Afghanistan Theater

Afghan pullout: unanswered questions for civilians

Afghanistan now has a clearer timeline for when US and international troops will leave, but the questions surrounding what this means for civilians and aid operations in the country remain the same. US President Joe Biden on April 14 confirmed plans to withdraw American forces before Sept. 11—the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that led to the Afghanistan invasion. NATO also said 9,500 international soldiers—including 2,500 US troops—would leave, beginning May 1. But the implications of the pullout are as volatile as they were when Biden's predecessor first inked a peace deal with the Taliban last year. Will the Taliban pursue a decisive military victory or continue with sporadic peace negotiations with the government? How will women and minorities fare? How will this affect local and international aid operations, and the roughly 16 million Afghans—more than 40% of the population—who rely on humanitarian relief? Will there be a future for reconciliation after decades of war? And what about the militias still active in many areas? More than 1,700 civilians were killed or injured in conflict in the first three months of 2021, the UN said the same day as Biden's announcement.

Afghanistan: US withdrawal on hold?

With a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan approaching but a final peace deal stalled, the White House is said to be considering an extension beyond this date for removal of its 2,500 troops remaining in the country. The Washington Post writes that the Biden administration "is likely to postpone a full withdrawal—potentially with Taliban acquiescence—to buy more time to advance a power-sharing proposal they hope can break an impasse in talks between the militants and the Afghan government."

Did China plan 'false flag' attacks in Afghanistan?

India's Hindustan Times reported Dec. 25 that Afghanistan has busted a conclave of 10 Chinese espionage agents that was supposedly "operating a terror cell" in Kabul. Citing unnamed diplomats and security officials, the account claims Beijing has been trying to persuade the government of President Ashraf Ghani to hush up the case. The spies, said to be working for China's Ministry of State Security, were reportedly arrested by Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) on Dec. 10. At least two were said to be in contact with the Haqqani Network, now the inner core of the Taliban insurgency. Arms, ammunition and a quantity of ketamine were seized in the raids.  One of the detained, identified as Li Yangyang, was said to have been gathering information about the activities of Uighur militants in Kunar and Badakhshan provinces. The latter province includes Afghanistan's eastern "panhandle" that extends to the border with China's Xinjiang region, and has been named before as a stronghold of Uighur militancy. Again citing unnamed sources, the account states: "One view within the Afghan security establishment is that the detainees were creating a fake East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) module in Afghanistan to entrap ETIM operatives in Afghanistan." ETIM is the supposed Uighur network blamed by Chinese authorities for sporadic armed attacks within the People's Republic over the past generation, although there is skepticism that it actually exists in any organized sense.

US imposes sanctions on ICC chief prosecutor

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sept. 2 announced economic sanctions against the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Gambian lawyer Fatou Bensouda. Characterizing the ICC as "a thoroughly broken and corrupted institution" and noting that the United States is not a member of the court, having never ratified the Rome Statute, Pompeo condemned what he called the ICC's "illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction," referring to Bensouda's investigation into possible war crimes committed by US forces in Afghanistan.

Is Russia really backing the Taliban?

Nobody has less patience than CounterVortex with the kneejerk squawking of "McCarthyism" any time new revelations of Moscow misdeeds emerge. Unlike all too many on the "left," we have no illusions about Russia's increasingly fascist direction, or its obvious designs on the political process in the United States in favor of Donald Trump. But we nonetheless must register our skepticism about the claims that Russia is arming the Taliban in Afghanistan, and offering them a bounty to kill US troops. This makes little sense in terms of the regional alliances. Russia and the Taliban have traditionally been on opposite sides, and the mutual animosity between them was the basis for the post-9-11 rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. We also aren't sure why the Taliban would need any extra motivation to kill US soldiers—they seem quite sufficiently motivated on their own.

Massacre at Hazara ceremony in Kabul

Gunmen stormed a memorial ceremony honoring a martyred leader of the Hazara Shi'ite minority in Afghanistan's capital March 6. Key politicians including chief executive  Abdullah Abdullah were on hand for the commemoration of the Hazara Mujahedeen commander Abdul Ali Mazari, who was assassinated by the Taliban in 1995. At least 27 people were killed in the attack, and some 30 more wounded. Soon after the massacre, the Taliban issued a statement denying responsibility. Shortly after that, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed the attack in a communique, and also asserted that the actual death toll was 150. An ISIS-claimed attack on the same ceremony last year saw a barrage of mortar fire that killed at least 11 people. The new attack comes just as a tentative "peace deal" with the Taliban is raising concerns for the fate of Afghanistan's ethnic and religious minorities. (Khaama Press, Defense Post, NYT, The Fortress)

ICC approves Afghanistan war crimes investigation

The Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on March 5 unanimously approved an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by both sides in the Afghanistan conflict. The investigation will focus on "alleged crimes committed on the territory of Afghanistan in the period since 1 May 2003, as well as other alleged crimes that have a nexus to the armed conflict in Afghanistan." The Pre-Trial Chamber had rejected a request to open an investigation last year, but the prosecutor appealed based on Article 15 of the Rome Statute. The appeal attempts to resolve the apparent disparity between Article 15, mandating investigations when a prosecutor provides a "reasonable basis to proceed," and Article 53, which allows the court discretion in the interest of justice.The Appeals Chamber’s decision overturned the Pre-Trial Chamber's ruling on the grounds that the determination that the investigation "would not serve the interests of justice" and was an abuse of discretion.

Will human rights be betrayed in US-Taliban deal?

More than a year of US-Taliban negotiations bore formal fruit Feb. 29 with the signing in Doha of what is being called a "peace deal" by Washington's envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, named as leader of the Islamist group. The pact calls for the US to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan in 14 months if the Taliban fulfills its commitments under the agreement. Afghanistan's government must release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before March 10, after which the "intra-Afghan" talks are to start, with the aim of negotiating a permanent ceasefire. The signing of the pact follows a one-week "Reduction in Violence" by the Taliban. (Khaama Press, NPR, Al Jazeera)

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