Posts Tagged Afghanistan
President Barack Obama launched a final push on Tuesday to persuade Congress to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but lawmakers, opposed to rehousing detainees in the United States, declared his plan a non-starter.
In White House remarks, Obama, a Democrat, pleaded with the Republican-led Congress to give his proposal a “fair hearing.” He said he did not want to pass along the issue to his successor next January.
The Pentagon plan proposes 13 potential sites on U.S. soil for the transfer of remaining detainees but does not identify the facilities or endorse a specific one.
“We’ll review President Obama’s plan,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “But since it includes bringing dangerous terrorists to facilities in U.S. communities, he should know that the bipartisan will of Congress has already been expressed against that proposal.”
Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, said Obama had yet to convince Americans that moving the prisoners to the United States was smart or safe.
Obama pledged to close the prison as a candidate for the White House in 2008. The prisoners were rounded up overseas when the United States became embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The facility in years past came to symbolize aggressive detention practices that opened the United States to allegations of torture.
“Let us go ahead and close this chapter,” Obama said.
“Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values … It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law,” he said.
Obama is considering taking unilateral executive action to close the facility, situated in a U.S. naval station in southeast Cuba, if Congress does not vote to allow transfers to the United States. Republicans oppose any executive order.
The White House has sought to buttress its argument for closing the prison by focusing on its high cost. Obama said nearly $450 million was spent last year alone to keep it running. The new plan would be cheaper, officials said.
The transfer and closure costs would be $290 million to $475 million, an administration official told reporters, while housing remaining detainees in the United States would be $65 million to $85 million less expensive than at the Cuba facility, meaning the transfer bill would be offset in 3 to 5 years.
The prison, which Obama said once held nearly 800 detainees, now houses 91 detainees. Some 35 prisoners will be transferred to other countries this year, leaving the final number below 60, officials said.
Obama noted that his predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush, transferred hundreds of prisoners out of Guantanamo and wanted to close it. Republican Senator John McCain, Obama’s 2008 presidential opponent and a former prisoner of war during U.S. involvement in Vietnam, also wanted it shut.
The plan would send detainees who have been cleared for transfer to their homelands or third countries and transfer remaining prisoners to U.S. soil to be held in maximum-security prisons. Congress has banned such transfers to the United States since 2011.
Though the Pentagon has previously noted some of the sites it surveyed for use as potential U.S. facilities, the administration wants to avoid fueling any political outcry in important swing states before the Nov. 8 presidential election.
After months of ferocious fighting, Afghan army units battling the Taliban in southern Helmand province are facing major restructuring and leadership changes, with several key commanders being replaced, a U.S. military official said.
Helmand has been a fierce battleground since last Autumn, with fighting taking place in 10 districts. At times, the insurgents have laid siege on army bases and threatened to overrun large chunks of territory. Local officials have called for help from central authorities and complained publicly over corruption that includes syphoning off salaries, food, fuel and equipment.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the head of public affairs for the U.S.-NATO mission, said that the Afghan army corps in Helmand is now being “rebuilt” and that senior officers are being replaced.
The reasons for the changes in the Afghan army’s 215 Maiwand Corps “are a combination of incompetence, corruption and ineffectiveness,” Shoffner said. The corps’ commander has been replaced, along with “some brigade commanders and some key corps staff up to full colonel level,” he said.
Helmand is a strategic region for the Taliban, as it as it shares a border of more than 250 kilometers (155 miles) with Pakistan. It grows large quantities of opium, used to produce most of the world’s heroin. The harvest is worth up to $3 billion a year, and helps fund the insurgency.
The Afghan Defense Ministry confirmed the changes in Helmand. It said veteran army Gen. Moheen Faqiri was appointed to lead the corps and took over two months ago.
Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the ministry’s spokesman, said brigade commanders have also been rotated out and replaced.
“Soon, other army units will have new commanders there,” Waziri said.
In October, a meeting of the National Security Council discussed the worsening situation on the ground. In the presence of President Ashraf Ghani and U.S. Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the NSC heard that Afghan security forces were badly led, poorly equipped and in the previous three months had suffered 900 casualties, including 300 dead.
Minutes of the Oct. 29 meeting, show that Helmand was described by the former head of the intelligence agency, Rahmatullah Nabil, as “the biggest recruiting pool for the Taliban” and the insurgents’ “primary source of revenue” from poppy for heroin and marble smuggling.
Another concern is the Afghan police who are fighting on the front-lines across Helmand, often without the equipment and backup of the army, which means casualties are higher.
Last Wednesday, Gen. Abdul Rahman Sarjang, the Helmand provincial police chief, said the Afghan security forces were “exhausted” and in dire need of reinforcements. He also said that a lack of coordination between the army and police was hampering progress in the fight.
The Taliban have made serious stands in seven Helmand districts Sangin, Gereshk, Khanashin, Musa Qala, Nawzad, Washer and Marjah and at least three districts of Lashkar Gah are also under threat, Sarjang said.
The changes in Helmand reflect that Afghanistan’s civilian and military leaders are learning the limitations of the security forces as they take on the Taliban alone following the drawdown of the international combat mission at the end of 2014. The U.S. and NATO maintain 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly in an advisory and training capacity.
In a most serious illustration of the dire battlefield situation in Helmand, the district of Sangin was besieged for weeks and in late December fears escalated that it would completely fall to the insurgents. The United States conducted airstrikes on Taliban positions, the British rushed special forces advisers to the area, and the Afghan military dropped food and ammunition to soldiers and police who were surrounded in their base.
Nabil told the NSC meeting there were about 12,000 Taliban fighters in Helmand, up to 60 percent of them from other parts of the country, evidence the insurgents had reinforced their numbers for the fight. Nabil also said Afghan forces’ morale was “extremely low” and discipline had broken down with “junior commanders openly defying their superiors.”
“Helmand is in a crisis,” Nabil told the meeting.
Shoffner, the U.S. general, said troops had been moved from other parts of the country to reinforce Helmand and that strategies have to change.
The notion that there is a “fighting season is outdated,” he said, as the Taliban offensives which in the past occurred in the warmer, summer months have escalated even in colder weather.
Afghan authorities do not release the casualty tolls for their combat forces. In 2014 that figure was estimated to have been about 5,000.
Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour has been seriously wounded in Pakistan in a shootout between senior members of the Islamist movement, Taliban sources said on Wednesday, but the group’s main spokesman dismissed their report as “baseless”.
The conflicting accounts deepen the confusion over the already opaque leadership situation in the Taliban following the death of the movement’s founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and cloud prospects for any resumption of stalled peace talks.
Two Taliban commanders said Mansour, whose authority is disputed by rival factions in the Islamist movement, was wounded when fighting broke out over strategic issues in the house of a senior Taliban leader called Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi outside Quetta in western Pakistan.
“During the discussion, some senior people developed differences and they opened fire on each other,” one of the commanders said.
He said five senior Taliban members had died on the spot and more than a dozen, including Mullah Mansour, had suffered serious bullet injuries. Mansour was being treated in a private hospital after being hit four times by bullets from an AK-47 assault rifle, the Taliban commander said.
However, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the incident ever took place and said Mansour was in Afghanistan.
“This is a rumor which is completely baseless. Akthar Mohammad Mansour is totally fine and nothing has happened to him,” he told Reuters.
“This is the act of Afghan intelligence agencies. They spread these rumors about a clash between Taliban leaders. Nothing happened like this even in that area”.
The Taliban has faced serious internal divisions since it was confirmed in July that Mullah Omar had actually died two years earlier.
Mansour, Mullah Omar’s longtime deputy, was immediately named leader but some sections of the Islamist group quickly rejected his claim, accusing him of covering up Omar’s death and saying that Pakistan had steered his appointment.
His grip on the leadership appeared to have been tightened by the capture of the northern city of Kunduz in late September, which insurgents held for several days before government forces could regain control.
What the latest incident may mean for the Afghan peace process remains unclear for now.
There were varying accounts of exactly what may have happened in the incident, with some sources saying it took place in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar near the border with Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
According to the first Taliban commander, the meeting on Tuesday was to discuss the future of any peace talks with the United States and the Kabul government as well as the strategy for dealing with a rival splinter group headed by Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund, which rejects Mansour’s authority.
A second source said the dispute had broken out over ways of dealing with the rival faction, following heavy fighting in the southeastern province of Zabul last month in which dozens of people were killed.
“We have no access to Mullah Mansour after the incident last night. We have been hearing that he had succumbed to his injuries but we can neither confirm nor deny it,” said the second Taliban commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said this week that he was ready to talk to Taliban members but he cautioned that since the death of Mullah Omar there was “no such thing as the Taliban There are groups of Taliban…”
According to some officials in the Kabul government, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, a senior commander in the group that opposes Mansour, was killed in last month’s fighting, although the claim has been denied by a spokesman for his faction.
The notorious 77-year-old strongman, who has ruled Uzbekistan for a quarter century since its independence, met Kerry at the airport in thick fog.
The leaders then headed into the city to a conference centre in the sprawling grounds of the monumental presidential residence complex for closed-door talks.
According to the US State Department’s own 2014 human rights report, Uzbekistan’s electoral system is rigged and torture and corruption run rampant.
In more colourful language, a leaked 2010 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks branded Karimov’s realm “a nightmarish world of rampant corruption, organised crime, forced labour in the cotton fields and torture.”
Kerry, who on Saturday had a difficult discussion on human rights with his Kyrgyz counterpart, has said he will not shy away from criticising his hosts on his tour.
But he has also made it clear that Washington is ready to maintain and improve its diplomatic ties in the region despite its concerns.
Samarkand, an ancient centre of Islamic learning, was to be the backdrop to the first ministers’ meeting between the United States and all five Central Asian powers.
Diplomats hope the new format bearing the less than exotic name of “C5+1” will become an ongoing forum for cooperation between Washington and the “‘Stans”.
Kerry and the foreign ministers from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan met and ate a working lunch before visiting the historic city.
Washington was among the first foreign capitals to recognise the independence of the Central Asian republics a quarter-century ago when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Since then, Central Asia has tried to maintain a balance between its relations with former master Moscow, rising economic partner China and the United States.
At the height of hostilities in neighbouring Afghanistan, NATO’s war machine maintained important logistics centres in the region, but these have now been closed.
Instead, a newly assertive Russia and a China keen to invest in trade and infrastructure have gained diplomatic ground, with the United States somewhat on the sidelines.
But US and Central Asian officials argue the republics’ relationship with Washington gives them leverage to assert their own agenda in the face of their bigger neighbours.
Kerry is part-way through his first tour of all five of the countries, and has come promising investment in education and cooperation on security threats.
Father-of-four Shaker Aamer had been detained at the US military jail in Cuba since 2002 without trial.
He was cleared for release at the end of last month, but Mr Aamer’s wife Zin and four children, one of whom he has never met, have been waiting for his return.
His release was confirmed by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond this morning.
Andy Worthington, co-director of the We Stand With Shaker campaign, said he had informed by Mr Aamer’s lawyer that he is due to return to the UK today.
He said: ‘We’re delighted to hear that his long and unacceptable ordeal has come to an end.
‘We hope he won’t be detained by the British authorities on his return and gets the psychological and medical care that he needs to be able to resume his life with his family in London.’
Other reports suggested he was already on a flight back home.
Human rights charity Reprieve wrote on Twitter: ‘Looks like a plane has left Guantanamo Bay, bound for London.’
But a spokesman for Reprieve said it had no confirmation of Mr Aamer’s release and it would not receive advance warning.
Mr Aamer, 46, says he was working as a charity worker in Afghanistan when he was kidnapped and handed over to US forces in 2001.
During his time in captivity, his lawyers said he was subjected to torture, with beatings and sleep deprivation, and held in solitary confinement for 360 days.
In 2005, he lost half his body weight during a hunger strike.
His family, MPs and actors Mark Rylance and Maxine Peake have also taken part in a 24-hour fast to show their support. Mr Aamer said he cried when he read about the protests.
He was described in US military files obtained by the WikiLeaks website as a ‘close associate of Osama bin Laden’ who fought in the battle of Tora Bora.
However in 2007 the allegations against him were dropped and he was cleared for release.
Despite a formal request by then foreign secretary David Miliband, American authorities refused to allow him to go.
In letters, Mr Aamer said he was not sure if he would know how to respond to his name after being referred to as 239 – his prison number – for more than a decade.
Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen said: ‘After so many twists and turns in this appalling case, we won’t really believe that Shaker Aamer is actually being returned to the UK until his plane touches down on British soil.
‘We should remember what a terrible travesty of justice this case has been, and that having been held in intolerable circumstances for nearly 14 years Mr Aamer will need to time to readjust to his freedom.’
In a letter to Mr Aamer’s US lawyer earlier this month, Clive Stafford Smith, Mr Hammond said he ‘greatly welcomed’ the decision to release his client.
It was claimed Mr Aamer’s release was delayed to appease US politicians visiting the camp.
Three Republican Senators visited the camp on a ‘fact-finding’ mission.
Asked about the timescale, Mr Hammond said: ‘As you know, the US authorities have now informed us that they have decided to return Shaker Aamer to the UK.
‘We greatly welcome this decision. The US government has notified Congress and once that notice period has concluded, Mr Aamer will return to the UK.
‘In the meantime we will continue to work closely with the US administration on arrangements for Mr Aamer’s return.’
Speaking about the delays earlier this week, Mr Stafford Smith, who is also Director of pressure group Reprieve, said: ‘Sadly, as we have said all along, it looks like those who don’t want Shaker released are dragging their feet.
‘We want to thank all those who have been committed to helping Shaker, but we must all continue to press the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to do as they promised.
‘Surely 14 years of abuse is enough every additional day is an additional insult to justice. He has to come home now, and his family must be put out of their eternal misery.’
Downing Street has refused to comment on the timing of Mr Aamer’s release.
But the PM’s spokesman said earlier this week: ‘We have been working with the US to make sure the case is dealt with as quickly as possible.’
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is pinning his presidential run on his foreign policy credentials, knocked GOP front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson’s approach as “bizarre” and nonsensical after the pair discussed the 9/11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan.
After slamming their “incoherent foreign policy ‘plans'” Sunday on Twitter, Graham said Monday on Fox News that Trump and Carson “don’t understand the war” in Afghanistan and said the pair need to “get some good sound advice.”
“Hillary Clinton will mop the floor with these guys if the response of our two leading candidates for president is that after 9/11 they would not have gone into Afghanistan to take the Taliban down,” Graham said.
Both Carson and Trump have been critical of then-President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks, with Trump calling the decision a “terrible mistake” and Carson suggesting Sunday that “drones,” “intelligence” and “things of that nature” would have sufficed in Afghanistan as a response to the attacks.
Carson also said Sunday that declaring energy independence in the wake of 9/11 attacks would have prompted the Saudis to capture Osama bin Laden, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia had long since viewed bin Laden as an enemy.
He said he “certainly” doesn’t believe Bush was responsible for the attacks, but said he also didn’t believe Trump was blaming the former president.
Trump and Graham have repeatedly sparred on the campaign trail, and the South Carolinian continues to remain at the bottom of the polls.
Graham on Monday knocked Trump’s assertion that tougher immigration laws would have prevented the 9/11 attacks given that the hijackers entered the U.S. legally and pressed Trump for specifics on how he would have handled the aftermath of the attacks.
Graham, who would send American ground troops into Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS, said Monday that Trump’s “hands-off” vision of foreign policy “makes no sense to me.”
“If we don’t destroy ISIL…they’re going to hit us here,” Graham said.
Taliban fighters were holding out against Afghan troops in Kunduz on Friday, a day after government forces recaptured most of the northern city that had fallen to the militants in their biggest victory of a 14-year insurgency.
In Jalalabad in the east of the country, a U.S. military transport plane crashed at an airfield just after midnight, killing all 11 people on board, the U.S. military said.
The Taliban said it had shot down the aircraft, but the U.S. military, which still has several thousands troops in Afghanistan after NATO’s combat mission ended, said there were no reports of enemy fire and described the crash as an accident.
In Badakhsan province in Afghanistan’s northeast, the Taliban took control of Warduj district late on Thursday after heavy fighting, according to Nawid Forotan, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
Residents in Kunduz, a strategic city of 300,000 that fell to the Taliban in a stunning pre-dawn attack on Monday, said that while most Taliban fighters had fled, some were holed up in civilian homes fighting the army.
Ahmad Sahil, a producer for local Afghan television in the city, said many people were still too afraid to leave their houses.
“The Taliban who knew Kunduz left the city already, but many foreign fighters could not flee and are hiding in people’s homes in some parts of the city centre and are still resisting,” Sahil said on Friday.
Hamdullah Danishi, acting governor of Kunduz province, described the capital as calm, and said there was “no major fighting”.
He acknowledged, however, that the insurgents had not been completely driven from Kunduz.”Taliban are still in civilian houses and buildings,” Danishi said. “They are using civilians as human shields.”
In a worrying sign for government forces struggling to contain a growing militant threat, the Taliban made territorial gains elsewhere in the country, although on a smaller scale than the brief seizure of Kunduz.
“Our forces did not get reinforcements on time,” Forotan said of the loss of Warduj district in Badakhshan. “Taliban were in big numbers, therefore our forces retreated.”Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said militants killed 50 soldiers and gained control of 28 checkposts in a district of Badakhshan province that has been fought over for years.
It occupies a strategic position along a highway to the border with Tajikistan and also shares a border with China and Pakistan.
The attack started when Taliban militants raided checkpoints in several villages, overrunning reinforcements and seizing control late in the afternoon, according to a government report. The police headquarters in Warduj fell at around 6 p.m. it said.
At least two police were killed in the battle, while three others were reported missing.