’s sustainability and durable peace it is defensible.”

Referring to an interim government that a number of Afghan politicians are calling for, Zakhilwal said that some of these figures are pursuing their own interests.

Zakhilwal said the Afghan peace process is a US initiative that has caused concern for Ghani.

He said the ceasefire over Eid in 2018 was a deal between the US and the Taliban not the outcome of Ghani’s efforts.

“The president is worried about this imposition. The president says another person can hand over the power to an interim government and that is why he is so worried,” Zakhilwal said.

He also called on negotiating sides to reach an agreement as soon as possible and the warring parties to stop the bloodshed.

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