Thursday, June 23, 2016

Afghan Taliban elects new leader

25 May 2016 Wednesday

The Afghan Taliban on Wednesday announced influential religious figure Haibatullah Akhundzada as their new leader after confirming supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansour's death in a U.S. drone strike.

"Haibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the new leader of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) after a unanimous agreement in the shura (supreme council), and all the members of shura pledged allegiance to him," the insurgents said in a statement.

It added that Sirajuddin Haqqani, an implacable foe of U.S. forces, and Mullah Yakoub, the son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, were appointed his deputies.

Haibatullah was one of two deputies under Mansour, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike on Saturday, the first known American assault on a top Afghan Taliban leader on Pakistani soil.

Mansour's killing is a major blow to the militant movement just nine months after he was formally appointed leader following a bitter power struggle, and sent shockwaves through the leadership.

Haibatullah's appointment comes after the Taliban's supreme council held emergency meetings that began Sunday in southwest Pakistan to find a unifying figure for the leadership post.

Taliban sources said the supreme council members were lying low and constantly changing the venue of their meetings to avoid new potential air strikes.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/173077/afghan-taliban-chooses-new-leader.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Taliban launches attack on Afghan government security agency

April 19, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Armed militants in Afghanistan staged a coordinated assault on a key government security agency in the capital Tuesday morning, killing at least seven people and wounding more than 320. The Taliban has claimed responsibility.

The attack, including a suicide car bombing, appears to have targeted an agency similar to the U.S. Secret Service, providing personal protection for high-ranking government officials. Ismail Kawasi, spokesman for the Public Health Ministry, said so far seven dead bodies and 327 wounded, including women and children, have been brought to area hospitals. An Interior Ministry statement said that dozens of civilians were killed and wounded in the attack. The casualty figures are expected to rise.

Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said that the suicide bombing was followed by an assault by armed militants. "One armed terrorist was shot and killed by security forces and the gun battle is still underway with an unknown number of other terrorists," said Sediqqi.

Later a spokesman for the Kabul police chief, Basir Mujahid, said that the gun battle in the compound had ended. "This was one of the most powerful explosions I have ever heard in my life," said Obaidullah Tarakhail, a police commander who was present when the attack began. Tarakhail said he couldn't see or hear anything for 20 minutes after the initial explosion. "All around was dark and covered with thick smoke and dust," he said.

Dozens of civilian apartment buildings, houses, shops and several government buildings were damaged by the car bomb blast. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack. Taliban insurgents have stepped up their attacks recently since announcing the start of their spring offensive last week.

President Ashraf Ghani issued a statement condemning the attack and saying it, "clearly shows the enemy's defeat in face-to-face battle with Afghan security forces." The attack in Kabul comes four days of another attack by Taliban insurgents in northern Kunduz province which was repelled by the Afghan security forces.

Officials in Kunduz said that security has improved in the city and that the Taliban were defeated in other parts of the province, but operations were still underway to clear militant fighters from the rest of the province.

The Taliban held Kunduz for three days last year before being driven out by a two-week counteroffensive aided by U.S.-airstrikes. It was their biggest foray into an urban area since 2001.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

US troops killed near Bagram, Taliban insurgency intensifies

December 22, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide attacker rammed an explosives-laden motorcycle into a joint NATO-Afghan patrol Monday, killing six American troops in the deadliest attack on international forces since August. Two U.S. troops and an Afghan were wounded.

The soldiers were targeted as they moved through a village near Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan, NATO and Afghan officials said. The Taliban claimed responsibility. A U.S. official confirmed that six American troops were killed and two wounded. An Afghan was also wounded. The official was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families and friends of those affected in this tragic incident, especially during this holiday season," U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William Shoffner, head of public affairs at NATO's Resolute Support base in the Afghan capital Kabul, said in a statement.

In New York, Police Commissioner William Bratton said Monday that a New York City police detective, Joseph Lemm, was one of the six American killed in the attack. Lemm was a 15-year-old veteran of the New York Police Department and worked in the Bronx Warrant Squad. Bratton says Lemm served in the U.S. National Guard and, while a member of the police force, he had been deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. He leaves behind a wife and three children.

In Washington, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the nation's thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and their loved ones, and that the U.S. will continue to work jointly with Afghans to promote peace and stability in their country.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in statement called the attack "a painful reminder of the dangers our troops face every day in Afghanistan." It was the deadliest attack on foreign troops in four months. On Aug. 22, three American contractors with the RS base were killed in a suicide attack in Kabul. On Aug. 7 and 8, Kabul was the scene of three insurgent attacks within 24 hours that left at least 35 people dead. One of the attacks, on a U.S. special operations forces base outside Kabul, killed one U.S soldier and eight Afghan civilian contractors.

In the year since the international drawdown, the Taliban insurgency has intensified. Although the combat mission ended last year, around 9,800 U.S. troops and almost 4,000 NATO forces remain in Afghanistan. They have a mandate to "train, assist and advise" their Afghan counterparts, who are now effectively fighting a battle-hardened Taliban alone.

Monday's attack came as Taliban fighters and government forces battled for control of a strategic district in the southern province of Helmand after it was overrun by insurgents, delivering a serious blow to the government's thinly spread and exhausted forces.

Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, Helmand's deputy governor, said insurgents took control of Sangin district late Sunday. Rasulyar had taken the unusual step of alerting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to the dire security situation and requesting urgent reinforcements through an open letter posted on Facebook on Sunday, saying that he had not been able to make contact through other means.

"We had to take to social media to reach you as Helmand is falling into the hands of the enemy and it requires your immediate attention," Rasulyar wrote in his Facebook post to Ghani. On Monday, Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said Afghan Army commandoes and special forces had arrived in Sangin to push a counter-offensive. He told reporters the Afghan air force had conducted 160 combat and transport flights over Sangin in the past 48 hours.

Helmand is an important Taliban base as it produces most of the world's opium, a crop that helps fund the insurgency. Sangin district has bounced in and out of Taliban control for some years, and fighting there has produced some of the highest casualty counts among Afghan and international forces in 14 years of war.

British forces saw intensive fighting there at the height of the war in 2006 and 2007. Among the 450 British troops killed during the country's combat mission in Afghanistan, more than 100 died in Sangin. In 2008, a battalion of U.S. Marines arrived in Helmand, followed a year later by the first wave of President Barack Obama's "surge" effort against the Taliban, comprising 11,000 Marines who conducted operations across the province.

The head of Helmand's provincial council, Muhammad Kareem Atal, said about 65 percent of Helmand is now under Taliban control. "In every district either we are stepping back or we are handing territory over to Taliban, but still, until now, no serious action has been taken," he said, referring to a perceived lack of support from the capital.

Districts across Helmand, including Nad Ali, Kajaki, Musa Qala, Naw Zad, Gereshk and Garmser, have all been threatened by Taliban takeover in recent months. Insurgents are also believed to be dug in on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

Taliban fighters, sometimes working with other insurgent groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have managed to overrun many districts across the country this year, and also staged a three-day takeover of the major northern city of Kunduz. They rarely hold territory for more than a few hours or days, but the impact on the morale of Afghan forces, and people, is substantial.

Atal said more than 2,000 security forces personnel had been killed fighting in Helmand in 2015. He said a major reason Afghan forces were "losing" was the large number of soldiers and police deserting their posts in the face of the Taliban onslaught.

Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified since the announcement in late July that the founder and leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead for more than two years. His deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, succeeded him, causing internal ructions and delaying the likelihood that a peace dialogue with the Afghan government, halted after the announcement of Mullah Omar's death, will restart in the foreseeable future.

The expected winter lull in fighting has not yet taken place in the warmer southern provinces. U.S. and Afghan military leaders say they are expecting a hot winter, followed by a tough fight throughout 2016.

The Pentagon released a report last week warning that the security situation in Afghanistan would deteriorate as a "resilient Taliban-led insurgency remains an enduring threat to U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces, as well as to the Afghan people."

Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Humayoon Babur and Amir Shah in Kabul and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this story.

Taliban leader denies being wounded in internal dispute

December 06, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has released a rare audio recording in which he denies claims by an Afghan official that he was wounded in a shootout during a meeting with other commanders in Pakistan last week.

In a 17-minute audio recording sent to media by the Taliban late Saturday, Mansoor dismissed what he called "baseless claims" that were "part of the agenda of the enemy." The Taliban had earlier sent The Associated Press a two-minute version of the recording.

The voice resembled that in previous recordings issued by Mansoor, who succeeded longtime Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar after his death was announced last summer. Mansoor has since faced internal challenges to his leadership, including by a breakaway faction that has battled fighters loyal to him.

"I haven't seen Kuchlak in years," he said, referring to an area near the Pakistani city of Quetta where the dispute was said to have taken place. He ordered his fighters to pay no heed to "baseless rumors" and to continue waging jihad, or holy war, against the Afghan government.

The audio message was released two days after Sultan Faizy, the spokesman for Afghanistan's First Vice President Abdul Rasheed Dostum, claimed that Mansoor was wounded in a firefight that broke out at a gathering of Taliban figures in Pakistan. He said the incident took place in the home of Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi, a former Taliban official, and that six Taliban figures, including Sarhadi, were killed.

"I am safe and my colleagues are safe. I am among my colleagues," Mansoor said, adding that he had not wanted to release the audio recording but was convinced to do so by his aides. The Afghan government's announcement last summer that Mullah Omar had died nearly two years earlier in Pakistan derailed nascent peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban that had been brokered by Islamabad.

In the recording, Mansoor insisted the Taliban would continue fighting until they established "Islamic government" in Afghanistan and would resist outside pressure to reach a political settlement. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan according to a harsh interpretation of Islamic law until the group was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mansoor established the timing of the recording by referring to a battle between Afghan forces and the Taliban in Wardak province on Friday which killed a number of civilians. He expressed condolences to those killed and wished a swift recovery for civilians who were wounded.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Key Afghan city falls to Taliban in major government setback

September 29, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban captured the strategic northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Monday in a multi-pronged attack involving hundreds of fighters, the first time the insurgents have seized a major urban area since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

The fast-moving assault took military and intelligence agencies by surprise as the insurgents descended on the city, one of Afghanistan's richest and the target of repeated Taliban offensives as the militants spread their fight across the country following the withdrawal last year of U.S. and NATO combat troops.

Within 12 hours of launching the offensive around 3 a.m., the militants had reached the main square, tearing down photographs of President Ashraf Ghani and other leaders and raising the white flag of the Taliban movement, residents reported.

More than 600 prisoners, including 140 Taliban fighters, were released from the city's jail, and many people were trying to reach the airport to flee the city. "Kunduz city has collapsed into the hands of the Taliban," Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told the Associated Press. "Security forces in Kunduz were prepared for an attack, but not one of this size, and not one that was coordinated in 10 different locations at the same time."

The Taliban used social media to claim the "conquest" of Kunduz and reassure residents that the extremist group — responsible for the vast majority of nearly 5,000 civilian casualties in the first half of this year, according to the United Nations — came in peace.

A statement attributed to the group's new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the self-styled Islamic emir of Afghanistan, said: "The citizens of Kunduz should not worry about safeguarding their lives and properties. Carry out your ordinary livelihoods in absolute security. All traders, workers, staff of hospitals, municipality and governing bodies should continue their daily routines without any fear or intimidation."

The Taliban have a history of brutality toward those they regard as apostates, and have banned girls from school as well as music, movies and other trappings of modern life in areas under their control.

The fall of Kunduz marks a major setback for government forces, who have struggled to combat the Taliban since the U.S. and NATO shifted to a supporting role at the end of last year. The city is a strategic prize for the Taliban and its capture, however short-lived, is sure to be used as a propaganda victory. This year's fight has severely tested Afghan forces, who lack air power and must rely on the United States for selective airstrikes, and suffer huge casualties and low morale. Nevertheless, they have largely held their ground in the face of a Taliban strategy clearly aimed at forcing them to spread resources ever-thinly across the country.

Sediqqi said military reinforcements were being sent to Kunduz, where government forces managed to fend off a major Taliban assault in April, the start of the insurgents' annual summer offensive. "We are trying our best to clear the city as soon as possible," he said.

Kunduz has been regularly targeted by the Taliban, who have allied with other insurgents, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and militants driven into Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan by an assault on their hideouts near the porous border.

Gen. Murad Ali Murad, the deputy chief of army staff, said Monday's attack involved a large number of Taliban drawn from across the north and included foreign fighters, likely Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan members with an eye on the Central Asian states to Afghanistan's north.

"Strategic areas, including the airport, are controlled by Afghan security forces," he said. "Reinforcements have already arrived and attacks on the insurgent positions will be launched soon," he added, without elaborating.

Sediqqi said the target of the Taliban assault was the city's main prison and police headquarters. Earlier, deputy presidential spokesman, Zafar Hashemi, had called the situation "fluid," saying Ghani was "in constant contact with the security and defense leadership to provide them with guidance."

"Our first priority is the safety and security of residents," he said. Analyst Faheem Dashty said Afghan security and intelligence agencies had been "caught by surprise" in what appeared to be a "big failure" of security and intelligence.

"They were expecting a big attack but couldn't defend the city," he said. Authorities were similarly blind-sided by the April attack and subsequent massing of fighters across the northern provinces, raising questions about the adequacy of the government's security and defense agencies.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss an ongoing military operation, said the U.S. military was aware the Taliban had taken control of a hospital and a number of government buildings in the city, and that both sides — the Taliban and government forces — had sustained a significant number of casualties.

Early indications were that the Afghan forces were in position to push back the attackers and regain control of the city, although the outcome was still in doubt, said the official, speaking earlier Monday before the government announced the fall of the city.

The Kunduz assault highlights the resilience of the Taliban following the revelation earlier this year that their reclusive longtime leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, died two years ago. A bitter internal dispute over the appointment of Mansoor has yet to be fully resolved, but seems to have had little impact on the battlefield.

Associated Press National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

Taliban insurgents raid Afghan prison and free inmates

September 14, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — More than 350 inmates escaped an Afghan prison following a coordinated attack by Taliban insurgents, an Afghan official and the Taliban said.

Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, deputy governor of Ghazni province, said Monday that insurgents wearing military uniforms launched a well-organized attack early Monday morning that included using a suicide bomber to breach the compound's walls. Four guards were killed and seven others were wounded, while three insurgents were also killed, Ahmadi said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack on the Ghazni prison in an email sent to the media. A total of 355 prisoners escaped, the Afghan Interior Ministry said in a statement, and only 82 prisoners remain in custody in the prison.

However Ahmadi added that 20 of the prison's most dangerous inmates had been transferred to another facility a day earlier after a fight broke out. Officials in Ghazni said that there were attacks by the Taliban in at least 10 different parts of the city overnight.

"There was an organized attack around 2:00 a.m. on the Ghazni prison, to make their plan successful the enemy at the same time launched attacks in different locations of the city as well," Ahmadi said, adding that the suicide car bomber breached the jail's entrance gates while security forces were busy defending other parts of the city.

"At least 148 of the escaped inmates are considered to be a serious threat to national security," the Interior Ministry statement said, adding that three of the escaped prisoners have been recaptured so far.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Afghan Taliban offer leader's biography amid power struggle

August 31, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Defying warnings from Washington and the fury of Afghanistan's government, Pakistani authorities are turning a blind eye to a meeting of hundreds of Taliban supporters in a city near the Afghan border aimed at resolving a dispute over the group's leadership following the death of figurehead Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The gathering in the Pakistani city of Quetta, where the Taliban's leadership has been largely based since they were pushed from power by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, has drawn some 1,000 Taliban adherents who have openly descended on the city for a "unity shura," a meeting intended to resolve the leadership crisis and reunite the group, whose divisions have been publicly aired since Mullah Omar's death was revealed in late July.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has accused Pakistan of harboring groups that are waging war on his country. His deputy spokesman, Zafar Hashemi told The Associated Press that Pakistan was failing to take action against "those groups holding gatherings in public and declaring war against the Afghan people," a reference to the Taliban meetings in Quetta.

The Taliban's struggle to overthrow the Kabul government is nearing its 14th year. Thousands of U.S. and NATO soldiers, along with many more thousands of Afghan civilians, troops and police have been killed in the fighting, which has intensified following the drawdown last year of most foreign combat troops. The Taliban are clearly testing the Afghan forces as they take on the insurgency alone, though their fighters have made little significant progress on the battlefield.

The leadership struggle became public after the Afghan government announced in late July that Mullah Omar had been dead since April 2013. His deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, was declared his successor, but Mullah Omar's family objected, saying the vote to elect the new leader was not representative of the group. The unity shura — essentially a dispute resolution committee — was established in early August to deal with the crisis and shura leader Ahmad Rabbani says its decision could be reached in days.

In an indication of what is at stake, the Taliban published a biography Monday of Mansoor in a clear attempt by his backers to shore up his support among the Taliban leaders, religious scholars, battlefield commanders and rank-and-file supporters as deliberations come to a close. They have met at various spots around Quetta — in Chaman near the Afghan border and in tribal areas of Pakistan's Balochistan province, troubled by its own insurgency.

With impressive organizational skills, the Quetta-based Taliban have taken on the task of hosting hundreds of visitors from Afghanistan, billeting them in madrassas, mosques and private homes, ensuring they are fed and that transport is arranged so they can get to their meetings on time. Many attendees, including religious scholars and commanders, traveled from remote regions of Afghanistan. Many of the fighting men have already departed, shura leaders said, having made their preferences clear.

Rabbani said that Mansoor has yet to inform the shura that he will adhere to whatever decision is made, although Mullah Omar's brother, Manan, and son, Yaqub, have done so. Mansoor has been given until Tuesday to state his position, Rabbani said, adding: "We don't need his permission to announce our decision, and have made contingency plans for whether he says he will follow our decision or not."

He said the committee's decision on the leadership could come as early as Wednesday. The meetings appear to have been untroubled by the Pakistani authorities, who habitually deny that they sponsor the Taliban or other terrorist groups, such as the Haqqani Network whose leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is one of Mansoor's deputies.

"Yes, our officials have contacts with them. Our officials have ability to contact and bring them to the negotiation table. That doesn't mean that our intelligence agencies have control on each and every thing," said Pakistani security analyst Zahid Hussain.

Ghani's condemnation of Pakistan's support for the Taliban boiled over in early August after a series of deadly attacks on the capital, Kabul, that left 50 people dead and hundreds wounded. After almost a year of trying to mend fences with Islamabad, the Afghan leader went on live TV and accused Pakistan of being the source of violence in his country. Relations between the neighbors have suffered, with an Afghan delegation returning empty-handed from a visit to Pakistan meant to hammer out a way of dealing with the insurgency.

"The decisions the Pakistani government will be making in the next few weeks will significantly affect bilateral relations for the next decades," Ghani said in his TV address. "We can no longer tolerate watching our people bleeding in a war exported and imposed on us from outside."

Peace talks between Ghani's administration and the Taliban, which had been supported by Pakistan, were indefinitely postponed after the announcement of Mullah Omar's death. Analysts and diplomats say it could be years before they are revived and that in the meantime the war could get worse as the new Taliban leader consolidates power and tries to win over all elements, including extremists who have been disaffected by the Taliban's lack of progress towards it goal of retaking Kabul.

U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice met with Pakistani leaders on Sunday to discuss efforts to revive peace talks. In a statement, the White House said she "underscored the U.S. commitment to an Afghan-led peace process, and urged Pakistan to intensify its efforts to counter terrorist sanctuaries inside its borders in order to promote regional peace and stability."

In recent days, gunmen loyal to Mansoor and to a powerful supporter of Mullah Omar's family in the leadership contest, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, have fought openly in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. At least five fighters were killed in battles on Saturday, Rabbani said.

Dadullah condemned the release of Mansoor's biograhy, accusing him of being "desperate" for power "and using every tactic to increase his popularity." The 5,000-word document, emailed to journalists in five languages, describes Mansoor, who was born in 1968, as a tireless holy warrior, good listener and ardent protector of civilians, who was appointed as the insurgents' leader "in full compliance with Islamic Shariah law."

Mansoor "never nominated himself for leadership, rather he was selected as the only candidate ... by members of the leading council of the Islamic Emirate and religious scholars," the biography says, using the name of the former Taliban government.

"Mansoor is trying to show that he is the leader and no one can reach him on that level," said Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, the foreign relations adviser to the Afghan government's High Peace Council, which is charged with ending the war.

Mansoor is believed to have gained power in the Taliban in part because of his connections to Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which long has had ties to Afghan militants. He is believed to have acted in Mullah Omar's name in recent years and taken the Taliban into a peace dialogue with the Afghan government at the same time as stepping up the battle against Afghan forces, all at the ISI's behest, Qasimayar said.

With the backing of the Pakistani intelligence agency, Mansoor "is the only one right now that has more support than anyone else for the leadership," Qasimyar said. "With Pakistan's support, it doesn't matter who supports him and who doesn't."

However, Habibullah Fouzi, a diplomat under the Taliban and now a member of the Afghan government's peace council, said there could be more dissension within the Taliban. He said many rank-and-file members supported Mullah Omar's family. "It is clear that Mullah Mansoor has been imposed into this position by others," he said.

Mansoor's biography also for the first time gives a date for Mullah Omar's death: April 23, 2013. The Taliban said it kept his death a secret as "2013 was considered the last year of resistance and struggle" before the drawdown of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.

Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan and Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.