Afghan govt frees Taliban prisoners as truce holds for second day

Newly freed Taliban prisoners line up at Bagram prison, north of Kabul, Afghanistan April 11, 2020. Picture taken April 11, 2020. (National Security Council of Afghanistan/Handout via REUTERS)
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Updated 26 May 2020

Afghan govt frees Taliban prisoners as truce holds for second day

  • Ashraf Ghani says his administration is also ready to hold peace talks with the Taliban
  • The Afghan government and the Taliban reached a surprise three-day truce for Eid al-Fitr

KABUL: Afghan authorities released 100 Taliban prisoners Monday as part of the government's response to a surprise, three-day ceasefire the insurgents called to mark the Eid al-Fitr festival.
The pause in fighting, only the second of its kind in Afghanistan's nearly 19-year-old war, was for the most part holding across the country on day two after the government welcomed the truce by announcing plans to release up to 2,000 Taliban inmates.
President Ashraf Ghani said his administration was also ready to hold peace talks with the Taliban, seen as key to ending the war in the impoverished country.
"The government of Afghanistan has today released 100 Taliban prisoners from Bagram prison," National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal told AFP.
He said the prisoner release was to "help the peace process" and will continue until 2,000 prisoners are freed.
Faisal said the authorities plan to release insurgent prisoners in batches of 100 daily.
"We hope this will eventually lead to a lasting peace that the people of Afghanistan so much desire and deserve," he said.
The current ceasefire is the first initiated by the Taliban. The only other comparable pause came over Eid in 2018, and was first offered by Ghani.
In the northern city of Kunduz, which the Taliban attacked just days ago, calm prevailed as residents celebrated Eid at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
"Just two days ago panic had set in the city," said Atiqullah, a shopkeeper from Kunduz.
"Today, you go out and feel as if there is no more fighting. People are actually celebrating Eid."
The normally restive southern province of Uruzgan was also calm, police said.
"There was non-stop fighting every single day, but since the ceasefire was announced not a single shot has been fired," said Haji Lal Agha, the provincial police chief.
"It is especially good for the residents of Trinkot who would hear the sound of gunfire every day," he added, referring to the provincial capital.
There were no reports of fighting from Kandahar, once a bastion for the Taliban, and the southeast province of Khost was also peaceful, police said.
But a roadside bomb struck a vehicle carrying a family in Kandahar, killing three children and their mother, police said.
And the Taliban said they repelled an attack by government forces in Badakshan province in which three policemen were killed.
"There have been some minor security incidents today," interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian said.
"In general, there has been no major violation of the ceasefire today."
He said earlier that authorities were also investigating a mortar attack a day before in Laghman province that killed five civilians.
Violence had escalated since the Taliban signed a deal with Washington in February to withdraw all US forces from the country by next year.
The agreement also set the stage for intra-Afghan peace talks and stipulated that the government would first release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the militants would free about 1,000 national security personnel.
Before Sunday's announcement to free up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners as a "goodwill gesture", Kabul had already released about 1,000 Taliban inmates while the insurgents had freed about 300 Afghan security force captives.
The Taliban insist Kabul must release all 5,000 members as agreed in the deal with the US.
"This process should be completed in order to remove hurdles in the way of commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has welcomed the ceasefire, but insists the freed Taliban prisoners should not return to the battlefield.


In 2020, homegrown US disinformation surpasses Russian effort

Updated 26 October 2020

In 2020, homegrown US disinformation surpasses Russian effort

  • Special counsel Robert Mueller's probe detailed Moscow’s disinformation campaign showed bias for Trump and antipathy toward Hillary Clinton in 2016
  • In this election, the disinformation campaign claims that Trump is locked in a struggle with Democratic and Hollywood elites who practice child sex trafficking and cannibalism

WASHINGTON: Russia’s coordinated effort to nudge Americans toward voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election caught social media companies flat-footed and remains a stain on the reputation of Facebook in particular.
Four years later, the FBI and other American security officials — aware of interference but silent last time — are warning that Russia and Iran are meddling.
But Russia’s actions — special counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailed the Kremlin’s bias for Trump and antipathy toward Hillary Clinton in 2016 — and those of other countries are only part of the disinformation problem.
Americans are now playing the leading role, posting the bulk of false or misleading comments, memes, photographs and videos that are spread with the ease and speed of online distribution. And there are signs that it is out of control.
“What the Russians did in 2016 was show a toolkit, where you could use deceptive actors online working in coordination with each other as a political tool,” Joshua Tucker, a professor of politics and expert on data science and social media at New York University, told AFP.
“There’s been a fixation on foreign interference, but the people who really have an incentive to influence the outcome of an election are people who live in that country — Americans.”
Facebook’s latest report about inauthentic behavior confirms the trend.

Sowing political discord
In the first week of October alone it took down 200 Facebook accounts, 55 Pages and 77 Instagram accounts that originated in the US.
Copying the Russian tactics of 2016, the operators used stock profile photos and posed as right-leaning individuals across the United States. Some of the removed accounts were older, and had pretended to be left-leaning individuals around the 2018 US congressional elections.
The overall effect was to sow political discord and undermine faith in the democratic process, just as Mueller’s report last year said was Russia’s overarching and continuing aim.
The most egregious example disclosed by Facebook involved a US marketing firm that used teenagers in Arizona to post comments that were either pro-Trump or sympathetic to conservative causes, while also criticizing 2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Research undertaken by Tucker and his colleagues shows that political partisanship — heightened by social media algorithms that drive users to one side of a story — means neither liberals or conservatives are good at sorting fact from fiction when challenged.
As part of a third-party fact-checking relationship with Facebook, AFP has flagged thousands of false or misleading posts in the US. Some had been shared hundreds of thousands of times. User feedback shows that even verified facts are not accepted when they go against partisan political belief.
Twitter is also removing impostor content. One such account featuring the image of a Black police officer, Trump and the slogan “VOTE REPUBLICAN” gained 24,000 followers earlier this month despite tweeting only eight times.
Its most popular tweet was liked 75,000 times before the account was removed for breaking the platform’s rules against manipulation.
But social media researchers say the detection of such accounts are the exception rather than the norm.

QAnon conspiracy theory
Professor Russell Muirhead, co-author of “A Lot Of People Are Saying,” a title that plays on words often used by Trump to promote unproven theories, said US disinformation has evolved rapidly since 2016.
Referring to Pizzagate, the false claim that top Democrats ran a child sex trafficking ring from a Washington, DC pizza restaurant, Muirhead said political debate has been poisoned.
“This story, with no basis whatsoever, purports to show Hillary Clinton as a concentration of pure evil,” said Muirhead, who teaches politics and political science at Dartmouth College.
“How do you make politics with such a person? You can’t, so you have to make war. That story told Trump supporters that in a political context you are engaged in a war with someone who should be locked up.”
In this election cycle, Pizzagate has metastasized and been succeeded by the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that Trump is locked in a struggle with Democratic and Hollywood elites who practice child sex trafficking and cannibalism.
Its adherents are taking aim at Biden.
“QAnon is now painting Joe Biden not as a legitimate opponent but as part of this team of globalists who are intent on destroying America, not to be argued with but to be eliminated,” said Muirhead.
The most immediate disinformation risk to the 2020 vote, however, according to Tucker, is Trump’s repeated claims that the use of mail-in ballots will lead to fraud and a “rigged” election.
He made the same claims in 2016. Subsequent investigations showed no evidence of widespread fraud.
“This is disinformation,” said the NYU’s Tucker.
“There are problems with people not filling out their ballots correctly, there’s problems with people getting their ballots late, but there is no evidence to suggest that there has been wide-scale fraud.
“Who needs the Russians running around casting doubt on the integrity of the democratic process when the president of the United States is doing it?“