Afghan Taliban turn blind eye to Pakistani militants

Afghan Taliban anger over Pakistan’s construction of a border fence threatened to turn violent. (AP)
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Updated 06 January 2022

Afghan Taliban turn blind eye to Pakistani militants

  • Pakistani Taliban are regrouping and reorganizing, with their leadership headquartered in neighboring Afghanistan

PESHAWAR: Each year on Jan. 17, Shahana bakes a cake and invites friends to her home in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. They sing happy birthday for her son, even light a candle. But it’s a birthday without the birthday boy.
Her son, Asfand Khan, was 15 in December 2014 when gunmen rampaged through his military-run public school in Peshawar killing 150 people, most of them students, some as young as 5. Asfand was shot three times in the head at close range.
The attackers were Pakistani Taliban, who seven years later have once again ramped up their attacks, seemingly emboldened by the return of Afghanistan’s Taliban to power in Kabul. In the last week of December, they killed eight Pakistani army personnel in a half dozen attacks and counter attacks, all in the country’s northwest. Another two Pakistani soldiers were killed in an attack on Taliban outposts late Wednesday night.
The Pakistani Taliban, known by the acronym TTP, are regrouping and reorganizing, with their leadership headquartered in neighboring Afghanistan, according to a UN report from July. That is raising fears among Pakistanis like Shahana of a return of the horrific violence the group once inflicted.
Yet the Afghan Taliban have shown no signs of expelling TTP leaders or preventing them from carrying out attacks in Pakistan, even as Pakistan leads an effort to get a reluctant world to engage with Afghanistan’s new rulers and salvage the country from economic collapse.
It is a dilemma faced by all of Afghanistan’s neighbors and major powers like China, Russia and the United States as they ponder how to deal with Kabul.
Multiple militant groups found safe haven in Afghanistan during more than four decades of war, and some of them, like the TTP, are former battlefield allies of the Afghan Taliban.
So far, the Taliban have appeared unwilling or unable to root them out. The sole exception is the Islamic State affiliate, which is the Taliban’s enemy and has waged a campaign of violence against them and for years against Afghanistan’s minority Shiite Muslims, killing hundreds in dozens of horrific attacks targeting, schools, mosques, even a maternity hospital
Washington has identified the Islamic State branch, known by the acronym IS-K, as its major militant worry emanating from Afghanistan. The Taliban’s longtime ally Al-Qaeda is not seen as a strong threat. Though US military leaders say there are signs it may be growing slightly, it is struggling near rudderless, with its current leader, Ayman Al-Zawahri, alive but unwell, according to the July UN report.
Still, there are plenty of other militants based in Afghanistan, and they are raising concerns among Afghanistan’s neighbors.
China fears insurgents from its Uighur ethnic minority who want an independent Xinjiang region. Russia and Central Asian nations worry about the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which in recent years went on a recruitment drive among Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbeks.
For Pakistan, it is the TTP, which stands for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The group perpetrated some of the worst terrorist assaults on Pakistan, including the 2014 assault on the military public school.
The TTP numbers anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 fighters, according to the UN report. It has also succeeded in expanding its recruitment inside Pakistan beyond the former tribal regions along the border where it traditionally found fighters, says Amir Rana, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, an independent think tank in the capital Islamabad.
Analysts say the Afghan Taliban’s reluctance to clamp down on the TTP does not bode well for their readiness to crack down on the many other groups.
“The plain truth is that most of the terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, aside from IS-K, are Taliban allies,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “And the Taliban aren’t about to turn their guns on their friends, even with mounting pressure from regional players and the West.”
The militants’ presence complicates Pakistan’s efforts to encourage international dealings with the Afghan Taliban in hopes of bringing some stability to an Afghanistan sliding into economic ruin.
Analysts say Pakistan’s military has made a calculation that the losses inflicted by the TTP are preferable to undermining Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers by pressing them on the issue. A collapse would bring a flood of refugees; Pakistan might be their first stop, but Islamabad warns that Europe and North America will be their preferred destination.
Islamabad attempted to negotiate with the TTP recently, but the effort fell apart. Rana of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies said Pakistan’s policy of simultaneously negotiating with and attacking the TTP is “confusing” and risks emboldening like-minded insurgents in both countries.
It also worries its allies, he said.
China, which is spending billions in Pakistan, was not happy with Islamabad’s attempts at talks with the TTP because of its close affiliation with Uighur separatists, said Rana. The TTP took responsibility for a July bombing in northwest Pakistan that killed Chinese engineers as well as an April bombing at a hotel where the Chinese ambassador was staying.
Pressure is mounting on Pakistan to demand the Afghan Taliban hand over the TTP leadership.
But Islamabad’s relationship with the Taliban is complicated.
Pakistan’s powerful military, which shepherds the country’s Afghan policy, has ties to the Taliban leadership going back more than 40 years to an earlier invasion. Then, together with the US, they fought and defeated the invading former Soviet Union.
After the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was accused by Washington and its Afghan allies of aiding the Taliban. Pakistan denied the accusations, even as Taliban leaders and their families lived in Pakistan while waging their insurgency against Kabul.
But the Taliban also have interests divergent from Pakistan’s, particularly the issue of the two countries’ 2,500-kilometer border. Afghanistan has never recognized the border, known as the Durand Line, which was drawn by British colonial administrators in the 19th Century.
Last week, Afghan Taliban anger over Pakistan’s construction of a border fence threatened to turn violent. Videos shared on social media showed Taliban destroying rolls of barbed wire meant for the fence and threatening to open fire on Pakistani troops.
The Taliban’s Defense Ministry issued a statement saying Pakistan had no right to erect a border fence. On Wednesday Pakistan’s military spokesman Gen. Babar Iftikar said the fence was 94 percent done and would be completed.
“The fence on the Pak-Afghan border is needed to regulate security, border crossing and trade,” he said. “The purpose of this is not to divide the people, but to protect them.”
Even if Pakistan were to ask the Taliban to hand over TTP leaders, it shouldn’t expect any results, says Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal which tracks global militancy.
“The Afghan Taliban will not expel the TTP for the same reasons it won’t expel Al-Qaeda,” he said. “Both groups played a key role in the Afghan Taliban’s victory. They fought alongside the Afghan Taliban and sacrificed greatly over the past 20 years.”


Dutch court to announce ruling in MH17 murder trial on Nov. 17

Updated 15 August 2022

Dutch court to announce ruling in MH17 murder trial on Nov. 17

  • The Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit over Ukraine’s rebel-held Donetsk region

AMSTERDAM: The Dutch court handling the murder trial of four suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 said on Monday it would hand down its verdict on Nov. 17.
Prosecutors say the one Ukrainian and three Russian defendants, who are all at large, helped supply a missile system that Russian-backed separatists used to fire a rocket at the plane on July 17, 2014. All 298 people on board were killed.
The prosecution is seeking life terms for all suspects.
Lawyers for Oleg Pulatov, the only defendant who has chosen to participate in the proceedings through counsel, have argued that the trial was unfair and prosecutors did not properly examine alternative theories about the cause of the crash or the involvement of Pulatov.
The other suspects, named as Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko, are being tried in absentia. Under Dutch law Pulatov, while he is also at large, is not considered to be tried in absentia because he is represented through lawyers he has instructed.
The Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit over Ukraine’s rebel-held Donetsk region by what international investigators say was a Russian-made surface-to-air missile. The eastern region has also become a key focus of Russia’s nearly six-month-old war in Ukraine.
Most of the victims on board MH17 were Dutch nationals. The Dutch government holds Russia responsible for the crash. Authorities in Moscow deny any involvement.
The MH17 case has seriously strained the Netherlands’ diplomatic relations with Moscow, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine that started on Feb. 24.


3 injured in shooting at amusement park near Chicago

Updated 15 August 2022

3 injured in shooting at amusement park near Chicago

GURNEE, Illinois:Three people were injured in a shooting in the parking lot of an amusement park north of Chicago that sent visitors scrambling for safety, authorities said.
Officers responded about 7:50 p.m. Sunday after 911 calls reporting shots fired at Six Flags Great America, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Chicago, the Gurnee Police Department said.
“The shooting ... was not a random act, and appeared to be a targeted incident that occurred outside the park,” police said in statement posted to Facebook.
According to an initial investigation, police said a white sedan entered the parking lot and drove toward the park’s front entrance. People got out of the car and shot at another person in the parking lot before driving away, police said.
Additional detail about the suspects, including the number of people who fired shots, wasn’t immediately released. Police were investigating.
A 17-year-old boy from Aurora, Illinois, had a thigh wound and a 19-year-old woman from Appleton, Wisconsin, had a leg wound, police said. They were taken to a hospital and their wounds were described as non-life-threatening. A third victim had a shoulder injury and declined to be taken to a hospital.
In a statement, Six Flags Great America said park security responded immediately along with Gurnee officers.
WGN News in Chicago spoke with Laurie Walker and her daughter, Grace, who were inside the park when the shooting occurred. Walker said they were waiting in line for an attraction around 7:50 p.m. when she noticed people running.
“There is an active shooter, get down, get down,” Walker said she heard someone shouting. “We didn’t know what was going on, so we get down.”
Walker and her daughter climbed two fences to get where she could call her husband. Walker told WGN she was able to leave the park a short while later.
Gurnee is in Lake County, about 5 miles south of the Wisconsin border. It’s about 20 miles north of Highland Park, where seven people died in a mass shooting during a July Fourth parade.


Myanmar court convicts Suu Kyi on more corruption charges

Updated 15 August 2022

Myanmar court convicts Suu Kyi on more corruption charges

BANGKOK: A court in military-ruled Myanmar convicted the country’s ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on more corruption charges on Monday and sentenced her to an additional six years in prison, a legal official said.

The trial was held behind closed doors, with no access for media or the public, and her lawyers were forbidden by a gag order from revealing information about the proceedings.

In the four corruption cases decided Monday, Suu Kyi was alleged to have abused her position to rent public land at below market prices and to have built a residence with donations meant for charitable purposes. She received sentences of three years for each of the four counts, but the sentences for three of them will be served concurrently, giving her a total of six more years in prison.

She denied all the charges, and her lawyers are expected to appeal.

She already had been sentenced to 11 years in prison on sedition, corruption and other charges at earlier trials after the military ousted her elected government and detained her in February 2021.

Analysts say the numerous charges against her and her allies are an attempt to legitimize the military’s seizure of power while eliminating her from politics before the military holds an election it has promised for next year.


‘Day of conquest’ as Taliban mark first year in power

Updated 15 August 2022

‘Day of conquest’ as Taliban mark first year in power

  • Taliban fighters expressed happiness that their movement was now in power
  • For many ordinary Afghans, however, the return of the Taliban has only increased hardships

KABUL: Taliban fighters chanted victory slogans next to the US embassy in Kabul on Monday as they marked the first anniversary of their return to power in Afghanistan following a turbulent year that saw women’s rights crushed and a humanitarian crisis worsen.
Exactly a year ago, the hard-line Islamists captured Kabul after a nationwide lightning offensive against government forces just as US-led troops were ending two decades of intervention in a conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives.
“We fulfilled the obligation of jihad and liberated our country,” said Niamatullah Hekmat, a fighter who entered the capital on August 15 last year just hours after then-president Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
“It’s the day of victory and happiness for the Afghan Muslims and people. It is the day of conquest and victory of the white flag,” government spokesman Bilal Karimi said on Twitter.
The chaotic withdrawal of foreign forces continued until August 31, with tens of thousands of people rushing to Kabul’s airport hoping to be evacuated on any flight out of Afghanistan.
Images of crowds storming the airport, climbing atop aircraft — and some clinging to a departing US military cargo plane as it rolled down the runway — aired on news bulletins around the world.
Authorities have so far not announced any official celebration to mark the anniversary, but state television said it would have a special program later on Monday to mark the event.
Many Taliban fighters gathered in Kabul’s central Massoud Square, where they displayed the regime’s white banners and performed a traditional dance, some holding weapons and others taking pictures on their mobile phones.
“We all are happy that we are celebrating our independence in front of the US embassy,” Aminullah Sufi Omar said.
Taliban fighters expressed happiness that their movement was now in power — even as aid agencies say that half the country’s 38 million people face extreme poverty.
“The time when we entered Kabul, and when the Americans left, those were moments of joy,” said Hekmat, now a member of the special forces guarding the presidential palace.
For many ordinary Afghans, however, the return of the Taliban has only increased hardships — especially for women.
Initially, the Taliban promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterized their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
But many restrictions have been imposed on women to comply with the movement’s austere vision of Islam.
Tens of thousands of girls have been shut out of secondary schools, while women have been barred from returning to many government jobs.
And in May, they were ordered to fully cover up in public, including their faces, ideally with an all-encompassing burqa.
“From the day they have come, life has lost its meaning,” said Ogai Amail, a resident of Kabul.
“Everything has been snatched from us, they have even entered our personal space,” she added.
Taliban fighters on Saturday dispersed a rare women’s rights rally by firing gun shots into the air and beating some protesters.
“Our call for justice was silenced with gunfire, but today we are pleading from inside our home,” Munisa Mubariz said on Monday.
She was among about 30 women who gathered at an undisclosed location to stage an indoor protest.
The women, who mostly had their faces uncovered, posted photographs online of themselves holding banners, including one that read: “Afghanistan’s history is tarnished with the closure of girls’ schools.”
While Afghans acknowledge a decline in violence since the Taliban seized power, the humanitarian crisis has left many helpless.
“People coming to our shops are complaining so much of high prices that we shopkeepers have started hating ourselves,” said Noor Mohammad, a shopkeeper from Kandahar, the de facto power center of the Taliban.
The country is in economic crisis, with its overseas assets frozen by Washington and aid curtailed in order to keep funds out of the Taliban’s hands.
No country has officially recognized the new government.
“All those powers who came here have lost here, but today we want good relations with everybody,” said fighter Hazi Mubariz.
For Taliban fighters the joy of victory overshadows the current economic crisis.
“We might be poor, we might be facing hardships, but the white flag of Islam will now fly high forever in Afghanistan,” said a fighter guarding a public park in Kabul.


Pandemic pushed millions more into poverty in the Philippines — government

Updated 15 August 2022

Pandemic pushed millions more into poverty in the Philippines — government

  • Recently inaugurated President Ferdinand Marcos Jr aims to slash the poverty rate to 9 percent by the end of his single six-year term in 2028

MANILA: About 2.3 million people in the Philippines were pushed into poverty between 2018 and 2021, largely due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, the statistics agency said on Monday.
The number of people living in poverty in 2021 rose to a total of almost 20 million or 18.1 percent of the population from 16.7 percent in 2018, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) said, overshooting the government’s target of 15.5 percent-17.5 percent.
Recently inaugurated President Ferdinand Marcos Jr aims to slash the poverty rate to 9 percent by the end of his single six-year term in 2028 — a target that remains achievable despite soaring inflation, according to Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan.
He said the government’s strategy will focus on fully reopening the economy, investing in human capital and social protection, and transforming production sectors to generate more and quality jobs and competitive products.
“We can reduce poverty incidence by 5 percentage points at midterm, and another 4 percentage points by 2028,” Balisacan told a media briefing.
The PSA — which defines poverty as including those Filipinos whose per capita income cannot sufficiently meet individual basic food and non-food needs — releases these statistics every three years.
Balisacan said that before the pandemic, in 2018, the country had achieved its goal of lifting 6 million Filipinos out of poverty, four years ahead of a 2022 target.
But COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and a long-running issue of poor households having limited access to regular and productive jobs had plunged many Filipinos back into difficulty, he said.