BBC News – The Mother of All Bombs: How badly did it hurt IS in Afghanistan?

On 13 April the US dropped one of its largest non-nuclear bombs on a tunnel complex used by so-called Islamic State militants in eastern Afghanistan. It was the first time such a weapon had been used in battle.

The BBC’s Auliya Atrafi has been to the area to see if it really had any impact in the battle against IS.

The view from the hills overlooking the Mamand Valley is beautiful. Green fields and trees fill the valley floor. Ahead, the valley narrows and hills become mountains. In the distance rises the magnificent Spin-Ghar, the White Mountain, which marks the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But there was no chance of quiet contemplation when I visited this area of Nangarhar province. Above, three types of American fighter planes were circling and dropping bombs.

One bomb hit the narrow part of the valley. It was there, a young soldier told me, that the weapon known as the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) had been used.

I was confused. Reports of the bomb had made me think that it had wiped out the IS stronghold here in Achin district. I assumed that US and Afghan troops would have sealed off the area and that IS (or Daesh, as it is known here) would be in disarray.

An Afghan officer corrected me. “For a start this bomb wasn’t as powerful as you think,” he said.

“There are still green trees standing 100m away from the site of the impact.”

A large number of IS militants were killed by the MOAB, but it is hard to know how many. The Achin district governor, Ismail Shinwary, says at least 90.

Either way, the battle against IS continues.

“Daesh hasn’t gone anywhere; there are hundreds of caves like the one the Americans bombed,” the officer says, adding that strikes have continued since the bomb was dropped. “They can’t get rid of them like this.”

The fighting appeared to be taking place along a huge area in the mountains. The bombardment was relentless, filling the valley with smoke and noise.

But IS were taking casualties. Over a breakfast of eggs and green tea, the district police chief, Major Khair Mohammad Sapai, showed us pictures of dead IS fighters. They had beards and long hair.

In death they looked pitiable, quite unlike the image they try to portray in their propaganda videos, riding horses, carrying their black flags or making the local Shinwari people sit on bombs and then blowing them up.

Major Khair said some of them were foreigners, but from their disintegrating, dust-covered faces it was hard to tell.

He showed us hand-written lists of Afghan telephone numbers seized during operations, and some of the names on the list were indeed Arabic or Pakistani.

The major’s claims were backed up by Hakim Khan Momand and his friends. They are members of the so-called “people’s uprising”, new militias made up of local people that help with security in the area. They cooperate with state security forces but their existence is seen as a sign of weak central government and instability.

The bearded men lay on portable cots, drinking strong green tea and relishing the sight of IS fighters being bombed by American planes.

“They are all sorts, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Arabs and Wahhabis from Kunar Province. They have nowhere to go; best to bury them in the caves where they happen to be hiding,” Hakim Khan said.

His house lies in the Mamand Valley, in an area still under the control of IS. He adds: “God willing, the Americans have given us their word that they would clear the entire valley of Daesh fighters.”

Unlike the Taliban, who tend to have many supporters in their core areas, IS seem to have angered a lot of people. Few seemed unhappy about the US bombardment.

A couple of kilometres from the frontline, ordinary life was continuing. Women carried water, boys played cricket and people went about their daily tasks.

However, there was anxiety. One man, Khaled, said local people were pawns in a US game.

“[Dropping the bomb] was a trick to show the world that their mission was going well. But this wasn’t the type of bomb they showed in the media. The bomb did nothing.”

“Will IS come back?” I asked.

“Yes, as soon as the government leaves, the locals won’t be able to fight them. If the government makes permanent bases in the area and helps us, then we will be happy,” he answered.

Another local resident suggested IS could do with something a little stronger.

“Let Americans bring down a bigger one, this one was small,” he said.

Back in the hills, Hakim Khan and his friends were listening in to IS fighters communicating via walkie-talkies with the help of their radio. The fighters were reassuring each other and communicating with their comrades in a neighbouring district.

A border police officer wondered aloud if the commitment of the Trump administration would match that of IS.

“The more we kill, the more they come from the other side of the Durand line, in Pakistan,” he said.

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Dawn – Mistrust still plagues Islamabad-Kabul ties despite London understanding

Baqir Sajjad Syed

Islamabad, 4 April 2017. Traditional ‘mistrust’ between Pakistan and Afghanistan is hampering implementation of the ‘understanding’ reached between the two sides in London, which could have potentially reset their bilateral relations, although Islamabad took the lead by reopening the border crossings.

The understanding on bilateral cooperation was reached during a meeting between Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz and Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar last month that had been facilitated by the British government to help the two overcome the impasse in their ties over terrorist sanctuaries along their border.

No details were then made public about what came to be known as ‘agreement on bilateral cooperation mechanism’.

Both Mr Aziz and Special Assistant Tariq Fatemi in their meetings with an Afghan media delegation and Kabul’s envoy in Islamabad Dr Omar Zakhilwal, respectively, on Monday stressed the need for bilateral cooperation and engagement for addressing the common challenge of terrorism.

A Foreign Office statement on the meeting between Mr Fatemi and Dr Zakhilwal said: “Both sides agreed for early implementation of the bilateral cooperation mechanism recently agreed between the two.”

Aziz, in a conversation with Dawn, shed light on his discussions in London with Mr Atmar, saying an “understanding was reached” on building a mechanism that would provide for interaction at multiple levels, military, intelligence and political.

The plan is to have multi-tiered discussions starting from field commanders and moving upwards to higher military command on both sides, meetings of the intelligence and senior security officials, and finally an engagement at the political level.

But, a fortnight after this understanding, both Islamabad and Kabul are still struggling to put it into practice. The only thing to have happened, during this period, on ground is the reopening of border crossings.

The Afghans are apparently hedging their bets in anticipation of US President Donald Trump’s policy on Afghanistan, which has, to an extent, begun taking shape.

Pakistan is trying to pose to international critics as the ‘bigger brother’ wanting to end protracted sufferings of Afghans while simultaneously working for solidifying a new regional combine for peace in Afghanistan along with Russia and China.

Trust needed

Mr Aziz insists that “trust is required” between Pakistan and Afghanistan for the London understanding to move forward, which may take some time to materialise.

The first step in that direction would be a meeting of the field commanders, where incidents souring ties like cross-border shelling could be investigated.

“There are undesirable elements at the ground level, there are smugglers and terrorists on both sides of border and they have a nexus,” the adviser said, pointing to the complicated nature of the problem and quickly added that it was one reason why Pakistan had all along been placing emphasis on managing the border.

Mr Aziz’s emphasis during the discussion remained on talks at the ground level as being the most important element of the strategy.

Referring to his meeting with Afghan journalists, he said, “these are all complementary things. Once ground level interaction takes place and then political messaging has to improve because statements from senior leadership vitiate the environment.”

Stormy debate in Afghan parliament on a statement by a legislator, Abdul Latif Pedram, the leader of the National Congress Party (NCP), for accepting Durand Line as an international border exhibited Afghans’ continuing acrimony towards Pakistan.

“Even the president does not have the authority to recognise the Durand Line, this is supposed to be determined by the nation,” said Senator Farhad Sakhi.

Analysts fear that such hard-line views in Afghanistan on recognising the internationally accepted boundary would prevent the Afghan government from extending full cooperation for what Pakistan describes as the border coordination mechanism.

Perceptions are also holding back progress in ties.

The adviser said that Afghans’ perceptions about Pakistan were “exaggerated” and blamed it on historic baggage.

The “perceptions need to be corrected”, he said.

Dawn – Carnage in Parachinar again

Op/Ed, 2 April 2017. The scene is grimly familiar, as is the location. A market has been struck in Parachinar — the second market bombing this year in the town and the fourth since 2013.

The Friday bombing, likely aimed at inflicting maximum harm ahead of the weekly congregation at a nearby Shia imambargah, further crystallised what has long been clear about the violence in the Parachinar region of Kurram Agency: militancy with an overtly sectarian dimension.

And after rival claims to this year’s January bombing in the area, yesterday’s attack has been followed by a claim of responsibility from Jamaatul Ahrar, the TTP splinter that has been at the forefront of recent attacks across the country.

The long war against militancy, longer in the Parachinar region than most parts of the country, looks set to grind on, undermining the gains made elsewhere.

For Pakistan, the questions are many, and all wearily familiar. The tone of the political leadership may have changed somewhat since earlier this year, when senior government officials openly and at odds with the facts tried to downplay the sectarian underpinnings of militancy, but there is no clear path ahead either.

Perhaps nowhere is the connection between extremism and militancy more apparent than at the sectarian intersection. While the roots of the animosity may indeed be historical, stretching back many centuries as some government officials glibly claimed, it is actively encouraged by a vast infrastructure of extremism.

The tentative steps taken under the National Action Plan and by provincial governments to fine or arrest preachers of hate has done little to slow the poison being spread across the land. The need for an unequivocal, firm and determined message, that Pakistan is and will remain an inclusive state and society, remains as strong as ever.

What the message must be is clear; whether the state has the will or ability to carry it forward until it becomes uncontested and undeniable across the country is unclear.

There is also the problem of the state choosing to emphasise one part of the problem and in doing so distorting the real scope of militancy. With Jamaatul Ahrar claiming responsibility for yesterday’s attack, the problem of cross-border militancy and Pakistan’s growing discontent with Afghanistan will likely come into focus again.

But terrorism and militancy blighted Parachinar before the emergence of Jamaatul Ahrar, and the relationship with Afghanistan is far more complex than the now undeniably serious problem of anti-Pakistan militant sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan.

The answer lies in drawing together seemingly disparate threads such as NAP, Operation Raddul Fasaad, and national security and foreign policy into a coherent, effective and strategic approach.

It will not be easy, but there is also no realistic alternative. The suffering in Parachinar must not be in vain and with no end. The ugly reality of sectarianism must be confronted directly and decisively.

The News – Haqqani Network neither our friend nor proxy: Aizaz Chaudhry

Washington DC, 28 March 2017. Pakistan’s Ambassador to United States, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry has stated that militant outfit Haqqani Network was neither our friend nor the proxy.

Talking to foreign media, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudry said, “Pakistan does not want them [Haqqani Network] to engage in violent actions against United States or Afghanistan.”

Commenting on Pakistan-India relations, the Ambassador said, “Pakistan wants peaceful relations with India, however, these should be based on mutual respect”.

“This is our message for India to promote relations with peaceful environment” in the region, he stated.

He was of the view that whenever Pakistan and India wanted to do something in terms of relations, some terrorist activity halted the process, adding that terrorists get encouragement when India stops the process.

Khaama Press – Afghan Sikhs stop Holi celebrations to pay tribute to Kabul attack victims

Kabul, 13 March, 2017. The Afghan Sikh community has decided not to celebrate Holi this year in a bid to pay tribute to the recently deadly attacks in capital Kabul, particularly to Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan hospital victims.

The Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah hailed the Sikh community’s decision and called it a symbolic move aimed at conveying a message of empathy and humanity.

Abdullah reiterated that a lasting peace in the county can only be ensured through unity and maintaining social justice.

He said the symbolic act by the Sikh community if followed can create pluralism among different ethnic groups which will eventually lead to a lasting peace in the country.

The attack on Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan 400-Bed military hospital was carried out last week for which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group affiliates claimed responsibility.

The Afghan officials have put up the number of those killed in the attack to at least 50 dead but there are reports that the number could be much higher.

In the meantime, there are also concerns regarding the circumstances surrounding the attack as reports have emerged suggesting that the attack was carried out with an insider help.

A group of at least five militants carried out the attack that lasted for several hours before the assailants were eliminated by the security forces.

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BBC News – Afghanistan: IS gunmen dressed as medics kill 30 at Kabul military hospital

Kabul, 8 March 2017. More than 30 people have been killed after attackers dressed as doctors stormed the largest military hospital in Kabul, Afghan officials say.

Militants armed with guns and grenades gained entry after one detonated explosives at a hospital gate and then opened fire on staff and patients.

Commandos who landed on the Sardar Daud hospital roof killed all four attackers after several hours of fighting.

The so-called Islamic State (IS) group has claimed the attack.

The Taliban has denied any involvement.

More than 50 people were also wounded, the defence ministry said.

President Ashraf Ghani said the attack at the 400-bed hospital “trampled all human values”.

“In all religions, a hospital is regarded as an immune site and attacking it is attacking the whole of Afghanistan,” he said.

The attack began at 09:00 local time (04:30 GMT). One hospital staff member who was able to get out saw an attacker “wearing a white coat holding a Kalashnikov and opening fire on everyone, including the guards, patients and doctors”.

One employee wrote on Facebook: “Attackers are inside the hospital. Pray for us.”

Change of tactic: Analysis by Inayatulhaq Yasini, BBC Afghan

The hospital attack marks a change in approach by so-called Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, it’s the first time they have engaged directly with security forces in the capital.

Previously they have targeted civilian gatherings, mainly of Shia Muslims, as well as causing carnage at the Supreme Court last month.

But at the hospital they used an approach more commonly associated with the Taliban, blowing the gates open to allow gunmen to enter. This suggests they now have the resources and the military training to expand their attacks.

If that’s the case, the security forces could face more such assaults in the coming months.

In the two years since it announced its presence in Afghanistan, IS has mainly engaged with Afghan forces and more powerful, rival Taliban fighters in the east, near the Pakistan border. It has failed so far to widen its base in the country, one reason, observers suggest, it may now be mounting more headline-grabbing attacks.

The government claims it has rooted out IS militants from a number of bases in the east, but has yet to dislodge them from mountainous areas they control.

Dawn – India, Afghanistan joining hands to create unrest in Pakistan: Khawaja Asif

Defence Minister Khawaja Asif alleged in the National Assembly on Monday that India and Afghanistan have joined hands to create unrest in Pakistan.

Fahad Chaudhry

Islamabad, 6 March 2017. Responding to opposition lawmakers’ point of objection, Asif in his reply said that Pakistan is trying to implement better and more complete border management with Afghanistan.

Until there is better border management with Afghanistan, he said, the scourge of terrorism will continue to exist.

The issue of border management is one of national security, Asif said, urging lawmakers not to play politics on the matter.

“We have the right to shut the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and protect our people,” Asif claimed.

He said that the border has 25 openings from where people travel between the two countries, but Pakistan cannot let terrorists to cross into the country.

“If there will be terrorist attacks in the country and people will die by the hundreds, we will shut the border down,” he asserted.

“We gave refuge to thousands of Afghans, but we will not keep housing terrorists,” he said, adding, “The killers of our sons are sitting on Afghan soil, the government needs to take action against them.”

Discussing the matter of discrimination against Pakhtuns in the recent operations all over the country, Asif claimed, “There is no discrimination against any one ethnicity. The operation is against terrorists and terrorists do not have any religion, caste or ethnicity.”

“A number of terrorists were caught from the south of Punjab, they were not Pathans,” he concluded.

About India, the defence minister said that there had been a constant rise in India’s alleged unprovoked firing and violation of the ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control.

Asif in a written reply to the NA claimed that in the past four years, India has violated the ceasefire agreement 1,170 times along the LoC and 257 times across the Working Boundary.

The civilian death toll in the past four years has been 111 people, he said.

Dawn – Afghanistan to airlift citizens if border is not reopened within two days: Ambassador

Afghan Ambassador Omar Zakhilwal on Saturday said Pakistan does not have a justification for the continued closure of crossing points on the Pakistan-Afghan border, and that his country might send in chartered flights to airlift stranded Afghans in case the border is not reopened soon.

Naveed Siddiqui

In a message posted to his Facebook page, Zakhilwal said he had talked with Pakistan’s de facto foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz, to convey that if an opening was not allowed for the return of stranded Afghans within two days, he would ask his government to send chartered flights to lift them.

“This, however, would reflect very poorly [on Pakistan],” he added.

Zakhilwal said the argument presented by Pakistan, that the border closure is intended to stop terrorists from crossing over, does not carry any weight, as “these points such as Torkham and Spin Boldak have been manned by hundreds of military and other security personnel” and have all the necessary equipment and infrastructure in place to prevent such a possibility.

“Continuous unreasonable closure of legal Pak-Afghan trade and transit routes cannot have any other explanation except to be aimed at hurting the common Afghan people,” the envoy said in his social media post, apparently in breach of diplomatic protocol.

The envoy emphasised that the closure of crossing points hurts bilateral trade between the two countries, with Pakistan losing more as a result of the closures.

“Pakistan’s declining export share in Afghanistan is indicative of that,” Zakhilwal said.

He also said the closure is in direct contradiction to the theme, objectives and messages of the recently-held Economic Cooperation Organisation summit in Islamabad.

Afghanistan’s top envoy said he had raised the issue of at least 25,000 Afghan nationals who had been unable to return to their country due to the closure, and have not been able to return despite repeated assurances in the past few weeks.

He elaborated that he had been given assurances that a partial opening of border crossings will be allowed to facilitate his countrymen, who he claimed had come to Pakistan either for medical treatment or personal visits.

The government had decided to seal the Torkham border crossing for an indefinite period on February 16, in the aftermath of a suicide attack at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar which killed 90.

The border was ordered closed for all kinds of communication due to ‘security concerns’.

The News – Pakistan, Afghanistan to fight terror together: General Bajwa

Rawalpindi, 21 February 2017. Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa on Monday said that Pakistan and Afghanistan have fought against terrorism and shall continue this effort together.

Chairing a meeting at the GHQ, the COAS reviewed the security situation and border management along the Afghan border.

He said that enhanced security arrangements along Pakistan-Afghan border are to fight common enemy i.e. terrorists of all hue and colour.

The army chief directed for more effective border coordination and cooperation with Afghan security forces to prevent cross border movement of terrorists including all types of illegal movement.

He also welcomed recent proposals from Afghan authorities to take forward the mutual coordination or result oriented efforts against terrorism.