Unease over US exit in Afghan valley where Soviets were routed

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Afghan police gather near the remains of Soviet-era tanks in Panjshir province, north of the capital Kabul, on February 7, 2019. (AFP / Wakil Kohsar)
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This photo taken on February 7, 2019 shows the wreckage of Soviet-era weapons next to the tomb of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the late military and political Afghan leader also known as the "Lion of Panjshir", in Saricha in Panjshir Province, north of the capital Kabul. (AFP / Wakil Kohsar)
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Afghans walk next to the remains of Soviet-era tanks along a road in Saricha of Bazarak District in Panjshir province, north of the capital Kabul, on February 7, 2019. (AFP / Wakil Kohsar)
Updated 12 February 2019

Unease over US exit in Afghan valley where Soviets were routed

  • Looming prospect of a US withdrawal and uncertainty as the Taliban takes center stage has stoked worry that history could repeat itself

PANJHIR, Afghanistan: The last time Abdul Karim saw Soviet forces he was a teenage mujahideen fighter shivering on an Afghan mountainside, clutching his Kalashnikov and wondering if winter or the Russians would bring death first.
“But then I heard (mujahideen commander) Ahmad Shah Massoud over the walkie talkie saying the Russians had withdrawn, and we could come down,” Karim told AFP in Afghanistan’s legendary Panjshir Valley, where the Red Army was bled into retreat.
It would be several more years before the Soviets left Afghanistan for good on February 15, 1989 having suffered the loss of 15,000 men — many in the unforgiving mountain passes of Panjshir.
But for Karim, peace was short-lived — Afghanistan fractured into a ruinous civil war, and the young fighter was back on the frontlines.
Thirty years later, Afghans who experienced the bloody aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal fear a repeat of that chaos as another invader — the United States — negotiates an exit from its longest war.
The parallels are not lost on veterans whose dogged resistance brought a superpower to its knees.
It was in the stronghold of Panjshir, north of Kabul, that Massoud lured the Soviets into high, narrow mountain passes where his loyal mujahideen lay in wait.
Massoud, dubbed the “The Lion of Panjshir,” is venerated not just in the valley — where his mujahideen rebuffed nine Soviet offensives — but across Afghanistan, where he is a celebrated national hero.
His death at the hands of Al-Qaeda assassins, two days before September 11, 2001, is mourned every year and is marked by an official holiday.
The road through Panjshir is punctuated by towering images of his likeness and the rusted skeletons of Soviet tanks, helicopters and heavy guns — “a graveyard of empires,” another former mujahideen, Mohammad Mirza, told AFP.
Three decades on, talk of Massoud’s military cunning — outmaneuvring tanks and fighter helicopters through ambush and attrition — still evokes immense pride from his devoted foot soldiers.
“Nine times they tried (to take the valley), and nine times they failed,” boasted another former mujahideen, who asked not to be named because he is now an Afghan police commander.
Flicking open his phone, he scrolled through grainy photographs of his younger self at a feast with fellow mujahideen after the Red Army’s capitulation.
“Of course we celebrated, like all countries celebrate their great victories,” he said, gazing wistfully at the photos.
“But always I remember those we lost. I cannot forget.”
Wali Mohammad was 14 when he joined the mujahideen. He said every anniversary was “a reminder that anyone who invades this country will face the same fate.”
But the victory was bittersweet: it failed to deliver the lasting peace that has eluded Afghanistan for four grinding decades.
“After the Russians left, we were sure peace was coming. But our neighbors, and regional powers, had their own agendas,” the 52-year-old told AFP.
Karim, today burly and with a snowy beard, was also circumspect about the mujahideen’s fabled victory, even before a crowd of admiring young Panjshiris reared on tales of their invincibility.
“We were happy that one enemy had left, but we also knew that war was not over,” Karim said, twirling prayer beads and dressed in a traditional wool ‘pakol’ hat and heavy scarf to shield him from the cold.
Overlooking a sweeping ravine, the corroded hulk of a Russian troop carrier lies semi-submerged in snow, spray-painted with a rousing slogan: “Long live Afghanistan. Death to the Taliban.”
Panjshir, with its fierce warriors and natural defenses, was largely spared the violence that plagued Afghanistan after the Soviet expulsion, and remains one of its most peaceful provinces.
But the looming prospect of a US withdrawal and Kabul riven with infighting and uncertainty as the Taliban takes center stage, has stoked worry that history could repeat itself.
Massoud’s son, Ahmad, said his father “had his doubts” about the haste of the Soviet withdrawal, fearing the country was too divided and the government too weak to keep Afghanistan together.
“He was concerned that this might actually lead Afghanistan into a greater chaos, which is exactly what happened,” 29-year-old Massoud told AFP via WhatsApp.
“He strongly believed that the Russians were leaving Afghanistan too soon.”
Graeme Smith, from the International Crisis Group, said the mujahideen understood that without a solid plan once the enemy leaves “the inferno of violence that follows might be much worse.”
“They remember the brutal civil war of the early 1990s, and they don’t want to repeat that,” he told AFP.
Sitting atop a Russian tank abandoned on the roadside, Mirza bitterly recalled the violent legacy that trailed the vanquished Soviets.
“The day they left was both a sad and happy day for us,” the softly-spoken former mujahideen said.
“Now that the US has decided to leave, we fear the same thing could happen again.”

Trump declares emergency for US-Mexico border wall, House panel launches probe

Updated 16 February 2019

Trump declares emergency for US-Mexico border wall, House panel launches probe

  • The Republican president’s move, circumventing Congress, seeks to make good on a 2016 presidential campaign pledge to build a border wall
  • Within hours, the action was challenged in a lawsuit filed on behalf of three Texas landowners

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Friday declared a national emergency in a bid to fund his promised wall at the US-Mexico border without congressional approval, an action Democrats vowed to challenge as a violation of the US Constitution.

The Republican president’s move, circumventing Congress, seeks to make good on a 2016 presidential campaign pledge to build a border wall that Trump insists is necessary to curtail illegal immigration he blames for bringing crime and drugs into the United States.

Within hours, the action was challenged in a lawsuit filed on behalf of three Texas landowners, saying that Trump’s declaration violates the US Constitution and that the planned wall would infringe on their property rights.

Both California and New York said that they, too, planned to file lawsuits.

Hours after Trump’s announcement, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee said it had launched an investigation into the emergency declaration.

In a letter to Trump, committee Democrats asked him to make available for a hearing White House and Justice Department officials involved in the action. They also requested legal documents on the decision that led to the declaration, setting a deadline of next Friday.

“We believe your declaration of an emergency shows a reckless disregard for the separation of powers and your own responsibilities under our constitutional system,” said the letter, signed by Chairman Jerrold Nadler and other top Democrats on the panel.

Trump has been demanding for a wall on the 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) southern border

Trump on Friday also signed a bipartisan government spending bill that would prevent another partial government shutdown by funding several agencies that otherwise would have closed on Saturday.

The funding bill represented a legislative defeat for him since it contains no money for his proposed wall — the focus of weeks of conflict between Trump and Democrats in Congress.

Trump made no mention of the bill in rambling comments to reporters in the White House’s Rose Garden.

He had demanded that Congress provide him with $5.7 billion in wall funding as part of legislation to fund the agencies. That triggered a historic, 35-day government shutdown in December and January that hurt the US economy and his opinion poll numbers.

By reorienting his quest for wall funding toward a legally uncertain strategy based on declaring a national emergency, Trump risks plunging into a lengthy legislative and legal battle with Democrats and dividing his fellow Republicans — many of whom expressed grave reservations on Friday about the president’s action.

Fifteen Democrats in the Republican-controlled Senate introduced legislation on Thursday to prevent Trump from invoking emergency powers to transfer funds to his wall from accounts Congress has already committed to other projects.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer swiftly responded to Trump’s declaration.

“The president’s actions clearly violate the Congress’s exclusive power of the purse, which our Founders enshrined in the Constitution,” they said in a statement. “The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities in the Congress, in the courts, and in the public, using every remedy available.”

Members of the migrant caravan that has made its way from central America to the US-Mexico border

The first legal challenge, filed in federal court in Washington, came from three Texas landowners along the Rio Grande river claiming they were informed the US government would seek to build a border wall on their properties if money for the project were available in 2019.

The lawsuit, filed on their behalf by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, also named the Frontera Audubon Society as a plaintiff whose “members’ ability to observe wildlife will be impaired” by construction of a border wall and resulting habitat damage.

The suit contests Trump’s assertion of a national emergency at the border to justify the president’s action.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, describing the supposed border crisis touted by Trump as “made-up,” and New York state’s Democratic attorney general, Letitia James, both said they planned to challenge Trump in court.

Trump acknowledged his order would face a lengthy court fight.

“I expect to be sued. I shouldn’t be sued. ... We’ll win in the Supreme Court,” he predicted.

Trump may have also undermined his administration’s argument about the urgency of the situation when he told reporters, “I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster.”

In their letter to Trump, House Judiciary Democrats said that language had left them “troubled.”

Both the House and the Senate could pass a resolution terminating the emergency by majority vote. However, any such measure would then go to Trump, who would likely veto it. Overriding the veto would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

Although Trump says a wall is needed to curb illegal immigrants and illicit drugs coming across the border, statistics show that illegal immigration via the border is at a 20-year low and that many drug shipments come through legal ports of entry.

Confronted with those statistics by reporters at the Rose Garden event, Trump said they were “wrong.”

Also present were a half-dozen women holding poster-sized pictures of family members killed by illegal immigrants. Trump noted their presence in announcing the emergency declaration.

He estimated his emergency declaration could free up as much as $8 billion to pay for part of the wall. Estimates of its total cost run as high as $23 billion.

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for the wall. It was one of his biggest applause lines at his campaign rallies. Mexico firmly refused to pay, and now Trump wants US taxpayers to cover the costs.