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Afghanistan, U.S. Seek To Protect Families Of Taliban Leaders Looking For Peace

1 Day Gandhara - RFE/RL

WASHINGTON -- Top Afghan officials see a genuine chance for peace with elements of the Taliban and the Haqqani network but worry the latest efforts at reconciliation could be undermined both by internal rivals and by Pakistan and other foreign influences. Afghan officials believe the insurgent leaders who seek to make a deal are being threatened and that some have already been forced to back away following threats to their families. "It's not a theoretical threat. It is real," Afghan National Security Adviser Mohammad Haneef Atmar said on March 22 during a visit to Washington for meetings with U.S. officials. "There are brave leaders who would run the risk," Atmar said. "They're asking for a process by which they and their families are protected to engage in peace." Atmar described efforts to accommodate these Taliban and Haqqani leaders as sensitive, explaining it has long been standard practice for the families of influential officials to be held in other locations as a sort of collateral. "That is the way they are to be trusted," he said. Possible Solution One possible solution could involve Saudi Arabia, which has indicated it is interested in supporting both Afghanistan and the larger U.S. strategy in South Asia. "They want to be better aligned with us," Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said on March 22, following meetings between U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The extent to which the Saudis are willing to go is not clear, though White said there seemed to be a willingness to at least host talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, if not do more to ensure the safety of Taliban families. "Not necessarily specifically safe haven," White said of what was discussed. "But talking about [how] we will look at ways to help facilitate a political reconciliation with those Taliban members who are willing to talk." But some of the challenges that could stand in the way of reconciliation may be even trickier. One of those is Pakistan, which has come under repeated criticism from both Kabul and Washington for failing to take decisive action against terrorist elements aiming to destabilize the region, including the Taliban and Haqqani network. Back in January, the U.S. suspended $1.9 billion in assistance to Islamabad for what senior administration officials described as a lack of commitment. Pakistan Action Afghan officials say they have yet to see any improvement, indicating the action Pakistan has taken against terrorists is often less than helpful. "We haven't had any positive response from Pakistan as yet, not any change in the policy they are pursuing," Afghan National Security Adviser Atmar said during a speech on March 22 at the U.S. Institute for Peace. Instead, Atmar accused Pakistan of pressuring, and even attacking, elements of the Afghan Taliban who are willing to negotiate in good faith. "We do have Taliban leaders who are working for peace now who are wounded, who were attacked in Pakistan," Atmar said. VOA sought comment from Pakistani officials, who have yet to respond. Further complicating matters, top Afghan officials contend outside powers like Russia have been willing to play some terrorist groups off against one another, for example arming the Taliban under the guise of having the Taliban take on terrorists from the Islamic State group. U.S. military officials have raised similar concerns. But Atmar said that despite Moscow's assurances that it is not providing weapons to the Taliban, "we would like to see that in practice." -- Voice Of America

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Fate Of ‘Disappeared’ Stirs Pashtun Anger In Pakistan

21 Mar 2018 Gandhara - RFE/RL

(Reuters) - When Mohammad Ayub Khan heard his nephew had been picked up by Pakistani security officials in Karachi, it brought back painful memories of another nephew who had gone missing in similar circumstances years before. Khan, an ethnic Pashtun, says he had been calling at army and police offices seeking news of Haji Akbar since his nephew was ordered off a bus by uniformed soldiers seven years ago during a security alert in the northern Swat Valley. Then last year his second nephew, rickshaw driver Abu Ghurera, was detained by plainclothes men as he waited for a fare in the country's biggest city, according to witnesses. "I have knocked on every door but have not gotten any answers," said Khan, who blames government security agencies for both men's disappearances. "Tell us where our children are so we know if they are alive. And if they are dead, at least return their bodies." Rights groups say such cases have been common for the past decade. But the simmering resentment of the Pashtuns boiled over in January, when a young Pashtun man was gunned down by police in Karachi in an incident an inquiry has since ruled to be an extrajudicial killing. The killing, initially described by police as a shootout with terrorist suspects, sparked peaceful protests across the country by members of the 30 million-strong Pashtuns, who say hundreds of their young men have been "disappeared." The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which organized the protests, has compiled a list of approximately 1,200 missing persons after speaking to families. A preliminary list of 315 names has been seen by Reuters. Relatives of 20 of those listed were contacted and confirmed their family member was missing. Amnesty International said on March 19 that a UN working group on enforced disappearances had 700 pending cases from Pakistan and urged the authorities to do more to resolve them. PTM leaders say stories of Pashtun disappearances have been largely ignored until now, especially ordeals suffered by families from the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, including thousands who moved to major cities to escape a near-decade-long insurgency by Islamist militants. The Pakistan Army's public relations department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the military has in the past said it does not detain individuals without evidence. Pakistan's Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. Scared To Speak Out Many relatives, including Khan, say they had been too scared to speak up, fearing security forces would act against them and their remaining family members. But protest leaders say that changed with the January killing of Naqibullah Mehsud in Karachi, and the demonstrations that followed that swelled to several thousand strong. "Naqib's blood has given the rest of us a voice," said Alam Zeb Khan, one of the protest organizers. Pashtuns say the insurgency raging in their homeland has led security forces to treat them all as potential militants. The killing of Mehsud, an aspiring fashion model, received nationwide attention because his widely shared social media profile, laden with pictures of him posing in fashionable clothes, cast doubt on police assertions that he was a violent Islamist. A police committee of inquiry has since ordered the arrest of the officers responsible for his death and termed the incident an extrajudicial killing. Meanwhile, the January protests snowballed, with demonstrators camping out in the capital, Islamabad, denouncing the disappearance and extrajudicial killings of young Pashtuns. No Time To Be Young Several of the Pashtun protest organizers say they have been activists since their teens. "We have to grow up early. It's because of the lives we are born into," Alam Zeb said. PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen, 26, says he has waited years for this moment. Last year he was organizing small 100-person protests in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan, where he has lived since leaving conflict-ridden South Waziristan to pursue an education in 2005. On March 15, Pakistani authorities filed a case against Pashteen for "provocation with intent to cause riot," carrying a maximum sentence of five years. "I am angry because I am asking for my constitutional rights from the government," Pashteen told Reuters. "And the state calls me treacherous." A senior police official said a case had been lodged against Pashteen over anti-state comments he made during the protests. In 2009, the army launched an offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan. The war reduced entire villages to rubble and turned nearly 1 million people into internal refugees. The leadership of the Pakistani Taliban hails from the region and the group controlled large swathes of territory in both South and North Waziristan until they were pushed out by the military in separate operations in 2009 and 2014. The region is still affected by media restrictions limiting the ability of journalists to travel there, and activists say that has contributed to the portrayal of the Pashtun population as wedded to backward tribal customs and maintaining close ties to militant groups. "If your name is Mehsud and you're from South Waziristan, then immediately people associate you with militants," human rights lawyer Jibran Nasir said. Missing Without A Trace Organizers say their protests have had some impact. Eight missing persons have returned in the past month, Alam Zeb told Reuters, adding they were detained by Pakistan's intelligence agencies. "I have spoken to the families of all eight and they were with the intelligence agencies," he said. Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the main spy agency, did not respond to a request for comment. One such case is that of Sohail Ahmed, who was taken by security officials in plainclothes in July 2016 and finally returned earlier this month. In another case, a man who was arrested by security forces in the northern town of Bajaur turned up in police custody 150 km (80 miles) away on charges of possessing weapons and bomb-making materials. "He hated militants," Mohammad Zahid said of his cousin, Kaleemullah, whose arrest he witnessed. Protesters say such stories are common. Mohammad Bilal has not seen his son since he was taken by security officials eight years ago. "He was working as a bus conductor in Karachi when the coach was stopped by security officials and Hazratullah was taken away," Bilal told Reuters, holding up a large picture of his son. Bilal says he has asked police and military officials about his son but has received no answers. "I am alone," he said. "He is my oldest son. How can I forget him?"

Defiant Governor Reaches Agreement With Kabul

21 Mar 2018 Gandhara - RFE/RL

In a public speech marking the onset of the Persian new year on March 21, Atta Mohammad Noor told residents of northern Balkh Province that he had reached an agreement with President Ashraf Ghani that will see him leave his post after 14 years.

Taliban Claim Car-Bomb Attack In Kabul

19 Mar 2018 Gandhara - RFE/RL

Afghan officials say at least three people have been killed and two others wounded in a suicide car-bomb attack in Kabul. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast that hit the Despechari area in eastern Kabul early on March 17. The latest attack comes amid growing pressure on the Taliban to accept the Afghan government's offer of peace talks to end the 16-year conflict.

Undocumented In Iran: One Family's Story

16 Mar 2018 Gandhara - RFE/RL

Hanieh and Ali fell in love and got married three years ago, despite their families' objections. But Ali, the son of Afghan refugees, has no residency papers in Iran, and neither does the couple's young daughter. Now separated as Ali seeks asylum in Germany, the two told their stories to RFE/RL Radio Farda contributor Masih Alinejad.