US skips out on Afghanistan-Taliban conference in Moscow

The Trump administration’s decision not to attend could be yet another sign of an increasingly icy relationship between Washington and Moscow. The meeting comes just after the US bombed ‘IS’ targets in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Taliban Kämpfer in der Provinz Zabul (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Khan)

Despite receiving an invitation, the Trump administration will not attend Friday’s meeting in the Russian capital aimed at facilitating peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Conference participants are expected to include representatives from Pakistan, Iran, India, China and several other central Asian nations. Representatives of NATO nations and the United Nations will not be in attendance.

Read More: Taliban expansion worries north Afghans

In a press briefing on Thursday, US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner cited skepticism of the conference aims as the reason for the United States’ lack of participation.

“I think just to end it, we just felt that these talks – it was unclear to us what the purpose was,” Toner told the assembled press. “It seemed to be a unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region that we felt wasn’t constructive at this time,” he added.

However, Toner also stated that “we do plan to work with Russia and other key regional stakeholders to enhance dialogue” between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Russland Moskau Rex Tillerson und Sergei Lawrow (picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/S. Krasilnikov)Tillerson and Lavrov met earlier in the week to discuss deteriorating US-Russian relations

A sign of geopolitical competition?

Washington’s thanks-but-no-thanks to its conference invitation came amid rapidly deteriorating relations between the US and Russia, due in large part to US President Donald Trump’s order to fire cruise missiles at a Syrian air base also used by Russian forces in support of Syrian President Assad.

Nicole Birtsch (SWP)Nicole Birtsch from SWP thinks the US will not accept Russian leadership on Afghanistan negotiations

The announcement of the administration’s absence from the conference coincided with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visit with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday. After the visit, Tillerson described US-Russian relations as being at a “low point,” with many experts suggesting an increasing geopolitical rivalry.

In an interview with DW, Nicole Birtsch from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) pointed out that a previous Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) headed up by the US had failed to reach its goal of establishing peace talks. “Washington will not likely accept Russia in a leading role,” Birtsch said.

Read More: Will Washington and Moscow come together on Afghanistan?

A questionable relationship between Russia and the Taliban

One reason for the QCG’s failed outcome was a lack of willingness on the part of the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government. Experts agree that the Taliban’s participation is essential for reaching a lasting peace in the war-torn country.

“Precisely because the Taliban has had real power for over 20 years, an Afghan peace is not possible without them,” Russian expert in central Asia Arkadi Dubnow told DW.

Read More: Entrechened instability in Afghanistan

Arkadij Dubnov russischer Experte für Zentralasien (DW/G.Fasthudinov)Arkadi Dubnow is a Russian expert for central Asia

At the end of March, the Russian Ambassador to NATO Alexander Gruschko announced, “We have contact with the Taliban,” adding that the two-fold purpose for such communication centered on the security of Russian citizens and Taliban participation in peace talks.

But NATO has accused Moscow of supporting the rebel Islamic group with weapons.

Birtsch believed Russia’s relationship to the Taliban had two key policy purposes: firstly, supporting the Taliban in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS); and secondly, maintaining an influence in Afghanistan.

Despite Russia’s ties to the Taliban, it remains unclear whether or not Taliban representatives will attend Friday’s conference.

US policy in Afghanistan unclear

The underlying foundation of US policy in Afghanistan also remains unclear, especially in light of the Trump administration’s surprise bombing of an IS cave in Afghanistan on Thursday.

The Afghan presidential palace said the largest non-nuclear bomb was dropped in coordination with the Afghan government. However, the confirmed presence of Afghan government officials in Moscow on Friday and the absence of the US could raise questions as to just how close the two countries are.

Watch video01:29

US drops ‘mother of all bombs’ on IS caves

DW RECOMMENDS

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‘Mother of all bombs’ – what has it achieved?

The US has dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb on an “Islamic State” (IS) target in Nangarhar. DW examines the reasons behind the attack, its timing, and whether IS really poses a big threat to the US in Afghanistan.

USA Bombe GBU-43/B in Florida (picture-alliance/ZUMA Wire/US Air Force)

Residents of Achin district, where the US dropped the “Massive Ordinance Air Blast” or MOAB – touted as the “mother of all bombs” – described the explosion as the biggest they had ever seen. And the Afghans have definitively seen a lot of colossal bombings in the past few decades, particularly during the US invasion of their country in 2001 and after the consequent fall of the Taliban’s Islamist regime.

Defense experts say the MOAB is a successor to the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter,” used during the Vietnam War and the start of the post 9/11 Afghanistan conflict.

“What it (MOAB) does is basically suck out all of the oxygen and lights the air on fire,” said Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, to an American journal.

“It’s a way to get into areas where conventional bombs can’t reach.”

But President Donald Trump’s administration’s decision to drop such a huge bomb in the war-ravaged Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province raises a number of questions.

Watch video01:29

US drops ‘mother of all bombs’ on IS caves

First of all, does the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) pose such a massive threat to US interests in the region that justified the use of the MOAB against the group?

Secondly, what did Washington achieve by killing some 36 IS fighters in Afghanistan through this very expensive explosion?

“I’m familiar with the area and I believe the US military did not need to use such a huge bomb to target a small number of IS fighters,” Attiqullah Amarkhail, a Kabul-based retired military general, told DW.

“When you drop 11 tons of explosives and kill only 36 of your enemies, it is a waste of your weaponry, unless you have some other targets to achieve,” Amarkhail added.

‘IS’ in Afghanistan

According to US’ own estimates, there are between 600 and 800 IS fighters in Afghanistan, primarily in Nangarhar province. The militant group is much more active and has a much bigger presence in Iraq and Syria. The US has never used the MOAB in these Middle Eastern countries.

DW RECOMMENDS

US drops largest non-nuclear bomb on ‘IS’ target in Afghanistan

The Pentagon has confirmed the first-ever combat use of the GBU-43, also known as the MOAB, or “mother of all bombs,” in a targeted attack on ‘Islamic State.’ Afghan officials said the bomb killed at least 36 fighters. (13.04.2017)

Opinion: A calculated step toward the apocalypse?

What makes MOAB Mother of All Bombs?

Nangarhar: Gateway to Afghanistan for ‘Islamic State’

An Afghanistan conference without Afghanistan

But that certainly does not mean IS is not expanding in Nangarhar and other parts of Afghanistan.

Reports of IS presence in Afghanistan emerged in early 2015. In 2014, the Afghan government and US military officials acknowledged that the terror group was recruiting fighters in eastern Afghanistan, using the power vacuum in the Taliban leadership.

“If this group is not stopped here [in Nangarhar province], it will pose a danger not only to Afghanistan but also to other countries in the region,” a resident of Achin district told DW in 2015, calling on the Afghan government to support their fight against the terror group.

The scene in Achin district in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar, which shares a border with Pakistan’s tribal areas, bears resemblance to parts of Syria and Iraq under IS command. Members of the terror group control large parts of the district, killing opponents, looting houses and spreading fear among residents with the help of their recently-launched propaganda tool, “The Caliphate Radio.”

IS members broadcast threats to harshly punish those who oppose Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the self-declared “caliphate” extending over parts of Iraq and Syria.

“The MOAB was clearly meant to telegraph a message of intent, that the US will come after IS militants wherever they may be, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere,” Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW. “That said, we shouldn’t assume that this bomb will set some type of precedent for assaults on IS elsewhere around the world.”

The American expert admits that the group’s presence in Nangarhar has been weakened in recent months. “The US and Afghanistan have been leading a joint effort to eliminate IS fighters there for quite some time, and in fact just earlier this week they took out a large number of fighters in the very district where the bomb was dropped. My sense is that this bomb was meant to eliminate those fighters that survived the earlier US-Afghan operation and had fled into the tunnels that the bomb targeted,” Kugelman noted.

Bildergalerie IS in Afghanistan (picture-alliance/dpa/G. Habibi)IS is expanding in Nangarhar and other parts of Afghanistan

Experts say the Thursday bombing in Afghanistan could also be a message to Afghanistan’s neighboring country Pakistan, which many policymakers in Washington believe is supporting Afghan militant groups, including the Taliban and IS.

Despite the fact that the “IS” presence in Afghanistan seems quite limited, there is a possibility that the militant group is getting assistance, and possibly fighters, from neighboring Pakistan. In the past few months, IS has claimed a number of deadly attacks on Pakistani soil.

The Islamic country also has a reputation as a breeding ground for Sunni militant groups. Afghan authorities have repeatedly accused Islamabad of supporting the Taliban and other militant groups and sending them into Afghanistan to destabilize the government.

Moscow conference

Observers find it interesting that the US chose to use the biggest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal at a time when Russia is hosting an Afghanistan conference in Moscow.

Twelve countries, including Afghanistan, China, India, Iran and Pakistan, are participating in the Friday conference. The US was invited to take part, but it turned down the invitation.

In December last year, representatives of Pakistan, China and Russia met in Moscow to discuss the Afghan conflict but they excluded Afghan officials from the gathering.

Geostrategic relations are rapidly changing in southern Asia. Former Cold War rivals India and the US are bolstering their defense and trade ties amid growing concerns about China’s assertiveness in the region, particularly in the disputed South China Sea. On the other hand, Islamabad and Washington, who were allies against the former Soviet Union and collaborated in the 1980s Afghan War, are drifting apart. Simultaneously, Islamabad and Moscow are reviving their ties, as the two Cold War-era foes held their first-ever joint military drills last year.

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Gipfel in Ufa Premierminister Nawaz Sharif und Präsident Wladimir Putin (picture alliance/dpa/SCO Photoshot/Ria Novosti)Pakistan is seeking to forge closer ties with China and Russia to counter New Delhi’s growing influence in Kabul

The changing geopolitics has also prompted Pakistan to forge closer ties with its long-time ally China. Beijing is expanding trade and military cooperation with Islamabad in view of the New Delhi-Washington maneuvers.

Experts say the US does not want Russia and China to increase their presence and influence in Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan and Iran. They note that the Nangarhar bombing was a message from the Trump administration to these countries that they should not take Washington’s somewhat minimal role in Afghanistan as its weakness.

“The US is showing its military power to Russia and China. The timing of the use of MOAB is very important to understand the situation. Moscow is hosting a conference on Afghanistan and the US has sent a warning to everyone participating in the meeting,” underlined Afghan expert Amarkhail.

But Amarkhail believes that the Nangarhar bombing will exacerbate the security situation in Afghanistan.

“The militants will use this bombing to recruit more fighters.”

AUDIOS AND VIDEOS ON THE TOPIC

The Afghan War and the Evolution of Obama

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s advisers wrestled with an intractable problem in the spring and summer of 2015: How could they stabilize Afghanistan while preserving Mr. Obama’s longtime goal of pulling out the last American troops before he left office?

As it happened, the president solved the problem for them. In early August of that year, when Mr. Obama convened a meeting of the National Security Council, he looked around the table and acknowledged a stark new reality.

“The fever in this room has finally broken,” the president told the group, according to a person in the meeting. “We’re no longer in nation-building mode.”

What Mr. Obama meant was that no one in the Situation Room that day, himself included, thought that the United States — after 14 years of war, billions of dollars spent and more than 2,000 American lives lost — would ever transform Afghanistan into a semblance of a democracy able to defend itself.

At the same time, he added, “the counterterrorism challenges are real.” As bleak as Afghanistan’s prospects were, the United States could not afford to walk away and allow the country to become a seedbed for extremists again.

A few weeks later, the president halted the withdrawal and announced that he would leave thousands of American troops in the country indefinitely.

It was a crucial turning point in the evolution of Barack Obama. The antiwar candidate of 2008 who had pledged to turn around Afghanistan — the “good war” to George W. Bush’s “bad war” in Iraq — had conceded that the longest military operation in American history would not end on his watch. The optimistic president who once thought Afghanistan was winnable had, through bitter experience, become the commander in chief of a forever war.

Video

A Developing Stance on the Afghan War

President Obama’s shifting approach to the conflict is a lens through which to judge his legacy as a wartime leader.

By A.J. CHAVAR on Publish DateJanuary 1, 2017. Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »

He remains defensive about the lessons of that journey. “We shouldn’t assume that every time a country has problems that it reflects a failure of American policy,” the president said in an interview in September.

Now, as Mr. Obama prepares to turn the war over to Donald J. Trump, a leader even more skeptical than he is about the value of American engagement in foreign conflicts, Afghanistan captures the disillusionment of a man who believed, as he put it in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”

More than any other conflict, Afghanistan shaped Mr. Obama’s thinking on the basic questions of war, peace and the use of military power. It is where he discovered his affinity for drones, sharpened his belief in the limits of American intervention, battled his generals and hardened his disdain for unreliable foreign leaders. It reaffirmed his suspicions about sending American troops into foreign conflicts and made him reluctant to use more force in Iraq, Syria, Libya and other war zones.

It also chastened him about his own hopes.

“When it comes to helping these societies stabilize and create a more secure environment and a better life for their people, we have to understand,” he said in the interview, “that this is a long slog.”

‘A War That We Have to Win’

Photo

Two Marines on a mountain ridge overlooking the Pakistani border near Kamu, Afghanistan, in 2008. The Taliban often attacked an American outpost in the area from firing positions on the mountain ridge.CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times

Mr. Obama was a state senator from Illinois in October 2002 when he famously condemned Iraq as a “dumb war.” But in the same speech he also said, “I don’t oppose all wars.” He was referring to Afghanistan, which he viewed as a just war to hunt down the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again,” he told the crowd that day in Chicago’s Federal Plaza.

By July 2008, as the Democratic nominee for president, Mr. Obama had embraced Afghanistan as a priority over Iraq — the “good war,” in a phrase that he never actually used himself but that became so associated with his approach it was sometimes wrongly attributed to him.

Mr. Obama praised the Bush administration’s troop surge in Iraq that year not because he believed that the United States could transform Iraqi society, but because he thought that reducing the violence there would allow the nation to turn its attention to Afghanistan.

“This is a war that we have to win,” he declared. He promised to send at least two more combat brigades, or roughly 10,000 soldiers, to Afghanistan.

The United States was hardly on course for victory. Although there were already close to 50,000 American troops in Afghanistan as Mr. Obama campaigned that summer, the Taliban were gaining momentum. In a bloody debacle, nine American soldiers were killed in what became known as the Battle of Wanat when the Taliban brazenly overran a remote Army outpost in the far eastern province of Nuristan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed Mr. Obama in calling the situation in the country “precarious and urgent.” More than 100 Americans would die in Afghanistan by the end of 2008, a larger number than in any other prior year.

Photo

Cpl. Pruitt A. Rainey’s coffin was carried from the Glen Hope Baptist Church in Burlington, N.C., in July 2008. Corporal Rainey, 22, was one of nine American soldiers killed in the Battle of Wanat that month.CreditPeter Schumacher/The Burlington Times-News, via Associated Press

When Mr. Obama took office in January 2009, he ordered a quick policy review on Afghanistan by a former intelligence analyst, Bruce Riedel. But even before it was completed, he accepted a Pentagon recommendation to send 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to nearly 70,000 American troops on the ground.

By the fall of 2009, with the Taliban showing increased strength, Mr. Obama’s military commanders, backed by the elders on his war council, including Hillary Clinton, then his secretary of state, were pressing him to go much farther.

They urged on him an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that had helped turn around the war in Iraq — a troop-heavy, time-consuming, expensive doctrine of trying to win over the locals by building roads, bridges, schools and a well-functioning government.

The strategy, known by its acronym COIN, would require as many as 40,000 additional American men and women in uniform in Afghanistan, his advisers told him.

“There was still the afterglow of the surge in Iraq, and the counterinsurgency narrative that had made the military the savior of the Iraq war,” said Vali R. Nasr, a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I don’t believe Obama was in a position to pick a debate with the military on Afghanistan, and to assert what would be his worldview.”

“In many ways, I think, he deferred,” said Mr. Nasr, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Although Mr. Obama agreed after months of internal debate to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, he placed a strict timetable on the mission, saying they would have to be withdrawn again, starting in July 2011. His aides later said he felt hijacked by a military that had presented him with a narrow band of options rather than a real choice.

The Obama Era

In the coming weeks, The Obama Era will explore the sweeping change that President Obama has brought to the nation, and how the presidency has changed him.

  • PART 1The Regulator in Chief

  • PART 2The Threat to the Planet

  • PART 3The “Good War”

  • PART 4The Health Care Revolution

  • PART 5Breaking the Racial Barrier

  • PART 6A Changed Man

Even some former military commanders agreed, saying that the troop deployments were framed in a way that made choosing a smaller number — 20,000, for example — look like a path to certain defeat.

“President Obama was asking the military for broad options,” said Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired general who served as the commander in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and was later Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Kabul. But, he said, the military gave Mr. Obama only “variations” on “the more robust counterinsurgency model.”

Mr. Eikenberry, who wrote a politically explosive but prescient cable in late 2009 raising doubts about the wisdom of the surge, diagnosed a deeper problem with the policy. Was it simply to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for Al Qaeda? Or was it to turn Afghanistan into another Denmark? “When he came in, everyone knew we were going to do more,” Mr. Eikenberry said. “But what we were trying to achieve was difficult to define.”

Given Mr. Obama’s innate wariness of nation-building, it didn’t take long for him to grow disenchanted with the Denmark option. A few months into the surge, in the spring of 2010, David H. Petraeus, the commander of the Pentagon’s Central Command and an architect of the strategy, was briefing him on the state of the counterinsurgency campaign.

Drawing on anthropology theory from the University of Chicago, General Petraeus explained to his commander in chief how neighborhoods in Kandahar related to one another. Mr. Obama listened for a while, then cut him off. “We can’t worry about how neighborhoods relate to each other in Kandahar,” he curtly told General Petraeus, according to people in the room.

“Obama believes the military can do enormous things,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser. “It can win wars and stabilize conflicts. But a military can’t create a political culture or build a society.”

‘Afghan Good Enough’

Photo

Mr. Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement in Kabul in May 2012. The two had long had a rocky relationship. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

By the end of his first term, Mr. Obama had evolved to the point that he fully embraced the concept “Afghan good enough.” The phrase, which had been kicked around the White House since 2010, referred to the shift away from nation-building to a policy that was content with taking out the terrorists, preventing the Taliban from overrunning the country and putting a premium on getting the troops out.

By that new standard, things had improved in Afghanistan. By August 2010, 100,000 American troops were on the ground in Afghanistan and were pushing back the Taliban in some critical areas. Despite uneven progress in the military campaign, Ryan Crocker, a diplomat who had reopened the American Embassy in Kabul in 2002 and served there again as ambassador in 2011, recalled thinking, “Wow, this place looks great!”

The Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011 added to Mr. Obama’s conviction that he was on the way to closing the books on the war.

At midnight on May 1, 2012, Air Force One rolled out from behind a hangar at Joint Base Andrews to pick up the president for a secret trip to Afghanistan. He was going to sign a strategic partnership agreement with President Hamid Karzai that set the terms for relations after 2014, when the United States was scheduled to withdraw its combat troops and turn over Afghanistan’s security to the Afghans.

Aides to Mr. Obama had advised him not to go for security reasons, but he saw it as an important milestone.

The agreement promised an “enduring partnership” between the United States and Afghanistan, with pledges of American help in developing the Afghan economy and public institutions. Yet the promises obscured a starker reality: Mr. Obama had accelerated the timetable for drawing down American troops, and he was looking beyond the war.

Speaking to a national TV audience from Bagram Air Base, he suggested that America’s experience in Afghanistan had come full circle. “One year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden,” he said. “The goal I set — to defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is now within our reach.”

Earlier, Mr. Obama had met for an hour with Mr. Karzai. The two had long had a rocky relationship — on an earlier trip, Mr. Obama excoriated Mr. Karzai for the rampant corruption in the Afghan government — and this session did little to improve their rapport. Mr. Crocker recalled that the president was “very aloof, almost cold, which bothered me a bit because I’d worked a solid damn year to get Karzai in a better place with us.”

Things never warmed up between them. When Mr. Karzai refused to sign a long-term security agreement with Washington, Mr. Obama gave up on him to focus on his successor, Ashraf Ghani. The experience left a lasting imprint on the president, his aides said. He concluded that without the right partner, it was impossible for the United States to succeed, no matter how much blood and treasure it poured into a country.

It was an insight that Mr. Obama applied to his relations with other countries, from Pakistan to Israel, where his poor relationships with the leaders impeded progress. “The most underappreciated part of foreign policy,” Mr. Rhodes said, “is dealing with flawed partners.”

ISIS, a New, Radiating Threat

Photo

A bomb blast targeted NATO forces in Kabul in July 2015. CreditShah Marai/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When Mr. Obama convened his National Security Council that day in August 2015, the Taliban were regrouping again. They had carried out audacious terrorist attacks in the center of Kabul and had mounted a military offensive in the provinces of Kunduz and Oruzgan.

Worse, there was a new threat in the form of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which sprouted in the poisonous soil of Iraq after the United States left and was finding recruits in the Hindu Kush.

Mr. Obama had rejected a chorus of calls in Washington to delay the drawdown, under which the residual force of American troops was to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

“The mantra I heard was that the president does not want to hand off to his successor the mess he inherited,” said Daniel F. Feldman, who served as the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2014 and 2015.

But as the Islamic State became a dire enough threat to return American troops to Iraq, Mr. Obama felt compelled to change course on Afghanistan. “ISIL thrived in a vacuum in Iraq and it pointed to a similar vacuum in Afghanistan,” Mr. Rhodes said.

Mr. Obama, he said, was prodded by more than fear. After a long stretch of political paralysis, Afghanistan formed a government with Mr. Ghani in the presidency. For the first time since taking office, Mr. Obama felt like he had a partner with whom he could do business. The American-trained Afghan Army was taking heavy casualties fighting the Taliban, and the president believed that the United States had an obligation to help them.

But as Mr. Obama’s war council met that August morning, the level of American support remained the subject of intense debate.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a skeptic about Afghanistan going back to 2009, argued that the country would revert to chaos, regardless of how long the United States stayed there. “It doesn’t matter if we leave tomorrow or 10 years from now,” he declared, according to those in the room. He was, he conceded, a “broken record” on this issue.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who had succeeded Admiral Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended that the United States maintain a military presence in Kabul, and at Bagram and a scattering of bases in the east and south. The 10,000 soldiers in the country would carry out a singular, ruthless mission of killing suspected terrorists and keeping the country from spiraling out of control.

The imperative, General Dempsey told Mr. Obama, was that Afghanistan fit into a broader counterterrorism policy from Central Asia to North Africa to extend “well beyond your presidency,” according to several officials.

Mr. Obama liked that idea. It was in line, he said, with the principles he had laid out in a 2014 speech at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where he said America would train and equip foreign armies but leave the front-line fighting to them. He acknowledged that it would mean handing off Afghanistan to his successor as unfinished business.

“This goes to the politics of what I’m leaving for the next president,” he told the group, according to one of the participants. “My interest is not to sign them up for 10 years of X,” he added, referring to troop numbers, “but to lay out a vision and to put stakes in the ground for that vision.”

Photo

President Obama addressed graduates at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., in May 2014. In his speech, he said the United States would train and equip foreign armies but leave the front-line fighting to them. CreditGabriella Demczuk/The New York Times

Mr. Obama now seems at an uneasy peace. In the interview in September, he disputed the suggestion that his policy had failed. He had, after all, reduced the number of American troops to fewer than 10,000 from more than 100,000. They were training and assisting Afghan troops, even if the line between that and actual combat was sometimes blurry.

The country had been broken to begin with, he said, and America was never going to fix it. “Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries in the world with the lowest literacy rates in the world before we got there. It continues to be,” Mr. Obama said. The country “was riven with all kinds of ethnic and tribal divisions before we got there. It’s still there.”

In the end, Afghanistan became the template for a new kind of warfare — a chronic conflict, across an arc of unstable states, in which the United States is a participant, if not the principal actor.

At a NATO summit meeting in Warsaw in July, Mr. Obama acknowledged that this prospect would disappoint an American public still suffering from combat fatigue. “It’s very hard for us ever to get the satisfaction of MacArthur and the emperor meeting, and a war being officially over,” he said.

“As commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world,” he went on, “I spend a lot of time brooding over these issues. And I’m not satisfied we’ve got it perfect yet.”

Militant attack on American University in Kabul ends

At least 10 people have been killed and 37 others injured in a militant attack on Kabul’s American University. Afghan reports say a hundred students were trapped inside classrooms amid shootings and an explosion.

Afghanistan Angriff auf amerikanische Universität in Kabul

The attack on the university ended on Thursday, nearly 10 hours after militants stormed the complex. At least 10 people died in the attack, including seven students.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, although suspicion is likely to fall on the Taliban. The group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid only told the media, however, that they were “investigating.”

Afghan officials said multiple attackers, some wearing suicide vests, entered the university campus at around 6.30pm Wednesday evening local time (1400 UTC) and that a gunfight lasted for more than an hour.

The gunmen were killed by police early on Thursday morning, before police units rescued some 150 students who had been trapped in the university buildings.

“Several gunmen attacked the American University in Kabul, and there are reports of gunfire and explosions,” an Afghan interior ministry official said. “They are inside the compound, and there are foreign professors along with hundreds of students.”

AP Photojournalist Massoud Hossaini said he was in a classroom with 15 students when he heard an explosion.

“I went to the window to see what was going on, and I saw a person in normal clothes outside. He shot at me and shattered the glass,” Hossaini said, adding that he fell on the glass and cut his hands. He later managed to escape with nine students.

Injured stretchered to hospitalOfficials fear the number of injured in the attack may rise

Another journalist Ahmad Mukhtar said he and several friends had escaped the shooting but were concerned for others.

Other students also reported being stuck inside classrooms due to the shooting.

“We are stuck inside my class with other students. I heard explosions and gunfire going on close by,” a desperate student told the Agence France-Presse news agency by telephone.

Journalist Mustafa Kazemi described the sounds of multiple ambulance sirens being heard across Kabul.

He later tweeted this Facebook message from a student, purporting to be inside the building.

Members of the elite police force (CRU) quickly surrounded the campus as the attack unfolded and cordoned off the area.

The attack comes two weeks after two university staff were kidnapped from their car by unknown gunmen. Their whereabouts are still unknown.

American University KabulThe American University of Afghanistan opened in 2006

A US defense official said a team of US military advisors are helping Afghan forces to respond to the attack, but not in a combat role.

The management of the American University of Afghanistan, which enrols more than 1,700 students, was not immediately reachable for comment.

More to come…

The battle for Kunduz and Helmand

Why are the Afghan Taliban aiming to capture two key cities in the southern Helmand and the northern Kunduz provinces? What is the significance of these areas to the militant Islamist group? DW examines.

Afghan Security Force Members Take Part in a Military Operation against Taliban militant in Qala e Zal District of Northern Kunduz
(Photo: Imago/Xinhua)

Intense fighting has been raging between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces in the volatile Helmand and Kunduz provinces for the past few days. Many districts have fallen to the insurgent group, which is now closing in on the provincial capitals.

Some experts are of the view that the Taliban are only seeking to capture the capitals of Helmand and Kunduz, and their aim is not to take control of the entire provinces. Analysts say it is a calculated move.

“The Taliban had a bad experience last year when they briefly captured the city of Kunduz,” Wahid Muzhdah, a Kabul-based analyst, told DW. What the group really wants to achieve, according to Muzhdah, is to showcase their strength.

“The Taliban have been quite successful in exposing the weaknesses of the security forces,” said Muzhda.

Kunduz and Helmand are strategically important for both the Taliban and the government

But Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, believes that even if the Taliban have any intention of capturing more than a few cities in Helmand, they won’t be able to do so due to a considerable presence of US troops in the province.

“The US forces are providing operational assistance to Afghan troops in Helmand,” Kugelman told DW. “With this active support from US troops, I find it hard to believe that the entire province could fall to the Taliban,” he added.

A strategic move

Kunduz and Helmand are strategically important for both the Taliban and the government. Helmand is the biggest producer of opium in the country whereas Kunduz connects northern Afghanistan to central Asia and the rest of the country.

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Taliban capture district in Kunduz province

Security forces are said to be planning a counterattack to retake the district of Khan Abad in Kunduz province. The Afghan government is battling Taliban militants in 15 of the country’s 34 provinces. (20.08.2016)

Opinion: Without Mullah Mansour things will get worse

The timing of the Kandahar attacks

Fighting simultaneously on two different fronts, the Taliban fighters are close to capturing Lashkar Gah, the capital of the Helmand province, and the Kunduz city in the north. If the cities fall to the militants, the Taliban would have complete control over the opium trade in Helmand and they could also cut off Afghanistan’s northern areas from the rest of the country.

“What we are seeing is the Taliban demonstrating their resilience in Kunduz, which the group briefly held some time ago, while also showcasing its continued strength in a traditional bastion,” said Kugelman.

The expert, however, warns that if Lashkar Gah falls to the Taliban, it could be a “game-changer” in the Afghan war.

“It would give the Taliban a big financial boost, but above all it would send a powerful message to the US and its allies that the Taliban can triumph in areas where foreign troops had tried for so long to eliminate the Taliban threat,” he stated.

Muzhdah, however, believes the jihadists have already sent that message to the government and its foreign allies. “I don’t think that the control of Lashkar Gah will have a huge impact on the Taliban financing because many opium-producing districts in Helmand have already been under their control for many years,” he added.

Marines from Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion 8th Marines Regiment start their patrol from FOB (Forward Operating Base) Delhi in Garmser, Helmand Province on June 27, 2012
(Photo: ADEK BERRY/AFP/GettyImages)Experts say the government troops need international assistance in the fight against the Taliban

Afghan forces ‘overstretched’

Experts say the government troops need international assistance in the fight against the Taliban as they have been overstretched for a long period of time. The Afghan security forces are fighting the insurgents in many parts of the country without any support from the US or NATO.

Under NATO’s new mission, foreign troops cannot engage in a battle; their role is to advise, train and support the local troops.

“The Afghan forces lack the air power and intelligence gathering capacity necessary to fend off the insurgents,” Kugelman said.

Pakistan’s Islamization – before and after dictator Zia-ul Haq

Many people in Pakistan blame former dictator General Zia-ul Haq for the rise of extremism in their country. But was he really the architect of the Islamization drive in the South Asian nation? DW examines.

Zia-Ul-Haq, during a press conference, in Paris, after a meeting with French president Francois Mitterrand, during a 24-hour official visit in France
(Photo: PHILIPPE BOUCHON/AFP/Getty Images)

On August 17, 1988, General Zia-ul Haq, along with his top military officials and two American diplomats, died in a mysterious plane crash in the eastern Pakistani city of Bahawalpur. Since then, the general has remained a deeply polarizing figure in the Islamic country.

While his supporters – mostly right-wing Pakistanis – hail him as “hero” who had prevented a wider Soviet incursion in the South Asian region, the liberals hold him responsible for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and militancy in their country.

The Afghan war of the 1980s changed the political landscape of Pakistan forever. Islamabad decided to become a party to the war at the behest of the West to achieve its own strategic goals – to expand its area of operation in Afghanistan to counter Indian influence. Haq promoted a hard-line Islamic ideology in his country and cracked down on liberal political groups and activists. He expected the West to turn a blind eye to grave human rights violations in Pakistan, as he believed he was doing a favor to the US by fighting its proxy war in Afghanistan.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, former Paskistani president and then prime minister adressing the Nation over TV
(Photo: STF/AFP/GettyImages)General Zia hanged elected Prime Minister Bhutto in 1979

Zia-ul Haq dreamed of expanding Pakistan’s sphere of influence first to Afghanistan and then to the rest of Asia.

‘Pernicious ideology’

“Islamic extremists, who were created by General Zia-ul Haq in the 1980s to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, are now wreaking havoc in our country,” Karachi-based human rights activist Abdul Hai told DW.

But analysts say Haq’s “disastrous” influence on Pakistani politics is way more far-reaching than only the consolidation of Islamic militancy.

After hanging Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a popular elected prime minister, in 1979, Haq launched a vigorous drive to change the liberal nature of the constitution. His critics allege that he introduced Islamic laws,Islamized the educational curriculums, opened up thousands of religious seminaries across the country, inducted Islamists into judiciary, bureaucracy and the army, and created institutions headed by Islamic clerics to oversee the affairs of the government.

“I believe that although Haq is physically dead, his pernicious ideology is very much alive in Pakistan,” Majid Siddiqui, a Karachi-based journalist, told DW. “He used religion as a tool to strengthen his power. He also exploited the international agenda against communism to his favor and ruled undemocratically for 11 long years. Today’s Pakistan is a reflection of Zia-ul Haq’s policies, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to get rid of it,” Siddiqui added.

Taliban fighters hold their heavy and light weapons before surrendering them to Afghan authorities in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan
(AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File) Pakistan has been in a grip of violent Islamist attacks for the past ten years

A policy matter

But a more academic account of Pakistani politics does not pin all blame on Haq. Prominent Pakistani scholars such as Ahmed Rashid and Ijaz Khan argue that the alliance between the Pakistani state and religious extremists had started much earlier than Haq’s rise to power.

“Pakistani decision makers have found religious extremists a natural choice for alliance/usage as tools of foreign policy due to, a) its own religious identity basis; b) perception of India as a Hindu state which has not accepted Pakistan as an independent state; c) The United States also considered Islamic forces as good allies during the Cold War against the Soviets; and d) the centrist, post-colonial state dominated by the military has always considered secular, nationalist and democratic forces a challenge to its hold on power,” argues Khan in one of his papers.

Arif Jamal, a US-based Islamism expert, traces back the roots of Islamic militancy in Pakistan to the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He says that while Pakistani liberals admire both Jinnah and Bhutto for their secular posture, both leaders adopted the policy of using jihadists to fight proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

JInnahSome scholars accuse the country’s founder Jinnah of backing Islamic militants in Kashmir

“It was Jinnah who violated the stand-still agreement with the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir and sent tribal mujahideen to the valley. Similarly, it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who had invited Afghan jihadists like Hekmatyar and Rabbani to Pakistan in order to destabilize the neighboring country. General Haq carried these policies forward,” Jamal told DW, adding that Bhutto’s daughter Benazir followed the same pathwhen she came to power in 1988.

Naufil Shahrukh, an analyst at the Islamabad-based Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), shares this view: “It is a historic fact that Haq’s predecessor Bhutto started interfering in Afghanistan by opposing pro-India president Daud. In response to Daud’s support for terrorist groups in Pakistan, Bhutto backed Islamist groups in Afghanistan. The earliest Islamists started arriving in Pakistan to get military training in order to fight against the communist regime in Kabul during Bhutto’s tenure,” Shahrukh told DW.

Popular demand and geopolitics

Some analysts, however, argue that the demand for an Islamic system in the country has always prevailed in Pakistani society and no ruler could ignore it.

“Since Pakistan’s independence, a majority of people in the country have wanted an Islamic system. The public emotions were indeed exploited by General Haq to strengthen his dictatorial rule, but the growth of extremism in Pakistani society was a direct consequence of the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region,” Shahrukh underlined, adding that Iran’s attempt to export its revolution to neighboring countries was countered as a state policy under Zia.

Supporters of Pakistan's outlawed Islamic hard line group, Jamaat ud Dawa (JD) shout anti-US slogans during a protest in Lahore against drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas in Lahore on July 5, 2013
(Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)There is little room for secular politics in the present-day Pakistan

Sartaj Khan, a leftist intellectual and activist, believes that Haq did what was a geopolitical demand in the 1980s. “But his policies were perpetuated by his successors like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Haq was doing what the state had demanded of him. He was not the sole decision maker,” Khan added.

Khan also asserted that Haq’s Middle Eastern and Western supporters could not be exempted of the responsibility for the mess Pakistan finds itself in today.

“Blaming Haq for Islamization and all other problems is an over-simplification, something which is fashionable with the Pakistani liberals,” Khan said.

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Huge truck bomb rocks foreign compound in Afghan capital of Kabul

A massive truck bomb has exploded outside a guesthouse popular with foreigners in Kabul. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack that left at least four people dead.

Afghanistan Angriff auf Wohnanlage für Ausländer in Kabul

A powerful truck bomb exploded near the Northgate Hotel in Kabul in the early hours of Monday morning, security officials said. A police officer was killed and the three attackers were dead after a seven-hour gunbattle.

“The operation is over now,” Kabul Police Chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi told reporters. “One policeman lost his life and three others were wounded but none of the hotel staff or guests were hurt.”

The Taliban gunmen had stormed the upscale hotel, which is located close to the US-run Bagram airbase and houses international contractors. The Northgate is a heavily-guarded facility with blast walls and watchtowers.

Afghan policemen keep watch near the site of a bomb blast in Kabul, Afghanistan August 1, 2016. REUTERS/ Omar Sobhani 
Copyright: Reuters/O. SobhaniTaliban militants have frequently targeted foreign guesthouses in the past

The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying it targeted the hotel because it was a place of “debauchery and obscenity for foreign invaders.”

NATO special forces oversaw the operation near the scene of the attack, as heavy gunfire and blasts echoed throughout the district Monday morning.

Previous attacks

Foreign guesthouses have been a frequent target of Taliban attacks in the past. The Northgate has been attacked by insurgents at least once before, in July 2013.

The blast comes a week after a suicide attack on a demonstration by members of Afghanistan’s Hazara community killed at least 80 people and wounded more than 230.

The self-styled “Islamic State” group claimed responsibility for that attack.

Watch video01:35

Militants killed in Kabul attack

bw,jar/cmk (AP, Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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