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A Family Tragedy Captures Life On The Afghan Front Line

15 Jan 2019 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

CHARBOLAK, Afghanistan -- The weeklong fighting in Charbolak, a rural district in Afghanistan’s northern province of Balkh, has attracted little attention elsewhere. As the Taliban and Afghan security forces spent the past week in pitched battles in Charbolak, the claims of casualties on both sides only attracted a passing mention in Afghan and international media. But one family paid a heavy price for living on a dangerous Afghan front line. Muhammadullah, 65, is badly wounded. Last week he lost two daughters, and two of his other four children were injured. He lost his house in the crossfire between government soldiers and Taliban insurgents in the once-sleepy village of Timorak. Rival Afghan combatants often prefer to fight and launch attacks within populated areas, invariably killing and maiming civilians. “The bang was sudden, and it knocked me out,” Muhammadullah said of the artillery shell strike that reduced his living room to rubble. “When I regained consciousness, I saw that the roof had caved in and there was blood everywhere.” Speaking to Radio Free Afghanistan in a crowded hospital in Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, he said his family were trapped for hours until neighbors managed to dig them out the next day. Two of his teenage daughters died that day, but he wasn’t able to attend their funerals as he was rushed to the hospital alongside his 7-year-old son, Hidayatullah, and 5-year-old daughter, Amena. “One of my sons is in mental shock after the tragedy. The rest of my family is also devastated,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan on January 15. While Muhammadullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name only, survived the attack, he is paralyzed and might not walk again. Elsewhere in the same hospital, his 35-year-old son, Qudratullah, is tending to Amena in the orthopedic ward. He blames the government forces for ruining their lives in an attack that was supposed to target alleged Taliban positions some 2 kilometers away. “It was a massacre, but neither the provincial governor nor the police chief has even bothered to visit us,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Even the lawmakers representing us in the central parliament and the provincial legislature did not bother to share our grief.” Fear pervades Charbolak following the fighting. Last week, the Taliban began their offensive armed with laser weapons and night-vision goggles and attacked security posts in Timorak, which sits along a highway connecting Balkh to neighboring Jowzjan Province. Scores of soldiers, insurgents, and civilians have died in the fighting, which has also destroyed houses and livelihoods. The Taliban have also reportedly captured more than a dozen government soldiers. However, it was not possible to independently verify rival claims of casualties and advances. Muhammad Ali, a resident, says they are fed up with the Taliban and a predatory government militia masquerading as local police. “We want the government to pay attention to our suffering. Why is it not able to end our misery and oppression?” he asked. “Why can’t they end insecurity and prevent the Taliban [from overrunning territories]?” Residents say the Taliban now control most of Charbolak, where the government’s presence and control are confined to a few compounds in the district center. Locals say the insurgents are now so emboldened that they set up makeshift checkpoints along the Balkh-Jowzjan highway to look for government workers and extort commercial vehicles. “Charbolak is very dangerous for anyone connected to the government,” Muhammad Nabi, a government employee, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “It is increasingly difficult for government workers and civilians to even get around.” In Mazar-e Sharif, Balkh police chief Muhammad Akram Sameh says the situation in Charbolak is improving and government forced have killed more than 30 insurgents. But civilians in Charbolak are desperate. Dozens of families have already left for the relative safety of Mazar-e Sharif, some 40 kilometers to the east. Back in his hospital bed, Muhammadullah doesn’t know how he will pick up the pieces to build a life again. Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Mujibur Rahman Habibzai in Charbolak, Afghanistan.

Devastating Drought Dries Up Kabul

14 Jan 2019 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Residents of the Afghan capital, Kabul, are drilling deeper and deeper for water as the country's drought takes hold. The water shortage has been exacerbated by the city's burgeoning population, which has grown to some five million, boosted by people fleeing war and poverty.

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Squabble Over Venue Latest Hurdle In Taliban-U.S. Peace Talks

14 Jan 2019 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

(Reuters) - Efforts to negotiate a peace deal to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan, already beset by a disagreement over the agenda, now face a new hurdle over the venue for the talks. Last week, Taliban leaders called off a fourth round of talks with U.S. officials in the Arab Gulf state of Qatar due to an "agenda disagreement," and refused to allow "puppet" Afghan government officials to join. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, is holding talks with regional powers and was expected to meet the Taliban in the coming days. But diplomatic sources said differences over the venue had caused a delay. "Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates), have made it clear that they will not participate in the peace talks if the meeting takes place in Qatar. But the Taliban insists on holding them in Qatar," said a Kabul-based diplomat whose country shares a border with Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf nations severed ties with Qatar in 2017, alleging that Qatar funded militants and had close ties to Iran. Qatar denied funding militants, but it restored diplomatic relations with Iran after the crisis with its neighbors. Washington has pushed the Gulf nations to end their dispute at a time when their support is crucial in talks with the Taliban. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who stopped in Doha on January 13 during a Middle East tour, said the rift between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors had gone on for too long. The Taliban this month pushed to shift the venue from Saudi Arabia to Qatar in a bid to fend off Riyadh's bid to include the Afghan government in the talks. "Differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have in fact damaged our peace process. The Saudis unnecessarily put pressure on us to announce a ceasefire which even the U.S. delegation didn't pursue," a Taliban leader, who declined to be named, told Reuters. The Saudi and UAE embassies in Kabul declined to comment. The tensions underscore what diplomats say is a lack of consensus among regional powers, whose support is crucial for long-term peace in Afghanistan. "There is a whole load of posturing. They are not monolithic," a Western diplomat in Kabul said of Afghanistan's neighbors. A senior Iranian diplomat said holding the peace talks in Saudi Arabia would be unacceptable to Tehran. "The U.S. officials want the venue to be in Saudi Arabia, but we are not comfortable," he said. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid declined to confirm the date or location of the next meeting, though a senior Taliban source told Reuters it could take place on January 15. The Taliban regards the United States as its main adversary in the Afghan war and views direct talks with Washington as a legitimate effort to seek the withdrawal of foreign troops before engaging with the Afghan government.

Taliban Urged To Heed Past Mistakes In Afghan Peace Talks

09 Jan 2019 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Afghans are asking the Taliban to learn from their country’s recent troubled history as the hard-line Islamist movement refuses to negotiate peace with the Afghan government. Some Afghans compare the current situation to the end of Soviet occupation and its aftermath in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when mujahedin Islamist rebels based in neighboring Pakistan refused to negotiate peace with their country’s once pro-Soviet socialist government. The mujahedin refused to hold peace talks with the Dr. Najbullah-led government even after the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989. This ultimately paved the way for renewed bloodshed. Two decades later, fighting still rages and Afghans see no end to their suffering. “The Taliban must refrain from repeating the blunders of the mujahedin, which only resulted in the utter devastation of Afghanistan,” lawmaker Amir Khan Yar told Wolesi Jirga or the lower house of the Afghan Parliament on January 9. He acknowledged that a flurry of diplomatic activities to jumpstart peace talks in Afghanistan have taken place in recent months. Yar says that despite involving U.S., Pakistani, Chinese, Russian, Iranian and Arab officials, these efforts are unlikely to address the real conflict. “This is ultimately a conflict between Afghans. Our government needs to be part of these negotiations so we can finally pave the way toward peace among Afghans,” he noted. “This will benefit everyone.” Since the demise of the Taliban regime in a U.S.-led military attack in late 2001, the insurgents have insisted on calling themselves the real government of Afghanistan and have labeled the Western-backed Kabul government a U.S. puppet. As U.S.-led efforts to seek a negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict have geared up in recent months, the Taliban have insisted on only talking to Washington, regional states, and global powers while refusing to negotiate with Kabul. Hameed Azizi, a Kabul-based political commentator, says the Taliban appear to have borrowed from the mujahedin playbook by refusing to negotiate with the Afghan government. “Their strategy will result in repeating the mujahedin history,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. The 1988 Geneva Accords negotiated between the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, the United States, and Pakistan resulted in an agreed schedule for the withdrawal of the Red Army. But Washington, Moscow, and Islamabad failed to honor its key provision regarding ending military support to the warring sides. The mujahedin refused to acknowledge the agreement because they were not part of negotiations. The rebels also rejected Dr. Najibullah’s efforts toward reconciliation among Afghans by offering to hand over power under UN auspices. Thus, the demise of the socialist regime in April 1992 precipitated a brutal fratricidal civil war among mujahedin and former communist factions. Nearly three decades later, Washington seems geared toward reducing or even ending its military presence in Afghanistan. Some Afghans feel that a precipitous withdrawal or swift political changes could trigger anarchy as in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal and the collapse of the political system it propped up for more than a decade. The Taliban’s actions show they are not giving up fighting their fellow Afghans. In recent months, the Taliban have repeatedly talked to Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan. A Taliban delegation participated in peace talks in Moscow and insurgent representatives have met Arab, Iranian, Chinese, and Pakistani officials to talk peace, but they have repeatedly refused to sit down with Afghan officials. Mohammad Omer Daudzai, the Afghan president's special peace envoy, remains optimistic that his country can see peace in 2019, but he has yet to meet with Taliban representatives. Daudzai told a gathering in Kabul last week that the Taliban refused to sit down with an Afghan government delegation in November when their representatives met with Khalilzad and officials from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi. “They [the Taliban] need to show some flexibility. They must pay attention to what the people of Afghanistan expect from them,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They need to take steps toward peace, as do our government, on behalf of our nation, so we can reach peace.” In a January 9 article titled Pressure Will Not Make Talks Successful published on the insurgents’ Voice Of Jihad website, the Taliban explained their position in a visible attempt to deflect pressure from meeting with the Afghan government. “Our agenda’s basic points are an end to the [U.S.] occupation and giving assurances to the U.S. about their future concerns,” the statement said while alluding to Washington’s original goal of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a bastion for Islamist terrorists. “Afghanistan’s current conflict cannot be resolved if instead of resolving the fundamental issues we talk about secondary issues that are not even related to the external dimensions of the Afghan conflict,” the statement noted. In Kabul, however, government leaders are not buying this logic. Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah says that without the Taliban talking to the Afghan government peace in their country will remain a dream. He told a gathering in Kabul on January 9 that the Taliban’s “talk about the withdrawal of foreign forces is an excuse for the continuation of war and gaining more opportunities.” Abdullah says their efforts to encourage the insurgents to “talk about ending the need for the presence of foreign troops” has gone nowhere and the Taliban continue to refuse to talk to their administration. “They do this to show that the government is either weak or does not exist,” he said. Safiullah Stanikzai contributed reporting to this story.