At Least 28 Killed In Afghan Mosque Blast

A volunteer carries an injured youth to hospital, following a bomb blast in Haska Mina district of Nangarhar Province on October 18, 2019. At least 28 worshippers were killed and dozens wounded by a blast inside an Afghan mosque during Friday prayers on October 18, officials said, a day after the United Nations said violence in the country had reached “unacceptable” levels.
NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP

 

At least 28 people were killed and dozens wounded by a blast inside an Afghan mosque during Friday prayers, officials said, a day after the United Nations said violence in the country had reached “unacceptable” levels.

The explosion, which witnesses said collapsed the mosque’s roof, took place in eastern Nangarhar province and wounded at least 55 people, provincial governor spokesman Attaullah Khogyani told AFP.

He said the dead were “all worshippers” at the mosque in Haska Mina district, roughly 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the provincial capital Jalalabad.

Dr. Zarghoon, an official at the government hospital in Haska Mina, gave a slightly higher toll of 33 dead and 60 wounded.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Both the Taliban and the Islamic State group are active in Nangarhar province.

Witnesses said the roof of the mosque had fallen through after the “loud” explosion, the nature of which was not immediately clear.

Some 350 worshippers were inside at the time, Omar Ghorzang, a local resident, told AFP.

“Dozens of people were killed and wounded and were taken in several ambulances,” Haji Amanat Khan, a 65-year-old local resident, told AFP.

The blast came after the UN released a new report on Thursday saying an “unprecedented” number of civilians were killed or wounded in Afghanistan from July to September.

The report, which also charts violence throughout 2019 so far, underscores how “Afghans have been exposed to extreme levels of violence for many years” despite promises by all sides to “prevent and mitigate harm to civilians”.

It also noted the absurdity of the ever-increasing price paid by civilians given the widespread belief that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won by either side.

“Civilian casualties are totally unacceptable,” said the UN’s special representative in Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, adding they demonstrate the importance of talks leading to a ceasefire and a permanent political settlement.

The figures – 1,174 deaths and 3,139 injured from July 1 until September 30 — represent a 42 percent increase compared to the same period last year.

The UN laid most of the blame for the spike at the feet of “anti-government elements” such as the Taliban, who have been carrying out a bloody insurgency in Afghanistan for more than 18 years.

July alone saw more casualties than in any other month on record since the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) began documenting the violence in 2009.

The first six months of 2019 had seen casualties drop slightly compared to previous years.

But the violence has surged so far in the third quarter that it yanked the overall total for the year back on par with the bloodiest since NATO withdrew its combat forces at the end of 2014.

Afghan Voters Head To Polls Amid Deadly Violence

Afghan presidential candidate and current Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah (C), leaves after casting his vote outside a polling station in Kabul./ AFP

 

Afghans voted in presidential elections amid tight security Saturday, even as insurgents attacked polling centres in a series of blasts across the country that left at least one person dead.

The first-round vote marks the culmination of a bloody election campaign that is seen as a close race between President Ashraf Ghani and his bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive.

Wary authorities placed an uneasy Kabul under partial lockdown, flooding streets with troops and banning trucks from entering the city in an effort to stop would-be suicide bombers targeting residents as they cast their votes.

By midday, the toll appeared relatively light compared to previous elections, though Afghan national authorities provided little, if any, information about reported blasts.

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One person was killed and two others wounded in an explosion near a polling centre in Jalalabad in the eastern province of Nangarhar, provincial governor’s spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said.

And at least 16 people were wounded in the southern city of Kandahar when a bomb went off at a polling station, a hospital director told AFP, while officials across the country reported several small explosions at other election sites.

The Taliban, who unleashed a string of bombings during the two-month election campaign, claimed to have hit several polling stations.

Having voted at a high school near the presidential palace in Kabul, Ghani said the most important issue was finding a leader who could bring peace to the war-torn nation.

“Our roadmap (for peace) is ready, I want the people to give us permission and legitimacy so that we pursue peace,” Ghani said.

Some 9.6 million Afghans are registered to vote, but many have little faith that after 18 years of war any leader can unify the fractious country and improve basic living conditions, boost the stagnating economy or bolster security.

Still, voters braved insurgent attacks and long queues to cast a ballot.

“I know there are security threats but bombs and attacks have become part of our everyday lives,” 55-year-old Mohiuddin, who only gave one name, told AFP.

“I am not afraid, we have to vote if we want to bring changes.”

Abdullah and Ghani both claimed victory in the 2014 election — a vote so tainted by fraud and violence that it led to a constitutional crisis and forced then-US president Barack Obama to push for a compromise that saw Abdullah awarded the subordinate role.

“The only request I have from the election commission is that they ensure the transparency of the election because lots of people have lost their trust,” Afghan voter Sunawbar Mirzae, 23, said.

– Problems voting –
Voting in Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election was supposed to take place at some 5,000 polling centres across the country but hundreds have been closed to the abysmal security situation.

Many Afghans said voting had gone smoothly, triumphantly holding up fingers stained in indelible ink to show they had cast a ballot, but several said they had experienced problems.

“I came this early morning to cast my ballot. Unfortunately my name was not on the list,” said Ziyarat Khan, a farmer in Nangarhar. “The whole process is messy like the last time.”

Campaigning was hampered by violence from the first day when Ghani’s running mate was targeted in a bomb-and-gun attack that left at least 20 dead.

Bloody attacks have continued to rock Afghanistan, including a Taliban bombing at a Ghani rally last week that killed at least 26 people in the central province of Parwan near Kabul.

The interior ministry says 72,000 forces will help to secure polling stations.

Election officials say this will be the cleanest election yet, with equipment such as biometric fingerprint readers and better training for poll workers to ensure the vote is fair.

Still, the US embassy in Kabul has said it is “disturbed by so many complaints about security, lack of an equal playing field and fraud” and many Afghans say they have no intention of voting, citing fraud and security fears.

Saturday’s poll was initially slated to take place in April, but was twice delayed because election workers were ill-prepared, and the US was leading a push to forge a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban.

That deal has been scuppered for now after US President Donald Trump pulled out and Afghanistan’s next president will likely face the daunting task of trying to strike a bargain with the Taliban.

Results are not expected until October 19. Candidates need more than 50 percent of the vote to be declared the outright winner, or else the top two will head for the second round in November.

Polls close at 3:00 pm (1030 GMT).

Death Toll In Blast Near Afghan Presidential Rally Rises To 26

 

A Taliban suicide bomber killed at least 26 people and wounded dozens near a campaign rally for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday, with the insurgents warning of more violence ahead of elections.

About an hour after the attack, another blast also claimed by the Taliban rocked central Kabul near the US embassy.

It was not immediately clear if the second blast claimed any lives, but an AFP journalist at nearby Wazir Akbar Khan hospital saw around a dozen wounded victims, and a witness told AFP he had seen bodies in the street.

The explosions came after US President Donald Trump abruptly ended talks with the Taliban on September 10 over a deal that would have allowed the US to begin withdrawing troops from its longest war.

In a statement sent to media claiming responsibility for both blasts, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the attack near Ghani’s rally was deliberately aimed at disrupting the September 28 elections.

“We already warned people not to attend election rallies, if they suffer any losses that is their own responsibility,” the statement said.

The bomber near Ghani’s rally — in Parwan province, about an hour’s drive north of Kabul — had been on a motorbike and had detonated his device at a checkpoint leading to the event, according to interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi.

An AFP image from the scene showed the remains of a burnt motorcycle, with a body on top covered by a blanket, next to a badly damaged police car.

Women and children were among the causalities, Parwan hospital director Abdul Qasim Sangin told AFP, adding 42 people were injured as well as the 26 dead.

The president, who was speaking to his supporters at the time of the blast, was unhurt but later condemned the attack, saying the incident proved the Taliban had no real interest in reconciliation.

“As the Taliban continue their crimes, they once again prove that they are not interested in peace and stability in Afghanistan,” said Ghani in a statement.

The UN offices in Afghanistan also slammed the Taliban, accusing the insurgents of showing “despicable disregard for civilian life & fundamental human right to participate in democratic process”.

– Talks ‘dead’ –
Sixty kilometres (40 miles) away in Kabul, a shopkeeper, Rahimullah, said he had been sitting inside his shop when the second blast came.

“The wave broke all the windows,” he told AFP.

“I rushed outside and saw several bodies just across the street. This is the second time in less than a month that a blast has broken our windows. I just fixed them a week ago.”

The elections will see Ghani face off against his own Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, and more than a dozen other candidates, including former warlords, ex-spies, and onetime members of the country’s former communist regime.

For weeks, the election had been sidelined by the US-Taliban talks, with many Afghans and observers expecting the vote to be cancelled if a deal was agreed. Even candidates did little in the way of campaigning.

But with the deal off, Ghani and his rivals have begun the race.

Ghani is seeking a clear mandate they can use to negotiate with the insurgents on a lasting peace in Afghanistan.

Trump’s declaration that the US-Taliban talks were “dead” spurred the insurgents to declare last week that the only other option was more fighting.

“We had two ways to end occupation in Afghanistan, one was jihad and fighting, the other was talks and negotiations,” Mujahid told AFP last week.

“If Trump wants to stop talks, we will take the first way and they will soon regret it.”

Observers had warned the Taliban, who hope to weaken the future president, will do anything they can to upend the election.

On the first day of campaigning in July, suicide attackers and gunmen targeted the Kabul office of Ghani’s running mate, Amrullah Saleh. At least 20 people died in those attacks.

Turnout in the elections is set to be low, with experts citing fear of violence and a loss of hope among voters following widespread fraud allegations during the 2014 election.

Afghan Taliban Rescind Ban On Red Cross

 

The Afghan Taliban rescinded a months-long ban on the International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC) working in areas under their control Sunday and restored security guarantees for those working for the organisation.

The militants and the ICRC “consented to following the old agreement on top of new promises in humanitarian aid leading to the Islamic Emirate granting ICRC permission of resuming their activities,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement.

Taliban fighters were instructed to “pave the way for ICRC activities and be mindful of security to this committee’s workers and equipment,” it added.

“We welcome the acknowledgment of our humanitarian principles and renewal of security guarantees to enable us (to) work in #Afghanistan in favour of people affected by the armed conflict,” Schaerer Juan-Pedro, head of ICRC in Kabul said on Twitter.

In April the insurgents banned both the ICRC and World Health Organization (WHO) from carrying out relief activities in areas under their control and revoked security guarantees.

The Taliban did not mention the WHO in the announcement, which it said came following talks with ICRC in Doha.

In August last year, the Taliban temporarily withdrew safety guarantees for the ICRC, accusing the international group of failing to meet its mission obligations to monitor detention conditions in Afghan jails and provide medical aid to Taliban prisoners.

As fears of increased violence soar with presidential elections approaching later this month, Afghan troops and Taliban insurgents have been engaged in heavy exchanges across Afghanistan, with several militant-controlled districts in the far north falling to government forces.

The Taliban continue to strike Afghan installations at will after the militants issued their own vow to continue fighting after US President Donald Trump abruptly cancelled negotiations that aimed to pave the way for an American withdrawal from Afghanistan following 18 years of war.

Taliban Threaten Afghan Presidential Elections

 

The Taliban warned Afghans on Tuesday to keep away from election rallies and ordered its fighters to “stand against” the planned September vote.

The threat came as fresh violence gripped Afghanistan, including a bicycle bombing in Kabul that killed five people, even while the Taliban and the US were negotiating for a peace settlement.

Previous elections have been rocked by frequent attacks conducted by the Taliban and other insurgent groups trying to undermine Afghanistan’s fragile democracy, and this year’s campaign season has already proven to be no different.

The presidential election is slated for September 28, but the race has got off to a lacklustre start and some candidates have yet to launch their campaigns.

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Many observers think the poll will be postponed again — it has already been pushed back twice this year — to create space for a peace deal to be finalised between the US and the Taliban.

The Taliban said its fighters should “stand against this theatrical and sham of a process to their full capabilities”, a clear instruction to conduct attacks.

“To prevent losses, God forbid, from being incurred by our fellow compatriots, they must stay away from gatherings and rallies that could become potential targets,” a message posted on the Taliban’s website stated.

The Taliban said Afghan elections do not “hold any value”, referring to the 2014 presidential poll that was mired in fraud allegations and saw the US broker a power-sharing deal between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

Last month, on the first day of the campaign season, suicide bombers and gunmen stormed the Kabul office of Amrullah Saleh, Ghani’s running-mate, killing at least 20 people.

– ‘War crime’ threats –
In a statement, Ghani’s office said security forces are “fully prepared” to protect Afghans against Taliban threats and would not allow anyone to disrupt polls.

“Participation in elections and choosing a leader through direct voting is the religious and legal right of the Afghan people,” the statement read.

“The Afghan government has made all preparations to hold a free, fair and transparent election”.

Zaman Sultani, a South Asia researcher at Amnesty International, said the Taliban threats demonstrate a “chilling disregard” for human life.

“At a time when the Taliban claims to be pursuing peace, it is threatening to carry out war crimes by attacking civilians at election rallies”, Sultani said.

Privately, many Afghans say they have no intention of voting, given the security risks and the perception of fraud.

The US and the Taliban are currently meeting in Doha for an eighth round of talks aimed at striking a peace deal that would slash the US military presence in Afghanistan.

Both sides have cited “excellent progress”.

“We are discussing the final remaining points,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP on Tuesday.

“With that, the peace agreement will be completed and then we will decide on the announcement of the date of the agreement.”

According to the UN, more than 1,500 civilians were killed or wounded in the Afghan conflict in July alone, the highest monthly toll so far this year and the worst single month since May 2017.

At least five people were killed and seven injured in Kabul on Tuesday when an explosives-rigged bicycle detonated near an Afghan government vehicle, the interior ministry said in a statement.

“A sticky bomb placed on a bicycle exploded while a vehicle carrying personnel of the counter narcotics directorate was passing,” the statement read.

Death Toll In Afghan Bus Blast Rises To 34

An Afghan man holds the dead body of a child killed when a bus hit a roadside bomb on the Kandahar-Herat highway, at a hospital in Herat on July 31, 2019. Dozens of passengers, mainly women and children, were killed in western Afghanistan early July 31 when the bus they were travelling in hit a roadside bomb, officials said.
HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP

 

At least 34 people were killed in western Afghanistan when their bus hit a Taliban roadside bomb, officials said Wednesday, the same day a US peace envoy indicated a peace deal with the insurgents could be imminent.

Even in a conflict where civilians die daily, Wednesday’s blast stood out as particularly devastating, as most of the victims were women and children.

The explosion ripped through the bus around 6:00 am (0130 GMT) in Farah province, authorities said, along a busy highway to neighbouring Herat.

“It was dark, and the bus hit a mine,” passenger Ali Juma told AFP from a hospital in Herat. “There were many casualties, martyrs and wounded people.”

The explosion came amid a US push for peace with the Taliban that after several slow months now appears to be making progress.

US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who spent more than a week in Kabul, on Wednesday left Afghanistan for Pakistan before heading to Doha, where he is expected to hold a fresh round of talks with the Taliban.

After nearly 18 gruelling years, the US wants to quit Afghanistan in return for various security guarantees from the Taliban, including that the insurgents won’t let terror groups operate in the country.

Khalilzad, who was formerly US ambassador to Afghanistan, said his visit to Kabul had been his “most productive” yet in his new role.

“I’m off to Doha, with a stop in Islamabad. In Doha, if the Taliban do their part, we will do ours, and conclude the agreement we have been working on,” Khalilzad tweeted.

The push to end the Afghan war has ignited widespread concern among Afghans that in Washington’s rush to exit its longest war the Taliban will be returned to some semblance of power.

Civilian Toll

According to a UN report released Tuesday, 1,366 civilians were killed and another 2,446 wounded during the first six months of 2019.

Afghan officials blamed the Taliban for Wednesday’s explosion, saying they had planted a bomb along a busy highway with the aim of hitting security forces.

The insurgents did not deny or claim involvement, saying they would investigate the “sad incident”.

Muhibullah Muhib, a police spokesman for Farah province, said all the victims were civilians, mostly women and children.

“A passenger bus travelling on the Kandahar-Herat highway hit a Taliban roadside bomb killing 34 innocent people and wounding 17 others,” he said.

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan presidency, confirmed the toll, blaming the incident on the Taliban, while Nasrat Rahim, the interior ministry spokesman, called the blast a “barbaric act of the terrorists”.

“Sadly, this senseless loss of life is all too common in Afghanistan,” Onno van Manen, the Afghanistan director for Save the Children, said in a statement.

“Just in the past month hundreds of children have been killed or injured as a result of explosive weapons.”

The Taliban, who now control or influence about half of Afghanistan’s territory, recently signed on to a vague pledge to reduce civilian casualties, but violence has continued unabated.

Civilians have long paid a disproportionate price in the nearly 18 years since the US invaded Afghanistan, and last year was a record for civilian casualties.

Numbers are down by 27 percent so far this year, but children accounted for almost a third of the overall total of civilian deaths and injuries.

The bloodshed is only expected to worsen now that official campaigning for Afghanistan’s presidential election, set for September 28, is underway.

At least 20 people were killed Sunday, the first official day of the campaign, and 50 wounded when a suicide attacker and gunmen targeted the Kabul office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s running mate, Amrullah Saleh.

14 Killed As Mortars Hit Afghan Market

Afghan ambulances arrive at the site of an attack in Kabul on July 1, 2019./ AFP

 

At least 14 people were killed and dozens more wounded when a busy market in northern Afghanistan was hit by mortar fire, officials said Saturday.

Several Taliban shells hit the market Friday morning in the Khwaja Sabz Posh district of Faryab province, according to Hanif Rezaee, an Afghan army spokesman.

“Fourteen civilians were killed and 40 — including women and children — were wounded,” Rezaee told AFP.

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He said the Taliban had been trying to hit an army checkpoint near the market. The insurgent group did not immediately comment.

Naem Musamim, Faryab’s public health director, said 14 bodies and 39 wounded people including four children had been taken to local hospitals. Some victims with critical injuries were airlifted to hospitals in Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province.

Also Friday, a bomb detonated inside a Shia mosque in Ghazni city in central Afghanistan, killing two worshippers and wounding 20 more, according to Ghazni governor spokesman Aref Noori.

Baz Mohammad Hemat, the director of Ghazni hospital, told AFP that one of those killed and 14 of the wounded were children.

Friday is Afghanistan’s day off and many children attend mosque for prayers on the day of worship.

On Twitter, the Taliban denied involvement in the attack.

The Islamic State group’s Afghan affiliate, which has a growing footprint, has conducted frequent prior attacks on Shia targets. While Afghanistan is a mainly Sunni country, it has a sizeable Shia minority, mainly represented by the Hazara community.

The deadly incidents come as the war between the Taliban and Afghan security forces rages on, even as Taliban officials are meeting with US negotiators in Doha in a bid to bring about an end to the conflict.

An agreement with the Taliban is expected to have two main points — a US withdrawal from Afghanistan and a commitment by the militants not to provide a base for terrorists, the main reason for the US invasion nearly 18 years ago.

On Sunday, the insurgents will meet in the Qatari capital with various representatives from Afghan society as part of a potential peace process.

Russia Invites Taliban, Afghan Politicians To Meeting

In this handout photograph taken and released by the Afghan Presidential Palace on January 27, 2019, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with US special representative for Afghan Peace and reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (top L) during a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Kabul.

 

Afghan politicians are set to attend a two-day meeting with the Taliban in Moscow this week, officials confirmed Monday, as fighting continues to rage in Afghanistan amid ongoing peace talks between the US and the militants.

The meeting, set to run from the 27th and 28th of May – will mark the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP the insurgents were planning to send a delegation to attend the ceremony but provided no further details.

A spokesman for Afghanistan’s high peace council — which is charged with helping facilitate peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban — said Karim Khalili, who heads the body, will also be in attendance.

Former president Hamid Karzai is also set to make an appearance, with his spokesman Yousof Saha suggesting the Afghan and Taliban delegations might meet on the sidelines of the ceremony for informal talks but noted that nothing was guaranteed.

The potential talks would mark the second time leaders from the militant movement have met with opposition leaders in Russia, following a rare sit down between the two sides in February that saw members of the Taliban and Afghan politicians praying together and chatting over meals.

However, no representatives from the current administration of President Ashraf Ghani were present at those informal talks, spurring fears the administration was being further sidelined in the ongoing peace process.

The latest meeting in Moscow comes weeks after a sixth round of talks between the US and Taliban wrapped in Doha with no tangible progress cited by the negotiating teams as Washington continues to push for a settlement with the militants aimed at ending its 18-year fight in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have said that peace negotiations were stumbling over the fundamental question of when foreign forces would depart Afghanistan.

The US, however, has refused to agree to a withdrawal as part of an eventual deal until the Taliban put in place security guarantees, a ceasefire, and other commitments including an “intra-Afghan” dialogue with the Kabul government and other Afghan representatives.

Moscow appears to be gaining influence in the ongoing process, with the US announcing last month that Washington had reached a consensus with China and Russia on the key formula for a peace deal it is negotiating in Afghanistan.

Angelina Jolie Wants Women Included In Afghan Talks

 

American actor and United Nations special envoy Angelina Jolie has called for women to have a central role in ongoing Afghanistan peace talks, warning their exclusion would hamper any chance of lasting stability.

Women negotiators must be included in “significant” numbers in talks with the Taliban, the Islamist extremists that came to power in the 1990s and crushed women’s rights, Jolie said in an opinion column published in TIME magazine Wednesday.

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“Afghan women must be able to speak for themselves,” Jolie wrote.

“This means including female negotiators in significant numbers as part of any Afghan government delegation and ensuring formal participation for women’s groups representing civil society.”

The US has held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in a bid to bring an end to the war against the insurgents that started in late 2001. Separately, Afghan politicians also have met with the Taliban in Moscow.

The talks to date have faced fierce criticism for their lack of female participation, and a meeting between a Kabul delegation and Taliban officials slated to take place in Qatar this month reportedly only has two women in a team of 22 negotiators.

“Women should have leadership roles during the development and implementation of any agreement and be consulted on all aspects of the future of the country — not just ‘women’s issues’,” Jolie said, adding that the US should use its leverage to protect women’s voices.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, they banned girls’ education, forced women to stay home and executed women — sometimes by stoning — for alleged adultery.

Since the US-led invasion in 2001, women’s rights have improved across much of Afghanistan and women are now in positions of authority.

But Afghan culture remains starkly segregated and women fear hard-won freedoms could vanish in a rush for a peace deal.

“There won’t be stability if a peace agreement ushers in a new era of injustice and oppression of women,” Jolie warned.

The Oscar-winning actress is a UN special envoy for refugees. Last month, she addressed the international body at its New York headquarters and called on diplomats to ensure women are included in the Afghan talks.

AFP

Taliban Say Moscow Talks With Afghan Politicians ‘Very Successful’

Participants attend the opening of the two-day talks of the Taliban and Afghan opposition representatives at the President Hotel in Moscow on February 5, 2019. Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP

 

The Taliban on Wednesday hailed two days of unprecedented talks with Afghan politicians as “very successful”, despite disagreements over women’s rights and its demands for an Islamic constitution in the war-torn country.

The extraordinary gathering in Moscow was the Taliban’s most significant with Afghan politicians in years and concluded with both sides agreeing to future talks and ensuring a “durable and dignified peace” for the people of Afghanistan.

No government official was invited to the roundtable, which saw heavyweight leaders — including former president Hamid Karzai — and other sworn enemies of the Taliban praying with the militants.

It was the second time President Ashraf Ghani was frozen out of Taliban peace talks in recent weeks after the United States held entirely separate discussions with the militants in Doha without Kabul.

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, head of the Taliban delegation, made a rare appearance in front of international media alongside Karzai after the talks.

“This meeting was very successful,” the black-turbaned Taliban official told reporters.

“We agreed on many points and I am hopeful that in future, we can succeed more further, and finally we can reach a solution. We can find complete peace in Afghanistan.”

A statement issued on behalf of all parties agreed to support peace talks in Doha with American negotiators, which President Donald Trump described on Tuesday as “constructive”.

Participants also agreed on the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

A timetable for that exit was “not fixed so far… but we are negotiating this”, Stanikzai said.

Earlier Wednesday, a senior Taliban official told reporters the US had agreed to withdraw half its ground troops by the end of April — a claim refuted by NATO and the US State Department.

Kabul’s Involvement Crucial

Delegates at the Moscow meet also opened the door for the government to attend future dialogue — despite the Taliban’s steadfast refusal to talk with Kabul.

“The process should be all-inclusive, which means the government can also be invited and would be part of this,” said Mohammad Hanif Atmar, one of Ghani’s chief rivals, who was present at Moscow.

The Taliban consider the Kabul administration a US puppet but Ghani’s allies in Washington insist Afghans should lead the peace process.

Ostensibly, the months-long push by the US to engage the Taliban has been aimed at convincing them to negotiate with Kabul.

“Ultimately, we need to get to a Taliban-Afghanistan discussion,” General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, told US lawmakers.

“Only they will be able to resolve the key issues involved in the dispute.”

Ghani said he had spoken late on Tuesday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had stressed the importance of “ensuring the centrality of the Afghan government in the peace process”.

The Afghan president has vented frustration at being sidelined as his political enemies shared prayers and meals with the Taliban while discussing the future of his country.

‘Nothing More Than Fantasy’

“The Moscow meeting is nothing more than a fantasy. No one can decide without the consent of the Afghan people,” Ghani told Afghan broadcaster TOLOnews.

Karzai, the US-appointed president who ruled Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, declared agreements reached by the Moscow delegates as “very substantive”.

“We are happy with the outcome of the meeting,” he said.

He said the statement was “almost” issued in consensus — but disagreements prevailed over the Taliban’s demand for an Islamic constitution in Afghanistan, and the group’s views on women.

Fawzia Koofi, one of two female delegates at the conference, disagreed with the militants’ promise to uphold women’s rights “in accordance with Islamic values”.

“I… (lived) in Afghanistan during (the) Taliban time, and I know their interpretation of Islamic rights of (a) woman is different,” Koofi, head of Afghanistan’s parliamentary Committee on Women and Human Rights, told reporters.

She voted against the joint statement — but said delegates had promised her concerns would be taken up at future negotiations.

Under their rule, the Taliban severely curtailed women’s liberties, barring them from work and school, and confined women to their homes — only allowing them outside with a male escort and hidden beneath a burqa.

In the Russian capital, the Taliban sat and listened as women defended their freedoms in a modern Afghanistan — scenes unthinkable under their regime.

The Moscow conference was the Taliban’s most significant engagement with Afghan leaders in recent memory.

The conference was also unique because the Taliban — who banned television, cinemas and photography when they ruled Afghanistan — are rarely so visible.

Their leadership is seldom seen in public and scenes of Taliban officials, some wearing black turbans with long beards, outlining their manifesto for live television is virtually unheard of.

Speaking to the Afghan envoys — some of whom are female — the Taliban promised to loosen some restrictions on women and not seek a monopoly on power.

They have proposed an “inclusive Islamic system” of governance but are demanding a new Islam-based constitution for Afghanistan.

We Are Not A ‘Political Tool’: Afghan Women On Taliban Talks

In this handout photograph taken and released by the Afghan Presidential Palace on January 27, 2019, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with US special representative for Afghan Peace and reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (top L) during a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Kabul. 
Handout / Afghan Presidential Palace / AFP

 

Women who lived under the harsh rule of the Taliban urged senior Afghan politicians to ensure their hard-won freedoms are not bargained away when they talk peace with the insurgents on Tuesday.

The Afghan Women’s Network said their rights should not be used as a “political tool” in dealings with the Taliban, who barred women from schools and jobs and drastically curtailed their personal liberties when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

Their appeal comes as the Taliban meets with a high-ranking Afghan delegation in Moscow, and a week after the insurgents held unprecedented talks with United States negotiators.

The Taliban said the Moscow meeting — their most significant with Afghan politicians in recent memory — would discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops, peace terms and its vision for governance.

The two-day gathering is separate from the US-Taliban negotiations in Doha in January, that ended with both sides touting “progress” and a draft framework which could pave the way for peace talks.

No representative from President Ashraf Ghani’s government — which the Taliban considers a US puppet — was invited to either occasion, angering officials in Kabul.

Afghan women, also largely excluded from the table, fear seeing their hard-won rights eroded if negotiators seek a hasty truce with the Taliban.

“Women should not be used as a political tool by these politicians. If they (Taliban) return and impose restrictions on women, we will not accept that,” Mashal Roshan, a coordinator from the Kabul-based women’s network, told AFP.

“In the past 17 years, Afghan women have gained some hard-won achievements. We don’t want to lose that. It’s our right to go to school and to work, and everyone should respect that.”

In a statement ahead of the Moscow meet, the network said they would not accept peace at the cost of their freedoms and urged delegates to defend the rights of half of Afghanistan’s 35 million people.

“There is no need to reinterpret Afghan women’s lives,” the statement said.

Under their brutal interpretation of Sharia law, the Taliban confined women to their homes, only allowing them outside with a male escort and hidden beneath a burqa.

Girls were banned from schools and colleges and women prohibited from the workplace save in a few areas such as medicine.

The militants have indicated they would provide a safe environment for women’s work and education under an “Islamic system” they have proposed for Afghanistan’s future.

But involvement of the Taliban in any government frightens many women, who recall the stifling restrictions under the Islamic insurgents.

Ghani and de facto prime minister Abdullah Abdullah have urged the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul, saying all Afghans should agree on the need for peace and a troop withdrawal.

The Taliban are expected to meet with US negotiators again later in the month.

Taliban To Meet Afghan Opposition In Moscow – Official

In this handout photograph taken and released by the Afghan Presidential Palace on January 27, 2019, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with US special representative for Afghan Peace and reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (top L) during a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Kabul. Afghanistan said on January 28 it has been reassured by Washington that progress in talks with the Taliban remains geared towards facilitating peace negotiations with the government in Kabul. 
Handout / Afghan Presidential Palace / AFP

 

The Taliban said Sunday it will send a delegation to Russia for a rare meeting with Afghan opposition leaders, just days after peace talks with the United States that excluded the Kabul government.

The two-day sit-down in Moscow, starting Tuesday, will be attended by some of President Ashraf Ghani’s chief political rivals, but none of the government envoys tasked with Taliban negotiations.

Ghani has appealed to the insurgents to talk after being frozen out of six days of discussions between the Taliban and the United States in Doha last month that sealed the outlines of a peace deal.

Instead, the Taliban, which refuses to recognise Ghani’s government, will sit down in Moscow with some of the president’s main opponents to discuss the country’s future — stirring frustrations in Kabul.

“It shows the peak of depression, and begging to terrorists,” said Amrullah Saleh, who is running as vice-president on Ghani’s ticket in elections slated for July.

“A smile to the enemy is a blow to the national spirit,” he posted on his Facebook page on Sunday.

Among those who have confirmed their attendance in Moscow is Haneef Atmar, who is running against Ghani in the elections. Former warlord Atta Muhammad Noor and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai — both Ghani rivals — are also attending.

Noor on Sunday said the meeting was “a pathway towards strengthening the peace efforts led by the US” while Atmar described it as “an important step towards intra-Afghan peace talks”.

A government-appointed council tasked with Taliban engagement said Sunday it was not invited to Moscow.

A senior Taliban official told AFP they would send a delegation, but described the meeting as non-political and “arranged by some organizations based in Moscow”.

The Russian Embassy in Kabul issued a statement late Saturday on behalf of the “Afghan Society of Russia”. The group said it had invited “influential figures” to the dialogue in the President Hotel in Moscow.

“We are ready to play our role in bringing peace to Afghanistan,” the statement read.

It is not clear what role, if any, Russia has in the summit. A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Kabul could not be reached for comment.

The Taliban are scheduled to hold another round of peace talks with the US in Doha on February 25.

The insurgents said discussions were “on the right path” — fuelling speculation of a breakthrough in the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan.

US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad spoke of a “draft framework” for a deal but warned major hurdles — including any US withdrawal — remain.

Ghani has refused to accept a “temporary” deal.

“Even if I have one drop of blood in my body, I am not going to surrender to a temporary peace deal,” he told Afghan commandos in Kabul on Sunday.

“Our goal is to have a peace that comes with dignity.”