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.

Dawn – Army wants joint anti-terror fight with Afghanistan

Baqir Sajjad Syed

Islamabad, 21 February 2017. After days of talking tough on Afghanistan in the aftermath of recent militant attacks, the Pakistan Army on Monday spoke about fighting terrorism jointly with Afghanistan.

The change in mood at the military headquarters coincided with the receipt of a demarche from the Afghan foreign ministry demanding arrest and handover of 85 leaders of Taliban, Haqqani Network and other terrorist groups and action against 32 alleged terrorist training centres, besides a warning that continued violence would push Kabul to seek international sanctions against “terrorist groups and their supporters”.

The Afghan demands came after Pakistan handed over a similar list of 76 Pakistani terrorists based in Afghanistan.

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), in a statement issued after what was described as a ‘high-level security meeting at GHQ’ chaired by Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, said: “Pakistan and Afghanistan have fought against terrorism and shall continue this effort together”.

Kabul says it has delivered a list of 32 terror camps on Pakistani soil

The comments clearly contrasted with the earlier tone which bordered on unilateralism. The military had soon after the suicide attack at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan closed down border crossings with Afghanistan and the troops pounded ‘terrorist targets’ along the border.

General Bajwa had himself told US commander in Afghanistan General Nicholson that the Afghan government’s inaction against terrorists was testing Pakistan’s policy of cross-border restraint.

Media reports also said that Pakistan had sent reinforcements to the border and deployed heavy armaments.

ISPR quoted General Bajwa as explaining at the meeting that “enhanced security arrangements along Pakistan – Afghan border were for fighting common enemy”. He also repeated the oft-mentioned refrain of targeting “terrorists of all hue and colour”.

General Bajwa issued directives for cooperation with Afghan forces in checking “illegal movements” and welcomed Afghan proposal for cooperation against terrorism.

Responding to Pakistan’s demand for action against 76 terrorists who have taken up sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the Afghan presidency had reminded Islamabad of an agreement reached during Quadrilateral Coordination Group talks about fighting terror and sought its implementation.

Meanwhile, the Afghan foreign ministry said it hoped to cooperatively work with Islamabad against terrorism under the Quadri­lateral framework that also included the United States and China.

It said it delivered a list of 85 Taliban and Haqqani Network leaders and 32 terror camps on Pakistani soil, which it claimed were involved in “crimes against people of Afghanistan”.

It said Pakistan had positively received the Afghan lists and expected that action would be taken against people and facilities of concern to it.

Alluding to Pakistan’s support for relaxation of UN sanctions against Taliban, the Afghan foreign ministry said it would push for further sanctions against “terror groups and their supporters” through the UN and other international fora.

In the meantime, Afghan defence ministry has described Pakistani shelling of the border areas as an “act of aggression” and called for resolution of the issue through “diplomatic means”.

Dawn – TTP provides core fighting group for IS: US general

Anwar Iqbal

Washington, 13 February 2017. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan provides the core fighting group for the militant Islamic State (IS) group as TTP militants in Orakzai tribal agency en masse joined the relatively new terrorist group, says a top US general.

General John Nicholson Jr, the commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan, also agreed with a lawmaker that Pakistan’s strong relationship with China and its growing ties with Russia were a cause of concern for the United States.

The general, who commands over 13,000 international troops, 8,400 of them American, appeared before the US Senate Armed Services Committee this week to brief American lawmakers on the current situation in Afghanistan.

He told the panel that the IS, which in Afghanistan was called the Islam State Khorasan Province, comprised fighters mainly from existing militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Primarily, their membership had come from the TTP, which was a Pakistan-based opponent of the Pakistan regime, he said.

The general said TTP militants in Orakzai tribal agency had, en masse, joined the IS-K and formed the initial group of fighters who then moved into Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, spreading out to about 11 districts initially.

“So, the majority of the fighters in the IS right now came from the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, and joined the banner of the IS,” he added.

General Nicholson agreed with Senator Angus King, a Maine Democrat, that the Pakistan-Afghan region was a fertile ground for terrorism.

“The conditions in this region also lend themselves to the growth of these organisations. These 20 groups sit on top of a population, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, of over 200 million people, 70 per cent of them are under the age of 30. You know, employment is low, there is radical form of Islam,” he said.

“It’s like a Petri dish… into which you drop the 20 strands of DNA of these terrorist groups. And then what we see happening is convergence and growth in connections develop these.”

General Nicholson noted that of the 98 US-designated terrorist groups across the globe, 20 operated in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, along with three violent extremist organisations.

“This is the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world, which underscores the importance of our counter-terrorism platform in the Central Asia-South Asia region which protects our homeland,” he said.

General Nicholson told the committee that the war in Afghanistan had come to a “stalemate” but could be won by providing better training and equipment to Afghan national forces.

To do so, he asked for “a few thousands” more troops and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters for Afghan air force, which he said was a vital component to breaking the stalemate between Afghan and Taliban forces.

The US government is already considering a proposal to replace Afghanistan’s current fleet of Russian Mi-17s with modified UH-60 Blackhawks, designed to handle the region’s formidable mountainous terrain.

Throughout the hours-long hearing, General Nicholson, as well as some senators, insisted that the war in Afghanistan could not be won without Pakistan’s support, but the general emphasised the need to work with Pakistan to eliminate alleged militant safe havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, instead of antagonising it by cutting off US economic and military assistance.

Senator John McCain, who chairs the committee, set the tone of the discussion in his opening statement that “succeeding in Afghanistan will also require a candid evaluation of America’s relationship with Pakistan”.

General Nicholson said he was also concerned about the influence in Afghanistan of certain external actors, particularly Pakistan, Russia and Iran, who “continue to legitimise and support the Taliban”.

These external actors were also undermining the Afghan government’s efforts to create a stable Afghanistan, he added. Yet, he warned against a knee-jerk reaction in this situation, particularly against Pakistan. “Our complex relationship with Pakistan is best assessed through a holistic review,” he said.

The general noted that the Pakistani leadership had articulated its support for the US objective of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan, “but thus far we have not seen this translate into any change in terms of behaviour”.

This lack of support was also visible in the freedom of action given to Taliban or the Haqqani Network to operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan, he said.

Dawn – Russia getting into Afghan act

Zahid Hussain

Op/Ed, 4 January 2017. The gathering in Moscow last week, the third in the series of consultations between Russia, China and Pakistan, underlines growing concern about the spillover effect of the Afghan crisis in the region. The initiative is the latest example of Russian assertion of its diplomatic power amidst growing frustration over the American failure to deliver peace in Afghanistan.

An underlying cause of anxiety is the growing threat of the militant Islamic State group spreading its tentacles in the war-torn country. But it is still unclear whether the new alliance will be able to help reach a negotiated political solution to the Afghan conflict.

Although the Kabul government has now been invited for the next round of talks, its exclusion from the earlier meetings cast a shadow over the process.

Not surprisingly, the United States was not invited to the Moscow initiated process. It is, however, premature to assume that the new nexus could replace the quadrilateral forum that included the US along with Pakistan, China and Afghanistan.

The quadrilateral talks have been suspended for almost one year after the collapse of efforts to bring the Afghan Taliban insurgents to the negotiating table. The killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Taliban chief, in a CIA drone strike last May has further diminished hopes for the talks to resume.

It is quite apparent that no peace effort could succeed without the tacit support, if not active participation, of the USA, which still has about 10,000 troops involved in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. Things have become more complicated with the political transition in Washington.

Like other foreign policy issues, there is complete confusion over the Afghan policy in the soon-to-be installed Trump administration. Moscow’s initiative to build a regional alliance against IS points to a changing geo-political landscape.

That has perhaps compelled the three countries to find a regional solution to the Afghan crisis that directly affects their own security. It remains to be seen whether the Kabul government accepts the invitation to join the forum and whether it is willing to show some flexibility in its approach on the peace talks.

The Moscow trilateral meeting has called for lifting of the travel ban on the insurgent leaders, one of the major demands that the Taliban had presented as a precondition for talks with the Kabul government. The Taliban are obviously pleased by the Moscow meeting endorsing its demand. But lifting of the ban requires US consent.

China has for some time now been actively involved in the Afghan peace efforts, being a major investor in mining and infrastructure development projects in that country.

Its good relations with both the Kabul government and the Taliban have helped Beijing facilitate a few rounds of informal talks between the two warring sides. Beijing has also been gravely concerned about the increasing instability in Afghanistan and recent reports of growing IS activity in the country.

Although Russia may not be a fresh entrant on the Afghan scene, its initiative to build a regional alliance to counter the IS threat points to a new alignment of forces in a changing geo-political landscape.

Interestingly, the meeting on Afghanistan followed another set of trilateral talks in Moscow that included Turkey and Iran on the settlement of Syrian crisis.

The US was excluded from that meeting too, indicating that Moscow is taking a lead in settling the Syrian and Afghan crises, thereby considerably altering the balance of power in the international arena.

This Russian assertiveness seems to be driven by the Obama administration’s inaction and in anticipation of expected changes in US foreign policy under the incoming Trump administration.

Though the US president-elect has openly castigated the Obama administration’s approach on Syria and Afghanistan, there is no clarity on future US policy, especially on Afghanistan.

That has also provided Moscow an opportunity to alter the current negotiating format and try to break the persisting deadlock in the diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the Afghan conflict.

Indeed there is also serious concern among the three countries over the deteriorating situation in the proximity of their borders. Last year was the bloodiest in Afghanistan with the Taliban intensifying their attacks considerably.

What has been more perturbing, however, is the expanding footprint of IS, apparent in several terrorist attacks in Afghanistan that took a huge toll on the civilian population.

Moreover, the increasing activities of the group in northern Afghanistan, close to the borders of the Central Asian countries, are particularly alarming for Russia.

There is also growing fear in Moscow of IS making inroads in the Muslim population, especially as the Chechens form one of the largest foreign contingents in the IS war in Iraq and Syria. That has also been a reason for Russia to establish contacts with the Afghan Taliban who have been fighting IS.

Both China and Pakistan share Moscow’s concerns and hence have decided to join the new regional alignment. Islamabad particularly sees some hope of the new regional format being in a better position to persuade the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

However, it will certainly not be easy to make a breakthrough given the complexities involving the problem. Most importantly, it requires some serious efforts to remove the reservations of the Kabul government over the new format that involves Pakistan.

Moreover, there is no unanimity within the fractious Afghan administration, even on the issue of negotiations with the Taliban.

There is also a question mark over the Taliban agreeing to formally sit across the table with the Kabul government without any preconditions, particularly at a time when they have achieved significant success in the battlefield.

According to some reports, the Afghan officials have informally met the representatives of the Taliban’s Qatar office. But formal peace talks are a completely different ballgame.

To bring the Afghan peace process out of the deep freeze, it is most important to end the frosty relations between Islamabad and Kabul.

There has been some breaking of the ice with the recent telephonic contact between Afghan leaders and Pakistan’s new army chief. But is this enough to clear the huge wall of distrust between the two countries?

The writer is an author and journalist – Afghanistan’s Sikh & Hindu minorities demand probe into Sikh killing

Kunduz, Afghanistan, 1 January 2017. Sikh and Hindu communities in Afghanistan have demanded authorities investigate attacks against members of their communities, after a local Sikh community leader was shot dead in the northern city of Kunduz.

Narmang Singh, a shopkeeker also known as Dilsoz, was killed by gunmen on his way to work on December 29, the second deadly attack against members of the Sikh community in Afghanistan since September.

Senator Anarkali Honaryar, who represents the Hindu and Sikh minorities in the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament, says the attack has deeply affected the communities.

“The incident has left a serious negative psychological impact on the Hindus and Sikhs. We urge authorities to investigate this incident as well as past attacks against the Hindus and Sikhs,” Honaryar told RFE/RL on December 30.

Police in Kunduz say three suspects were arrested in connection with Singh’s killing.

On September 30, a Sikh man was abducted from his home and shot dead by suspected militants in the eastern city of Jalalabad. The killing sparked protests by the Sikh community.

A vast majority of Afghanistan’s Hindus and Sikhs, who were estimated to number around 220,000 in the 1980s, have left the conflict-torn country in the past three decades.

TOLO News – Unknown gunmen kill head of Sikh community in Kunduz

The shooting sparked an outcry on social media on Thursday with hundreds of people condemning the incident and sending condolences to his family.

Faridullah Hussainkhail

Kunduz, 30 December 2016. Lala Del Souz, the head of the Sikh community in Kunduz city, was killed by unknown gunmen Thursday morning, officials confirmed.

Del Souz, a naturopath, was gunned down at about 9am in the Haji Gulistan Kochi Haman area of the city.

He had reportedly been on his way to his shop when the shooting occurred.

According to relatives of the deceased, he had been shot five years ago but survived the attack.

Kunduz security chief Masoum Stanikzai confirmed the incident and said police have arrested three suspects. Investigations will however continue, he said.

The head of Kunduz regional hospital, Naeem Mangal, also confirmed the death of Del Souz and said he died from his injuries while being taken to hospital.

Del Souz’s uncle, Prem, said the deceased had been well liked and had no enemies.

The shooting meanwhile, sparked an outcry on social media on Thursday with hundreds of people condemning the incident and sending condolences to his family.

Prem, however called on government to thoroughly investigate the incident and make sure those responsible are brought to justice. He said if this does not happen, the few remaining Sikhs will sell up and leave the province.

Following the collapse of Kunduz, on two occasions in just over a year, many Sikhs left the province. Currently only three families are still there.

Sikhs have lived in Kunduz for over thirty years and at one time there were as many as 40 families in the area.

After the collapse of Kunduz city last year, Del Souz apparently moved his family to India. He stayed on in Kunduz and lived with his uncle, Prem, in their Dharamsal (a Sikh’s temple).

Close to 99 percent of Hindu and Sikh in Afghanistan have left the country over the past three decades.

An investigation by TOLOnews in June found that the Sikh and Hindu population numbered 220,000 in the 1980’s.

That number dropped sharply to 15,000 when the mujahideen was in power during the 1990’s and remained at that level during the Taliban regime. It is now estimated that only 1,350 Hindus and Sikhs remain in the country.

The survey also found that where Hindus and Sikhs were once very active in the business sector within the country, they are now faced with increasing poverty.

Hindus and Sikhs suffered huge setbacks after the Taliban regime collapsed in 2001. This forced a large number of them to leave rural areas and move to Kabul in order to make a living.