A female Afghan news anchor and activist was shot dead by assailants Thursday, her employer said, the second journalist killed in a month in Afghanistan.
Malalai Maiwand, in her 20s, was killed along with her driver Mohammad Tahir in the eastern city of Jalalabad as they travelled to work, said Enekaas TV, the private television channel she worked for.
The journalist, whose activist mother was also killed by unknown gunmen five years ago, had previously spoken out about the difficulties of being a female reporter under Afghanistan’s ultra-conservative patriarchal system.
Australia’s elite special forces “unlawfully killed” 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners, including summary executions as part of initiation rituals, according to evidence in a searing military inquiry now being referred to a special war crimes prosecutor.
A years-long internal investigation into military misconduct was released Thursday, prompting the Chief of the Australian Defence Force to admit a “destructive” culture of impunity among special forces leading to a string of alleged murders and cover-ups spanning years.
“Some patrols took the law into their own hands, rules were broken, stories concocted, lies told and prisoners killed,” General Angus Campbell said, apologising “sincerely and unreservedly” to the people of Afghanistan.
“This shameful record includes alleged instances in which new patrol members were coerced to shoot a prisoner in order to achieve that soldier’s first kill, in an appalling practice known as ‘blooding’.”
The report also reported evidence that troops were engaged in “body count competitions”, and covered up unlawful killings by staging skirmishes, planting weapons and adding names to target lists retrospectively.
The military’s own inspector general produced the harrowing 465-page official inquiry into events between 2005 and 2016 that detailed dozens of killings “outside the heat of battle”.
It recommended 19 individuals be referred to Australian Federal Police, compensation be paid to the families of victims, and the military makes a slew of reforms.
Campbell went a step further, saying those involved had brought a “stain” on their regiment, on the armed forces and on Australia, and would be referred to the office of the special investigator for war crimes.
He also moved to revoke distinguished service medals awarded to special operations forces who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, more than 26,000 Australian uniformed personnel were sent to Afghanistan to fight alongside US and allied forces against the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups.
Australian combat troops officially left the country in 2013, but since then a series of often-brutal accounts have emerged about the conduct of elite special forces units.
They range from reports of troops killing a six-year-old child in a house raid, to a prisoner being shot dead to save space in a helicopter.
– ‘Brutal truths’ – Prime Minister Scott Morrison attempted to cushion the blow of the report, telling Australians last week to brace for the “honest and brutal truths” contained within the heavily redacted document, which censors many highly infammatory details.
Morrison also called his Afghan counterpart Wednesday to foreshadow “some disturbing allegations” that the government was taking “very seriously”.
The office of President Ashraf Ghani said Morrison had “expressed his deepest sorrow over the misconduct”.
The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs labelled the actions detailed in the report as “unforgivable” but acknowledged its publication as an “important step towards justice”.
Last week, Morrison announced the appointment of a special investigator to prosecute the alleged war crimes, a move aimed at forestalling any prosecution at the International Criminal Court.
The revelations will “definitely” be used by the Taliban to restate calls “for foreign forces to withdraw from Afghanistan”, Srinjoy Bose, an international relations lecturer at the University of New South Wales, told AFP.
“I would imagine that the Australian presence in Afghanistan, for the coming weeks and months, will be afforded greater protection.”
The revelations are also a serious blow to the prestige of the country’s military, which is widely revered by Australians.
Its historic campaigns — from Gallipoli in World War I to Kokoda in Papua during World War II — have played a crucial role in fostering the country’s identity, independent of colonial power Britain.
“It speaks to a failure that is bigger and deeper than the soldiers involved in the atrocities,” said John Blaxland of the Australian National University, which has close ties to the security establishment.
“It speaks to an inadequate sense of perspective on what we were committing our forces to do and the circumstances they would face.”
Australia’s government had spent years trying to suppress whistleblower reports of the alleged wrongdoing, with police even investigating reporters involved in bringing those accounts to light.
The US will slash troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq to their lowest levels in nearly 20 years of war after President Donald Trump pledged to end conflicts abroad, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.
Rejecting concerns that precipitous drawdowns could give up all the US has fought for, Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller said around 2,000 troops would be pulled from Afghanistan by January 15.
Five hundred more would come back from Iraq by the same date, leaving 2,500 in each country.
The moves reflect Trump’s policy “to bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a successful and responsible conclusion and to bring our brave service members home,” Miller said.
Miller said the US had met its goals, set in 2001 after the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States, to defeat Islamist extremists and to help “local partners and allies to take the lead in the fight.”
“With the blessings of providence in the coming year, we will finish this generational war and bring our men and women home,” he said.
Ending ‘endless wars’
The moves took the United States closer to disengaging from conflicts that have blazed and smouldered through three presidencies with no end in sight since 2001.
But critics said they risk appearing like a humiliating defeat, leaving the original threat of Islamic extremist attacks intact.
The announcement came just weeks before Trump cedes the White House in the wake of his November 3 reelection loss to Democrat Joe Biden.
Amid criticism that Trump was acting abruptly since his defeat, White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said the troop cuts have been in the works for some time.
“Four years ago President Trump ran on a promise to put a stop to America’s endless wars. Today it was just announced at the Pentagon that President Trump is keeping that promise to the American people.”
“By May it is President Trump’s hope that they will come home safely and in their entirety.”
Despite the risk of the moves and their impact on allies, neither Miller nor O’Brien would take questions on the announcement.
It came 10 days after Trump fired defense secretary Mark Esper, who had insisted on keeping 4,500 troops in Afghanistan to support the Kabul government.
Esper had reduced US forces from about 13,000 following the February 29 peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban insurgents.
The two sides agreed that the Taliban would then negotiate a power-sharing pact with the Afghan government, so that US troops would be gone by May 2021.
But until Esper’s removal, the Pentagon had argued that the Taliban had not met pledges to reduce violent attacks on government forces, and that further troop reductions would take pressure off them to do so.
In Iraq, Trump has also pulled back US forces amid dozens of rocket attacks by Iran-allied groups on the US embassy and bases housing American troops.
On Tuesday, a volley of rockets slammed into Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the US embassy sits, breaking a month-long truce on attacks against the US embassy.
Speaking on grounds of anonymity, a senior US defense official dismissed concerns over the risk of resurgences by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
“The professionals in the military service have agreed that this is the right move,” the official said.
“Al Qaeda has been in Afghanistan for decades and the reality is, we’d be fools to say they are going to leave tomorrow.”
Allies and senior US politicians though saw US troop cuts as dangerous.
On Monday US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned the Afghan cuts could lead to a debacle like the “humiliating American departure from Vietnam” in 1975, and be a propaganda victory for Islamic extremists.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned Tuesday that Afghanistan could return to being “a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on our homelands.”
Democratic Senator Jack Reed, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused Trump of a “cynical, chaotic approach” designed to burnish his own legacy while leaving a mess to successor Biden.
But another senior Democrat, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, said that after speaking with Miller, he saw the move as “the right policy decision.”
“At the same time, this reduction must be responsibly and carefully executed to ensure stability in the region,” he said in a statement.
The UN’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, on Thursday highlighted the importance of including women at upcoming peace talks in Doha with the Taliban.
“Human rights and women’s rights are never negotiable,” Lyons, who is Canadian, told the Security Council, adding that she expected a “rough road ahead” for the talks.
“This issue of women’s rights will be more central in the Afghan peace process than we have ever seen in any other peace negotiation in recent memory,” she said.
The government in Kabul said Thursday that it had freed 400 Taliban prisoners under an exchange deal with the militants and expected talks to begin soon in Qatar.
Lyons welcomed the “energetic outreach and substantive preparations” of the women on the Afghan government’s negotiating team.
“We are not yet aware of any women’s representation on the Taliban side, but we remain hopeful that they, too, will find a way of meaningfully including women,” she told the council.
For Lyons, having women at the negotiating table “offers the best opportunity to ensure that their own rights are upheld, and that their vision for elements of a peaceful Afghanistan is reflected in all aspects of the talks.”
Five Afghan women who endured the Taliban’s oppressive rule are on Kabul’s negotiating team.
Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, warned that “no current nor future Afghan government should count on international donor support” if the rights of women and girls are repressed in any way.
Intra-Afghan peace negotiations were initially supposed to begin in March as agreed in a deal between the Taliban and Washington in February, from which Kabul had been excluded.
But repeated squabbles over the prisoner exchange delayed the start of talks, aimed at bringing an end to nearly 19 years of war.
Two policemen and four other people were killed in Afghanistan on Saturday after a deadly clash at a public food donation in central Ghor province, officials said.
Hundreds of people had gathered outside the governor’s office in the provincial capital Firozkoh, where a Qatari group was distributing aid.
It was not immediately clear why the gathering turned violent, but officials blamed armed men in the crowd.
“The protesters opened fire on the police,” the provincial governor’s spokesman Aref Haber said.
“Four civilians, including an employee of a local radio and two policemen were killed,” he said, adding that 19 people were also wounded.
He said the protesters also beat security personnel and an investigation into the incident was underway.
The interior ministry confirmed the death toll in a statement, saying “some illegal armed men in the mob attacked the government building”, which prompted police to fire into the air to disperse the crowd.
Abdul Rahman Akshan, the deputy head of Ghor’s provincial council, also confirmed the incident and the death toll.
Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh said the attack was “shocking” and announced that the “government was seriously investigating the incident” in a Facebook post.
The aid group was distributing food to about 1,000 local families. Food drives are a common practice in the country during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Afghanistan is battling a growing coronavirus outbreak that has exacerbated problems with food access in the impoverished country.
The Taliban have killed about two dozen Afghan police and pro-government fighters, officials said Monday, in two attacks that come as the foes are supposed to be preparing for peace talks.
In one of the incidents late Sunday, the insurgents killed at least six soldiers and 13 police and pro-government militiamen at several outposts near a police headquarters building in northeastern Takhar province, provincial police spokesman Khalil Assir told AFP.
A wedding party was being held in the building at the time, but the attackers did not reach the headquarters.
“The police bravely defended and prevented the Taliban from entering the celebration,” Assir said.
Mohammad Azam Afzali, a member of Takhar’s provincial council, gave a slightly lower toll, saying 17 police and pro-government militiamen were killed in the fighting that lasted at least seven hours.
The Taliban did not immediately comment.
Meanwhile, a Taliban attack on an army outpost in southern Zabul province on Sunday night left at least six soldiers dead, the defence ministry said in a statement.
Four people were also wounded when a sticky bomb attached to a small truck went off in Kabul city on Monday morning, the interior ministry said.
No one immediately claimed that attack.
The latest bloodshed comes during diplomatic efforts to kickstart talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The insurgents had agreed to speak to the government under a deal with the United States signed in Doha last month, but the dialogue has been derailed by a dispute over a prisoner exchange and the Taliban are also grumbling about the composition of Kabul’s negotiating team.
The talks were supposed to start in Oslo on March 10. Now it is unclear when they might begin.
Afghanistan has ordered the release of up to 10,000 prisoners — mostly women, juveniles and sick people — in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, officials said Thursday.
The move comes after an increase in local COVID-19 cases and as tens of thousands of Afghans return from neighbouring Iran, one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic.
President Ashraf Ghani’s decree was directed at women, young offenders, critically ill patients and inmates aged over 55, said Attorney General Farid Hamidi.
“This is a responsible decision to safeguard the health of the people,” Hamidi told a news conference.
“The decree is not for those who have committed crimes against national and international security.”
Prisons chief Ahmad Rashed Totakhail said between 9,000 and 10,000 inmates would be released over the coming 10 days.
UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to protect people held in overcrowded prisons and other enclosed facilities by releasing vulnerable detainees, saying COVID-19 “risks rampaging through such institutions”.
Sudan and Ethiopia have recently ordered the release of thousands of prisoners in an effort to slow their own outbreaks.
Afghanistan has officially recorded two deaths and 80 cases of coronavirus, but the true figure is feared to be many times higher as the war-torn country struggles to administer tests and screen the influx of people returning from Iran.
The upcoming prisoner release is unrelated to a prisoner exchange the Kabul government is currently negotiating with the Taliban as part of an effort to start peace talks.