The News – Death in Afghanistan or bitter life in Pakistan: refugees’ choice

Peshawar-Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa-Pakistan, 10 February 2018. Death awaits you in Afghanistan, says refugee Mohammad Wali, insisting he prefers to endure a grim existence in a Pakistani camp than return home and be killed.

Islamabad has increasingly put Afghan refugees in the crosshairs in recent weeks, claiming that militants hide in Pakistani camps and calling for all refugees to be repatriated as part of a campaign to eliminate extremism.

But in Afghanistan, nearly four decades after the Soviet invasion sent the first refugees flowing over the border, the resurgent Taliban fight on, with civilians repeatedly caught in the carnage.

Days after a spate of deadly attacks killed more than 130 people, Wali, wearing a shabby coat, said a recent call to his family in the Afghan capital was filled with only dire news.

“They told me of terrible attacks and of the bombers blowing them up and nothing else,” the fruit seller said.

Pakistan hosts roughly 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, the UN says. A further 700,000 undocumented are also believed to be living in the country.

Pakistanis have long viewed them suspiciously, with police accused of harassment and extortion along with arbitrary arrests.

“Even our caps were taken here (by police),” said Wali.

In recent weeks anti-refugee rhetoric by officials has heated up again, notably as they come under increased US pressure over militant safe havens.

“Pakistan has also been stressing the need of early repatriation of Afghan refugees as their presence in Pakistan helps Afghan terrorists to melt and morph among them,” the foreign ministry said, following a suspected US drone strike in the tribal belt last month.

The official pressure coincides with a souring of public opinion toward refugees, with some Pakistanis saying Afghans have overstayed their welcome.

“Enough is enough, we served them for 40 years, shared our houses and treated them as guests,” said Peshawar resident Mehmood Khan.

The UN´s refugee agency has warned against any forcible or coerced repatriations, insisting they be voluntary.

In late January, Pakistan extended a deadline by 60 days for refugees holding proof of registration cards to leave its territory.

But as security in Afghanistan deteriorates further, refugees at an Islamabad camp said volunteers would be in short supply.

‘Nothing left’

Women carried buckets of water on their heads at the camp on the outskirts of Islamabad as young children played cricket in the dust near mud brick homes that lack electricity and clean water.

But none who spoke to AFP wanted to leave, all citing security and work as day labourers.

“There is nothing left in my homeland… only war and fighting,” said Hajji Shahzada, 60, who came to Pakistan during the Soviet invasion four decades ago.

A recent report by the Norwegian Refugee Council found that seven out of 10 Afghans who had returned after living as refugees abroad have been displaced twice, chased from place to place by the insurgency.

The findings should give nations hosting Afghan refugees pause, said NRC secretary general Jan Egeland.

“Now is not the time to deport Afghans… It can destabilise the whole region and lead to immeasurable suffering,” he said in the report.

Often the refugees end up in major urban centres such as Kabul, competing for scant resources.

Kabul, straining to manage its expanding population and feeble economy, has failed to help them, says Sher Agha, a representative for the refugees in Islamabad.

“Providing jobs and employment is another issue, but at the very least they need shelter,” he told AFP.

‘Better to live’

The conditions are so bleak that “many” returnees are sneaking back across the porous border and quietly taking up their lives in Pakistan, multiple refugees told AFP.

Abdul Malik was born an Afghan refugee in northwest Pakistan, living there for more than 40 years. But in 2016 he repatriated with his Pakistani wife and children.

They settled in a village near Jalalabad, in eastern Nangarhar province, where the Taliban and the Islamic State group have been waging a turf war.

“It was the most unpleasant experience of my life,” Malik, wrapped in a traditional Pashtun shawl, told AFP during an interview in Peshawar.

The water was contaminated, the air was polluted, there were no doctors, no clinics, no employment, nothing but “bad roads and difficult conditions”, he said, along with the constant fear of a brutal death at the hands of militants.

He lasted three months before sneaking back into Pakistan, as many other Afghan families who could afford the journey have done.

Wali, who spoke to AFP at the Islamabad camp, said he would rather endure uncertainty in a country that does not want him than return home.

“Better to live here even if we face hunger and thirst,” he explains.

“At least we will not die.”


Dawn – Success eludes second round of Pakistan-Afghan security talks

Baqir Sajjad Syed

Islamabad-Islamabad Capital Territory-Pakistan, 11 February 2018. The second round of Pakistan-Afghanistan talks on an engagement plan on peace and security issues ended on Saturday without making any headway on its key elements because the Afghan delegation felt that their priorities were not being addressed.

The two sides could not only not agree on a joint statement to sum up the two-day proceedings, but gave divergent accounts about the outcome.

The Pakistani version came through Foreign Office spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal’s 12-word tweet that essentially said more needed to be done to bridge the difference of opinion with regards to the proposed Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS).

The tweet did not even say if the two sides would meet again and possibly when.

No joint statement issued; two sides come up with divergent accounts of outcome

“Pakistan-Afghanistan talks. Two days of good discussions. Some agreements. Further work required,” Dr Faisal tweeted.

The Afghan statement, meanwhile, said: “No progress was achieved on specific, result-oriented, time-bound measures in the APAPPS, particularly in the areas of counterterrorism, reduction of violence, peace and reconciliation to meet the priorities of Afghanistan.”

The statement said that the only progress made in two rounds so far had been on the mechanism of the engagement.

Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua and Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai led their respective sides at the talks.

The APAPPS provides a blueprint for a Pakistan-Afghan engagement on counterterrorism and reduction of violence, peace and reconciliation, refugees’ repatriation and joint economic development. It is a Pakistani initiative for providing a framework for bilateral dialogue encompassing critical issues that have kept souring the ties.

The negotiations on the APAPPS had begun in Kabul last week. The two sides had on that occasion reported “some progress”, expressed the commitment to “continue their discussions to reach an agreement on the APAPPS” and fixed February 9-10 for further discussions in Islamabad.

At the start of the talks, the Foreign Office had expressed optimism about forward movement. “Engagement and dialogue is crucial for the way forward. Despite differences, it is a welcoming development that engagement between Pakistan and Afghanistan is ongoing, of which we are hopeful,” the FO spokesman had then said.

The Afghan delegation, alongside the negotiations on the APAPPS, reportedly also talked about the recent attacks in Kabul, which they allege originated from Pakistan.

Afghan officials claim that their interior minister Wais Ahmad Barmak and National Directorate of Security chief Masoom Stanekzai had in a meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on January 31 handed over a list of individuals and madressahs suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.

Dr Faisal had earlier said at a briefing that “the Afghan representatives have shared information with us during the recent visit. We will look into it and revert soon”.

A diplomatic source claimed that the impasse on the APAPPS was because Afghans were linking the investigation into Kabul attacks with any agreement on the engagement plan.

The Hindu – Tattooed ‘blue-skinned’ Hindu Pashtuns look back at their roots

Former President Hamid Karzai meets the small, forgotten Afghan ‘Sheen Khalai’ community in India on whom a film is being made

Suhasini Haidar

Jaipur-Rajastan-India, 03 February 2018. As they walk through the corridors of the exhibition, looking at photographs of themselves in traditional clothes, the women begin to sing first. At first, the tune is tentative.

Then, as more and more join in, it becomes a roaring chorus, and they clap to words of the song, ‘Sheen Khalai’, and dance the ‘Attan’ folk dance in the way they were taught seven decades ago.

‘Sheen Khalai’ (blue skin) is not just a name for these women and men, many of them well over 90 years old, it is the story of their identity, one that brings forth tears even today. They fled with their families from the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Partition in 1947.

The women are part of a community of Pashtun Hindus that lived in the Baloch areas of Quetta, Loralai, Bori and Maikhter, and belong to the Kakari tribes still living there. 1947 was a second partition for their villages, as the British-imposed Durand Line in 1893 had already given their villages to Pakistan, despite the people’s Pashtun lineage.

In 1947, they were forced out of their homes overnight. “The government told us to leave quickly and go to India. We didn’t even look back at our homes, just ran,” says Lakshmi Devi, who can’t remember her age now, but says she was a teenager then.

Like many other Hindu families from Sindh and Balochistan, Lakshmi Devi, her father and siblings were sent to resettle in the village of Unniara in Rajasthan, about 130 km south of Jaipur. But once they reached, they realised that while being Hindu brought them shelter, it didn’t bring them acceptance, given their ‘Sheen Khalai’.

“It was their blue skin, the colour of the face tattoos that women in tribal areas have, that set them apart from their neighbours, and even from the Hindu women of Pakistan,” explains Shilpi Batra Advani, a documentary filmmaker from a Pashtun Hindu family.

Ms. Advani is completing a film on the Sheen Khalai. “My own grandmother started to cover her face, and was shy around outsiders, because she feared being shunned for the tribal tattoos that were looked down upon,” she adds.

Some had trouble renting a home, others were viewed with suspicion by neighbours. “We tried to scrub and scrub, but the tattoos wouldn’t fade away,” says 103-year old Pyari Devi in Ms Advani’s film.

As a result, most found it easier to assimilate as Pakistani-Hindu women not as Pashtuns, dressed in saris and salwar suits, and spoke the local language publicly while teaching their children Pashto.

Mining memories

In her quest for information about their past, Shilpi Advani, with her mother Yashoda’s help, began work on the film about the roughly 500-600 Hindu Pushtun community members in India.

She interviewed elders for their memories, and coaxed women into pulling out old traditional tribal clothes from the bottom of their suitcases, like the ‘kakari kameez’ they would have worn in their villages. Most were frayed at the edges, but still rich with embroidery, mirror work and colourful tassels, which Ms. Advani restored.

During the course of her research, Ms. Advani spent a year and a half in Kabul and spoke to journalists about her family’s villages in Balochistan across the line.

One day, she received a video over a social media site: it was an interview with an old villager in Balochistan’s Maikhter who remembered his neighbour Prakash and his two daughters had left for India one hurried night.

The name rang a bell and Ms Advani traced back the family in Rajasthan for her film. The audience watching the interviews claps with joy at a glimpse of the village.

But the biggest joy comes from a special visitor who inaugurates the exhibition and speaks to them: former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

Ms Advani reached out to him in Kabul five years ago. “Hearing women singing these old songs is a very special experience. This was them asserting their identity, asserting that no force, or separation or partition can destroy this,” Mr Karzai told The Hindu.

The Pashtun leader, who was himself once an exile during the 1980s in Shimla, tells his listeners that he met Sikhs from the Frontier area of Mardaan. Among them was his mentor Ajaib Singh, who was equally fierce about his heritage, he says.

When asked about the status of minorities in Afghanistan today, after they were attacked and driven out by the Taliban regime in the 1990s, Mr Karzai says the Taliban was under “Pakistani influence” and doesn’t represent Afghan sentiments.

“The Afghan people want them back. Even just after I took over as President [in 2002], one of my oldest teachers told me our Hindus and Sikhs have suffered more than the Muslims of Afghanistan. He wanted me to bring them back. We had an Ambassador to Canada, and my economic advisor, from the minorities,” he says.

Ms Advani says her project is for the official recognition of her community. “This is about validation, about giving us a name after all these years of hiding our identity,” she explains.

One by one, the women and men of the Pushtun Hindu community step up to tell their stories, of how they preserved their heritage despite all the odds. “We have changed our clothes (pahnava),” nonagenarian Shanti Devi says in fluent Pashto. “But our hearts and tongues remain Pushtun.”

“We have always wondered what we are, since no one owned us,” says Leelaram, who is in his late eighties. “Are we Afghan, or Pakistani or Indian or Hindu or Pushtun?” he asks, and then to answer his own question, he adds, “Today, we have become Pushtuns again.”

They all cheer and break into another song, a happy wedding song about ‘beautiful Laila’ that they learnt when they were very young.

Here, just for this moment in the aptly named Frontier Colony in Jaipur, borders have blended, the subcontinent is not so divided and history is not so unkind to this tiny community of ‘Sheen Khalai’, as they sing these words:

Tora shpa da tora khun, sheenkhalai na da Maloom/ Tora Shpa ba khudai runya ki, sheenkhalai ba khudai paida ki

(It’s a dark night and in a dark room,/ Your Sheen Khalai has disappeared./ But the dawn will break and light will start to enter the room./ Sheen Khalai will start to glow again.)

Dawn – Afghan war turns bloodier

Zahid Hussain

Op/Ed, 31 January 2018. The latest wave of terror attacks in Kabul that has claimed dozens of civilian lives marks the bloodiest phase of the so far 16-year war with the insurgents getting more audacious.

The escalation in fighting raises questions about the new US-Afghan strategy. Not that the Afghan capital has not witnessed such high-profile terrorist attacks before, but the ferocity and the frequency of assaults is alarming.

Three attacks in a week in high-security zones indicate the increasing capacity and the organisation of the insurgents despite massive escalation in the US air strikes.

While the Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for two of the first two attacks, the militant Islamic State (IS) group reportedly carried out the third one. The insurgents have taken the war into the nation’s capital. The rising toll of civilian casualties is disturbing.

It signals a shift in insurgent strategy, from gaining territorial control to focusing more on the capital to test the mettle of the Afghan security forces. It seems that the Afghan Taliban and IS are competing when it comes to carnage in the besieged capital and other towns and cities in Afghanistan.

The chaos resulting from the violence serves the objective of these militant groups, to undermine the confidence of the Kabul administration.

It seems that the Afghan Taliban and IS are in a race to massacre the most people

Indeed, the Afghan National Army has improved its performance greatly over time, but it is still not capable of dealing with such organised terrorist attacks on its own. The frequent breach of security by the insurgents has further exposed the incapacity of the Afghan security agencies.

While the Taliban control vast swathes of territory, the increasing presence of IS in Afghanistan is extremely worrisome. The terrorist group that is fighting both Kabul and the Taliban has been responsible for several high-profile attacks in the capital over the last few months.

The terrorist group has made some inroads in eastern and northern Afghanistan. The rise of IS has brought greater devastation and caused a spike in the number of civilian casualties.

The latest surge in militant attacks has come as the relentless US air strikes have forced the Taliban to retreat from some of their strongholds in western Afghanistan. But the US military offensive has failed to contain the insurgency that has now spread to vast areas.

There has not been any cessation in the fighting, not even in the winter months. The situation is likely to get worse with the approach of the fighting season. The weakening writ of the Afghan government in the hinterland has given further impetus to the insurgents.

Predictably, the violence has evoked a strong reaction from Washington. There are clear indications that the Trump administration will intensify military action in Afghanistan. Addressing the UN Security Council members in the aftermath of the Kabul attacks, President Trump vowed to take the battle to the finish.

“What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it,” the US president declared.

Notwithstanding Trump’s tough tenor, such promises have also been made by previous US administrations in the past decade. It is hard to believe that the massive use of air strikes alone could bring this festering war to an end.

Trump has ruled out negotiations with the Taliban, at least for now. So the US administration is still pursuing an elusive military victory that it has failed to achieve in the past 16 years with more than 150,000 troops on the ground.

Some reports suggest that more American troops could be deployed after the recent insurgent attacks. That may only get the US mired deeper in Afghanistan. Even the closest of America’s Western allies are sceptical of Trump’s militaristic approach.

Not surprisingly, the surge in militant violence inside Afghanistan has increased pressure on Islamabad. Both Kabul and Washington have once again accused Pakistan of providing safe havens to militants.

They have also blamed Pakistani security agencies for facilitating those responsible for the carnage. More alarming is the growing Afghan-Indian nexus demanding tougher US action against Pakistan.

There are clear indications that the Trump administration is getting ready to tighten the screws on Pakistan further and intensify air strikes on alleged Taliban sanctuaries inside this country’s tribal region.

The recent attack on reportedly an Afghan refugee camp in Kurram Agency that has allegedly been used as a sanctuary for the Haqqani network is ominous. There is also a strong possibility of the US slapping economic and military sanctions on Pakistan and using its influence to persuade multilateral financial institutions to squeeze assistance.

Washington has already suspended military assistance to Pakistan. There could also be a move to get the country declared as a terrorist haven.

Surely such radical moves cannot succeed. Still, they would put greater diplomatic pressure on Islamabad to crack down on suspected militant sanctuaries and take action against the Taliban leadership allegedly operating from Pakistan.

It certainly presents a very serious challenge to the Pakistani leadership, almost comparable to what it had faced in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

That raises questions about Pakistan’s options and how our political and military leadership can deal with this serious situation. The prevailing political instability and absence of a chain of command has complicated our predicament.

It may be true that Pakistan is being used as a scapegoat for America’s failure to wind up the war, the longest it has ever fought. Yet the allegations of some Afghan insurgent groups taking sanctuary in our border areas cannot be refuted.

The fact that so many proscribed militant groups are operating with such impunity has weakened our case and made us extremely vulnerable to growing international pressure. We cannot hide behind a sense of victimhood.

It is not just about US pressure. It is imperative for us to clean up our home in our own national security interest.
The surge in militant violence and growing instability in Afghanistan threaten our security too. Indeed, America’s continuing reliance on the military solution and an ineffective, fragmented administration in Kabul has been the major cause of the deepening Afghan crisis.

Yet it is in our own interest that we continue to cooperate with Afghanistan and the international community to contain violence in the strife-torn country.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Dawn – Ninety-five killed as bomb-laden ambulance blows up in Kabul

Kabul-Afghanistan, 27 January 2018. An ambulance packed with explosives blew up in a crowded area of Kabul on Saturday, killing at least 95 people and wounding 158 others, officials said, in an attack claimed by the Taliban.

The explosion, one of the biggest since a truck bomb ripped through the Afghan capital’s diplomatic quarter on May 31 last year, triggered chaotic scenes as terrified people fled the area where several high-profile organisations, including the European Union, have offices.

Health ministry spokesman Waheed Majroh told AFP that the toll “now stands at 95 dead, 158 wounded”, shortly after the interior ministry warned that an earlier death toll of 63 could rise.

Members of the EU delegation in Kabul were in their “safe room” and there were no casualties, an official told AFP.

An AFP reporter saw “lots of dead and wounded” civilians in the nearby Jamhuriat hospital where overwhelmed medical staff struggled to treat bloodied men, women and children lying in corridors.

Earlier, health ministry spokesman Waheed Majroh had told AFP that the toll from Kabul hospitals stands at 40 killed and 140 wounded.

The force of the blast shook windows of buildings at least two kilometres (more than a mile) away and shattered windows within hundreds of metres of the site.

Some low-rise structures in the vicinity of the explosion also collapsed.

“The suicide bomber used an ambulance to pass through the checkpoints. He passed through the first checkpoint saying he was taking a patient to Jamhuriat hospital and at the second checkpoint he was recognised and blew his explosive-laden car,” interior ministry deputy spokesman Nasrat Rahimi told AFP.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on social media — their second deadly assault in Kabul in the span of a week.


The Italian NGO Emergency said seven dead and 70 injured had been taken to its hospital, with its coordinator Dejan Panic tweeting that it had been a “massacre”.

Outside civilians walked through debris-covered streets carrying wounded people on their backs as others loaded several bodies at a time into ambulances and private cars to take them to medical facilities around the city.

Aminullah, whose stationery shop is just metres from the site of the blast, said the force of the explosion shook the foundations of his building.

“The building shook. All our windows broke. The people are in shock in our market,” he told AFP.

Photos shared on social media purportedly of the blast showed a huge plume of smoke rising into the sky. A man told Tolo News he was passing the area when the explosion happened.

“I heard a big bang and I fainted,” he said, outside the Emergency hospital.

“There were dozens of people who were killed and wounded. There were pools of blood.” The explosion happened in a busy part of the city where the High Peace Council, which is charged with negotiating with the Taliban, has offices.

“It targeted our checkpoint. It was really huge, all our windows are broken,” Hassina Safi, a member of High Peace Council, told AFP.

“So far we don’t have any reports if any of our members are wounded or killed.” Members of the European Union’s delegation in Kabul were in their “safe room” and there were no casualties, an official told AFP.

The explosion comes exactly a week after Taliban militants stormed a luxury hotel in Kabul, killing at least 22 people, the majority foreigners.

A security alert issued to foreigners on Saturday morning had warned that the militant Islamic State group, which has terrorised the city in recent months, was planning “to conduct aggressive attacks” on supermarkets, shops and hotels frequented by foreigners.

Pakistan condemns attack

Islamabad has strongly condemned the terrorist attack in Kabul.

“We express deep grief and sorrow at the loss of precious human lives in this terrorist attack in which a number of people have also been reportedly injured,” a statement issued by the Foreign Office (FO) said.

“Pakistan reiterates its strong condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” it added. The FO also emphasised the need for concerted efforts and effective cooperation among the states to eradicate the scourge of terrorism.

Dawn – Night-long siege of Kabul hotel leaves thirty dead

Kabul-Afghanistan, 22 January 2018. Gunmen in army uniform, who stormed Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel late on Saturday and battled Afghan Special Forces through the night, killed more than 30 people and wounded many more, although the final toll might still be higher.

Wahid Majroh, a spokesman for the ministry of public health, said on Sunday that 19 bodies had been taken to hospitals, with six identified as foreigners.

However, an Afghan security official said the death toll was over 30 and might climb higher. The dead included hotel staff and guests as well as security personnel who fought the attackers. All the five attackers were also killed, interior ministry spokesman Najib Danesh said.

Pakistan condemned the attack and expressed grief over the loss of precious lives.

A statement on the website of Foreign Ministry said: “The government and the people of Pakistan convey solidarity and support with the government and people of Afghanistan at this dastardly terrorist attack. We convey our deepest sympathies for those who have lost their loved ones”.

Separately, Foreign Office spokesperson Mohammad Faisal tweeted, “We reject the knee jerk allegations by some Afghan circles to point the finger at Pakistan for the terrorist attack on intercontinental hotel in Kabul. There is need for a credible investigation into the attack, including on reported security lapses”.

“We reiterate our strong condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. In our view, cooperation among states is important for effectively combating and eliminating the scourge of terrorism,” the Pakistan foreign ministry said.

The raid was the latest in a series of attacks that have underlined the Afghan capital’s vulnerability and the ability of militants to mount high-profile operations aimed at undermining confidence in the Western-backed government.

More than 150 guests were able to flee as parts of the building caught fire, with some shimmying down sheets tied together and dropped from upper-floor windows and others rescued by Afghan forces.

Local airline Kam Air said around 40 of its pilots and air crew, many of whom are foreigners, were staying in the hotel and as many as 10 had been killed. Local media reported the dead included Venezuelans and Ukrainians.

The Taliban, who attacked the same hotel in 2011, claimed responsibility for the attack, its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

A statement from the interior ministry put the blame on the Haqqani network, a group affiliated with the Taliban that is notorious for its attacks on urban targets.

Abdul Rahman Naseri, a guest who was at the hotel for a conference, was in the hall of the hotel when he saw four gunmen dressed in army uniforms.

“They were shouting in Pashto (language), ‘Don’t leave any of them alive, good or bad’. ‘Shoot and kill them all,’ one of them shouted,” Naseri said.

“I ran to my room on the second floor. I opened the window and tried to get out using a tree but the branch broke and I fell to the ground. I hurt my back and broke a leg.”

Even after officials said the attack was over, sporadic gunshots and explosions could be heard from the site.

Thick smoke

As day broke on Sunday, thick clouds of black smoke poured from the building, an imposing 1960s structure set on a hilltop and heavily protected like most public buildings in Kabul.

The Intercontinental is one of two main luxury hotels in the city and had been due to host an information technology conference on Sunday. More than 100 IT managers and engineers were on site when the attack took place, said Ahmad Waheed, an official at the telecommunications ministry.

Danesh said a private company had taken over responsibility for security at the hotel three weeks ago and there would be an investigation into possible failings, just days after the US embassy warned of possible attacks on hotels in Kabul.

Several armoured US military vehicles with heavy machineguns could be seen close to the hotel along with Afghan police units as Special Forces manoeuvred around the site.

Hotel manager Ahmad Haris Nayab, who escaped unhurt, said the attackers had got into the main part of the hotel through a kitchen before going through the hotel, with many guests trapped in their rooms.

The senior security official said that the attackers had moved directly from the first floor to the fourth and fifth floors, suggesting the attack had been carefully prepared, possibly with inside help.

“When the sixth floor caught fire this morning, my roommate told me, either burn or escape,” said Mohammad Musa, who was hiding in his room on the top floor.

“I got a bed sheet and tied it to the balcony. I tried to come down but I was heavy and my arms were not strong enough. I fell down and injured my shoulder and leg.”

In separate incidents on Sunday, eight people were killed by a roadside bomb in the western province of Herat and 18 members of local militia forces were killed at a checkpoint in the northern province of Balkh.

The News – Pakistan rejects allegations of Haqqani network, Afghan Taliban safe havens

New York-New York-USA, 19 January 2018. Pakistan’s Ambassador to United States Aizaz Chaudhry, in an interview with BBC Urdu, has said that Pakistan wants to send Haqqani network and Taliban back to Afghanistan so they can participate in national politics there.

Aizaz Chaudhry, responding to a question regarding allegations Pakistan providing safe haven to Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, dismissed such accusations, saying if the United States has any doubt and have any information they must share with Islamabad because Pakistan itself wanted to eliminate them.

“Our position is that we want to eliminate them (terrorists); we do not want Haqqani network and Taliban on Pakistani soil. We are pressurizing them to return to Afghanistan because it is their homeland, and urging them to take part in political activities over there as their stay in Pakistan is totally unacceptable,” stated Aizaz.

He went on to state that according to the information acquired, these banned outfits have 43 percent occupation of Afghani land. Hence, it is needless that they stay in Pakistan. However, they do have close relations with some Afghan refugees in Pakistan, which is why Islamabad wants to repatriate them as well.

Aizaz Chaudhry added that the ‘Afghan refugees have now become a threat to Pakistan’s security as terrorist outfits were recruiting youth from them, therefore, Pakistan also wants repatriation of Afghan refugees besides safeguarding the border, making it difficult for miscreants to travel across it.’

Intelligence sharing with United States

In response to a question regarding the exchange of intelligence sharing with US and military cooperation, Aizaz said, ‘Both Pakistan and US are in contact with each other, including that of intelligence sharing on the working level.”

“We have to keep communication open besides cooperation on intelligence sharing which is at working level till now. Talks with officials are underway,” Aizaz revealed.

It is to be mentioned here that only a few days ago, Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir had said that the exchange of intelligence sharing and military cooperation with the United States has been suspended.

Khurram Dastgir’s statement was released from the government’s official Twitter handle, while Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Dr. Faisal, in weekly briefing, dubbed the military cooperation and the exchange of intelligence sharing as an imperative.

When asked about US’ statement against Pakistan, Aizaz expressed utter surprise. According to him, negotiations and dialogues were being carried out between the two countries for six months and the visit of two US ministers to Pakistan was part of it.

“We were discussing mutual grounds where both can work together. Now we are hoping that we can work in collaboration towards achieving mutual targets set by US for Afghanistan.”

Pakistan-US ties deteriorated when President Donald Trump tweeted Pakistan’s inability to wipe out terrorists even after taking billions of dollars as aid from America.

The Hindu – Five dead after gunmen attack Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel

The attack comes days after the USA embassy in Kabul had issued a warning about reports of extremist groups planning attacks against hotels in Kabul

Kabul-Afghanistan, 21 January 2018. Gunmen attacked Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel on Saturday, seizing hostages and exchanging gunfire with security forces as the building in the Afghan capital caught fire and residents and staff fled.

Hotel manager Ahmad Haris Nayab, who escaped unhurt, said the attackers had got into the main part of the hotel through a kitchen and people tried to get out amid bursts of gunfire.

Gunmen killed at least five people and wounded eight others in an attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, an official said today, as the eleven hours-long siege continues.

“Five are dead,” an official with the Afghan spy agency said, adding 100 hostages have been released.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest in a long series of attacks which underlined the city’s precarious situation and the ability of militants to strike blows aimed at undermining confidence in the Western-backed government.

Officials said there were as many as four attackers and at least two of them had been killed as Afghan Special Forces cleared the first floor and moved up the building, battling the raiders, who appeared to have a large supply of hand grenades.

Hours after the attack began, firing appeared to ease as security forces settled in, waiting for dawn.

According to one witness, who did not want to be named, the attackers took some hotel staff and guests hostage. He said some foreigners were among the hotel guests but it was not clear what their nationality was.

The Intercontinental Hotel, located on a hilltop and heavily protected like most public buildings in Kabul, was previously attacked by Taliban fighters in 2011.

It is one of two main luxury hotels in the city and had been due to host an information technology conference on Sunday. More than 100 IT managers and engineers were on site when the attack took place, Ahmad Waheed, an official at the telecommunications ministry, said.

USA warning

The attack came days after a United Nations Security Council visit to Kabul to allow senior representatives of member States to assess the situation in Afghanistan.

Many details of the incident were still unclear, but Interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish said a private company had taken over security about three weeks ago.

The USA embassy in Kabul had issued a warning to USA citizens on Thursday, saying, “We are aware of reports that extremist groups may be planning an attack against hotels in Kabul.”

The State Department said it was monitoring the situation and was in contact with Afghan authorities to determine whether any USA citizens had been affected.

Captain Tom Gresback, spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, said they were also watching closely but it was not clear whether international forces took part in suppressing the attack.

“Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are leading the response efforts. According to initial reports, no Resolute Support or (USA forces) members were injured in this incident,” he said in an emailed statement.

Although the NATO-led Resolute Support mission says the Taliban has come under pressure after the United States increased assistance to Afghan security forces and stepped up air strikes against insurgents, security remains precarious.

As pressure on the battlefield has increased, security officials have warned that the danger of attacks on high-profile targets in Kabul and other cities would increase.

After repeated attacks in Kabul, notably an incident last May in which a truck bomber killed at least 150 people outside the German embassy, security has been further tightened.

While it shares the same name, the hotel in Kabul is not part of InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), which issued a statement in 2011 saying that “the hotel Inter-continental in Kabul is not part of IHG and has not been since 1980″.

Dawn – $2bn in military transfers on the line after US suspends aid

Washington DC-USA, 6 January 2018. US President Donald Trump’s decision to freeze aid to Pakistan could affect almost two billion dollars’ worth of assistance, a senior administration official said on Friday, substantially more than first thought.

After an announcement designed to force Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus to cut support for the Taliban and other Islamist groups, the official said that both US military assistance and Afghanistan coalition funding to Islamabad could be suspended.

It is “approximately two billion worth of equipment and coalition support funding that is in play,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

After more than a decade of simmering US anger at links between Islamabad and the Taliban and the Haqqani network, a Taliban affiliate, President Donald Trump is trying to draw a line in the sand.

On the hook is almost $1bn of US military equipment that has allowed Pakistan access to advanced military technology, but also funding that is meant to pay Pakistan for helping get US and NATO material into Afghanistan.

Analysts believe the United States is highly unlikely to freeze all that funding, which totals $1.9bn, according to the source.

US officials have already indicated that there could be “exemptions” for programs deemed vital to US national security, likely including cash for keeping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons safe.

But nevertheless, the total figure of $1.9bn is much higher than first indicated and is a signal of Washington’s seriousness.

The senior administration official said “all options are on the table” when it comes to further moves, including stripping Pakistan of its status as a “major non-NATO ally” or calling in vital IMF loans.

The Hindu – USA suspends aid for Pakistan; officials say decision reversible

The total amount in question could exceed a billion dollars, though no official figure was provided.

Varghese K George

Washington DC-USA, 5 January 2018. The United States on Thursday said it was suspending all security assistance to Pakistan until it “takes decisive action against groups, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network.”

The announcements from State and Defence Departments followed a public condemnation of Pakistan by President Donald Trump on January 1 for sheltering terrorists.

The total amount in question could exceed a billion dollars, though no official figure was provided. The decision will delay, and perhaps eventually deny, pending payments to Pakistan under the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and the reimbursement by Pentagon for logistical support in the Afghanistan war, or the Coalition Support Fund (CSF).

U.S. civilian assistance programmes in Pakistan are not included in the suspension and exceptions may be made on a case-by-case basis if they are “determined to be critical to national security interests,” administration officials said.

The harshest measure appears to be the decision to keep the entire CSF for 2017 in suspension. Of the total $900 million CSF earmarked for 2017, $400 million is tied to a certification that Pakistan is taking adequate measures against the Haqqani Network.

Pakistan was unlikely to get that component as it has failed to get the certification since 2015. A Pentagon spokesperson said the entire $900 million for 2017 would be in suspension. In normal course, CSF disbursements are not due for several months now.

Defence and State Department officials were, however, categorical that all these measures were reversible and Pakistan could get this money if it changed its behaviour. “….this is something that I really want to reiterate: Everything that we’re talking about is reversible,” a State Department official, speaking on background, said.

Cmdr. Patrick Evans, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, said these funds “will be frozen but not cancelled.” “….as we continue to hope Pakistan will take the decisive action against terrorist and militant groups that we seek,” he said.

State Department officials said the $255 million in FMF for 2016 that has been kept in a separate account since September will remain there for now. A decision on a similar amount for 2017 is not due until September 2018. “The suspension is not a permanent cut-off at this time.

Security assistance funding impending deliveries will be frozen, but not cancelled, as we continue to hope Pakistan will take the decisive action against terrorist and militant groups that we seek. We do not intend to reprogram any funds at this time,” a State Department official said. This means that these funds could be available to Pakistan at a future date.

The announcements on Thursday appear to be rushed, in order to follow through on Mr Trump’s new year tweet. Asked during a press interaction at the Pentagon whether he was in favour of cutting off the Pakistan aid, Defence Secretary James Mattis said: “I prefer not to address that right now because it’s obviously still being formulated as policy. But I’ll give my advice on it to the President”.

Mr Mattis said he did not foresee a situation of Pakistan blocking access for American troop movement and supplies for Afghanistan. “We have had no indication of anything like that,” he said in response to a question.

The Pentagon and the State Department officials left the door open for reconciliation with Islamabad. “Pakistan remains an important country in the region and in the world, and has historically been a vital partner for the USA.

The United States acknowledges and appreciates Pakistan’s successful efforts to combat militants that threaten the Pakistani state, such as the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaida, and ISIS.

And Pakistan has sacrificed a significant amount, including tens of thousands of military and security officials, as well as civilians killed in the fight against terrorism over the last couple of years,” a State Department official said.

“They (Pakistan) deny that they provide any kind of sanctuary to the Haqqani Network or to the Taliban. And they state that their leverage over the Haqqani Network and the Taliban is very limited. We disagree.

We believe that there is significant evidence that leadership of the Haqqani Network resides inside Pakistan and is able to plan and execute from Pakistan attacks inside Afghanistan.

So the disagreement is much more about those facts than it is on our overarching goals in the strategy,” the official said, adding that the U.S. has conveyed to Pakistan specific and concrete steps that it could take toward these ends. “We will continue these conversations with the Pakistani government in private,” he said.

Joshua T White, Associate Professor of Practice, South Asia Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, who served at the Obama White House as Senior Advisor & Director for South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, told The Hindu: “This suspension will no doubt put pressure on Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves, but I am skeptical that cutting a few hundred million dollars in assistance will induce Pakistan to make significant changes to its security policy.

Today’s announcement sends a signal about the USA administration’s intent to hold Pakistan to account in the public domain. Whether it accomplishes more than that is yet to be seen.”

Mr White noted that Pakistan has long been one of the top-five recipients in the world of the USA FMF. Under the CSF, the United States has paid out well over $10 billion since 2001, he said. “In addition, there are a number of smaller pots of money that support military training, counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism cooperation, and law enforcement,” said Mr White.