Woman Killed, 73 Injured In US Military Base Attack

 

Taliban suicide bombers targeted a key US military base in Afghanistan Wednesday in a major attack that wounded more than 70 civilians, officials said, amid renewed peace talks between the United States and the militants.

The early morning assault began when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-packed vehicle outside a hospital building near Bagram military base in Parwan province, north of the capital Kabul, according to local officials.

Seven more gunmen, some wearing suicide vests are believed to have then entered the building — which was under construction and not operational — in order to use it as a launching pad for attacks against the nearby US base, local officials said.

Almost 10 hours into the attack, an Afghan interior ministry spokesman said at least three militants were still holed up inside the hospital compound, fighting Afghan and foreign forces.

“Three attackers are still inside the building resisting, while three more have been killed and one arrested,” Nasrat Rahimi told AFP.

At least two Afghan civilians, including one woman, were killed while 73 others were wounded in the explosion that damaged houses up to 300 metres (yards) away, Rahimi said.

A Taliban spokesman later claimed responsibility for the attack, claiming that “tens” of US and Afghan soldiers had been killed or wounded.

In a WhatsApp message Zabihullah Mujahid said the militants had detonated a truck bomb outside Bagram base, but denied Taliban fighters had taken up positions inside a hospital.

Afghan and US officials could not immediately confirm if a truck bomb had been used in the attack.

“The attack was quickly contained and repelled … but the future medical facility was badly damaged,” NATO’s Resolute Support mission said in a statement.

It said there were no US or coalition casualties but Georgia’s defence ministry said five of its soldiers received minor injuries in the attack.

The assault comes as Washington resumed talks with the Taliban on Saturday, three months after President Donald Trump abruptly cancelled them after a Taliban suicide attack killed 12 people including a US soldier, in Kabul.

Trump made a surprise visit to Bagram on November 28 to celebrate Thanksgiving with his troops and meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“The Taliban wants to make a deal and we’re meeting with them and we’re saying it has to be a ceasefire,” he told reporters, confirming the resumption of the stalled talks.

It was not immediately clear if the Taliban’s targeting of the US’s largest Afghan military base would affect the renewed talks between the two sides.

On Monday the Washington Post reported on thousands of US government documents which showed that senior American officials had insisted progress was being made in Afghanistan despite clear evidence the war had become unwinnable.

AFP

Taliban Release US, Australian Professors In ‘Prisoner Swap’ Deal

 

The Taliban released two Western hostages in southern Afghanistan Tuesday, handing them over to US forces more than three years after they were abducted in Kabul, insurgent sources and police told AFP.

The release of American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, both professors at the American University in Kabul, comes one week after President Ashraf Ghani announced that Afghanistan would free three high-ranking Taliban prisoners in an apparent swap that he hoped would help jumpstart peace talks.

“This morning at around 10:00 am two American University professors were released in Nawbahar district of Zabul province. They were flown out of Zabul by American helicopters,” a local police source said.

Three Taliban sources in the province also said the hostages had been released, with one saying they have been brought there by car.

“We released the professors and are now expecting the Kabul government and Americans to release our three prisoners as soon as possible,” one of them told AFP.

There was no immediate comment from the US embassy in Afghanistan. Afghan officials in Kabul said they would release a statement shortly.

The American University in Kabul said it “shares the relief of the families” of the hostages.

“The AUAF community, our students, faculty, and staff, have keenly felt the absence of our two colleagues even as we have continually urged their release over these past three years,” a statement from the university said.

King and Weeks were kidnapped by gunmen wearing military uniforms in the heart of Kabul in August 2016.

They later appeared looking haggard in a Taliban hostage video, with the insurgents going on to say that King was in poor health.

Ghani said Tuesday that the pair’s health had been “deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists”.

Ghani had first announced the exchange on November 12, saying the Taliban prisoners held at Bagram prison north of Kabul would be “conditionally” released.

They include Anas Haqqani, who was seized in 2014 and whose older brother is the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani network, a notorious Taliban affiliate.

Afghan authorities accuse Anas of being a high-level player in the network. The Taliban has long demanded his release, insisting he is a student.

The other two Taliban prisoners to be released are Haji Mali Khan, believed to be the uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Abdul Rashid, said to be the brother of Mohammad Nabi Omari, a member of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar.

It was not clear when and where they would be freed.

In his statement, Ghani had hinted they could be released outside the country. On Saturday an Afghan government spokesman said there had been a “delay” in the exchange.

Ghani had said he hoped the swap would “pave the way” for the start of unofficial direct talks between his government and the Taliban, who have long refused to negotiate with the Kabul administration.

Afghanistan Announces Delay In Taliban-For-Hostages Exchange

 

The exchange of three senior Taliban prisoners for two foreign hostages announced by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been delayed, a spokesman said Saturday.

The Taliban prisoners “are still being held by the Afghan government. The inability of the Taliban to meet the conditions has caused a delay in the exchange,” Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi wrote on Twitter.

The government “will review the exchange process in light of Afghanistan’s national interests,” he said, without providing further details.

Ghani announced the exchange on Tuesday, saying the Taliban prisoners held at Bagram prison would be “conditionally” released.

They include Anas Haqqani, who was seized in 2014 and whose older brother is the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani network, a notorious Taliban affiliate.

The two foreign hostages — American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — were kidnapped by gunmen wearing military uniforms in Kabul in August 2016.

Ghani said that “their health has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists”.

He added that the release of the two men, both professors, would “pave the way” for the start of unofficial direct talks between his government and the Taliban, who long have refused to negotiate with Ghani’s administration.

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 Says US ‘Will Be Harmed More Than Anyone’ After Trump Halts Talks

 

The Taliban said the US “will be harmed more than anyone” but left the door open for future negotiations Sunday after President Donald Trump abruptly announced that he had called off year-long talks to end America’s longest war.

“We still… believe that the American side will come back to this position… Our fight for the past 18 years should have proven to the Americans that we will not be satisfied until we witness the complete end of the occupation,” the group said in a statement released on Twitter by spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

The statement said the insurgents had “finalised” a deal with the US that had been expected to allow Washington to begin withdrawing troops in exchange for security promises from the Taliban.

It added that both sides had been preparing for the deal to be announced and signed when Trump tweeted late Saturday that he had “called off peace negotiations”.

Trump had cited a Taliban attack in Kabul on Thursday which killed 12 people including a US soldier as his reason for calling off the talks, including a secret meeting with the insurgents at Camp David in Maryland planned for this weekend.

But the Taliban dismissed his reasoning in their statement, saying it showed “neither experience nor patience”, and accused the US of killing “hundreds of Afghans” in the fighting.

“Americans will be harmed more than any other,” by Trump’s decision, the statement said, adding that the US’s “credibility will be harmed, their anti-peace stance will become more visible to the world, their casualties and financial losses will increase, and the US role in international political interaction will be discredited even further.”

US, Taliban Push For Peace At Doha Talks

In this file photo taken on July 08, 2019 US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad attends the Intra Afghan Dialogue talks in the Qatari capital Doha. KARIM JAAFAR / AFP

 

US and Taliban representatives held negotiations in Doha on Sunday, an American source close to the process said, as potentially decisive talks to enable Washington to drawdown its military in Afghanistan stretched into the evening.

“Talks resumed late morning today,” the US source said.

The third day of the two sides’ ninth round of dialogue, which continued until after 1900 GMT an AFP correspondent said, was described as promising by a Taliban source.

The insurgent group had earlier said that it was finalising technical points of an agreement with Washington at the talks being held in a luxury members’ club in the Qatari capital Doha.

“The agreement will be completed after we agree on these points,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP on Saturday.

Any deal would be announced before the media as well as representatives from neighbouring countries and China, Russia, and the United Nations, he added.

The United States, which invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban from power in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, wants to withdraw thousands of troops but only in return for the group renouncing Al-Qaeda and curbing attacks.

Washington is hoping to strike an agreement with the Taliban by September 1 — ahead of Afghan polls due the same month, and US presidential polls next year.

The Doha talks are being held against a backdrop of persistent violence in Afghanistan.

The Taliban claimed on Saturday to have killed seven members of the US military in an attack on a convoy near Bagram airfield north of Kabul. American officials dismissed the claims as “lies”.

On Wednesday, two US soldiers were killed by small arms fire in Faryab province in northern Afghanistan, the Pentagon said.

Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman, had said the deaths should have a “positive” impact on the talks in Doha.

US Holds Talks With Taliban Over Peace In Afghanistan

 

The US and the Taliban met in Doha on Saturday, an American source close to the negotiations said, resuming potentially decisive talks to allow Washington to drawdown militarily in Afghanistan.

“Talks resumed this afternoon,” the US source said.

The second day of the two sides’ ninth round of dialogue had been due to begin Friday but “both sides decided to postpone it until Saturday”, the Taliban’s Doha spokesman Suhail Shaheen said, citing “other engagements”.

“We have made progress and are now discussing the implementation mechanism and some technical points,” he told AFP on Saturday, referring to discussions that took place on Thursday.

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“The agreement will be completed after we agree on these points,” he said.

Any deal would be announced before the media as well as representatives from neighbouring countries and China, Russia, and the United Nations, he added.

The US, which invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban from power in 2001, wants to withdraw thousands of troops but only in return for the insurgent group renouncing Al-Qaeda and curbing attacks.

Washington is hoping to strike an agreement with the Taliban by September 1 — ahead of Afghan polls due the same month, and US presidential polls due in 2020.

The Taliban claimed on Saturday to have killed seven members of the US military in an attack on a convoy near Bagram airfield north of Kabul.

Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, said some local businesses had been damaged in the attack but denied coalition or US troops were hurt.

“Rather than taking responsibility for, and apologising for, the harm they bring to innocent Afghans and their businesses, the Taliban spread lies about the attack,” Leggett told AFP.

On Wednesday, two US soldiers were killed by small arms fire in Faryab province in northern Afghanistan, the Pentagon said.

Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman, had said the deaths should have a “positive” impact on the talks in Doha.

AFP

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.

Taliban Threaten Afghan Presidential Elections

FILE PHOTO: Afghan Taliban militants stand with residents as they took to the street to celebrate ceasefire on the second day of Eid in the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. PHOTO: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP

 

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

The Taliban and other insurgent groups conducted frequent attacks during previous elections, and this year’s campaign season has already been rocked by deadly violence.

The presidential election is currently slated for September 28 but has got off to a lackluster start and some candidates are yet to launch their campaigns.

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.

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

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“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.

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”.

AFP

At Least 28 Killed As Afghan Bus Hits ‘Taliban’ Bomb

An injured Afghan man is transported on a stretcher after being injured when a bus hit a roadside bomb on the Kandahar-Herat highway, at a hospital in Herat on July 31, 2019. PHOTO: HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP

 

Dozens of passengers, mainly women, and children, were killed in western Afghanistan early Wednesday when the bus they were travelling in hit a roadside bomb, officials said.

The attack, which came one day after the United Nations said Afghan civilians are being killed and wounded at a “shocking” level and as the country gears up for presidential elections, occurred around 6:00 am (0130 GMT), authorities said.

“A passenger bus travelling on the Kandahar-Herat highway hit a Taliban roadside bomb. So far at least 28 killed, 10 wounded,” said Muhibullah Muhib, the spokesman for Farah province.

All were civilians, mostly women and children, he said.

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan presidency, put the toll slightly higher at 34 killed and 17 wounded, also blaming it on the Taliban.

There was no immediate confirmation from the insurgents that they were behind the blast.

The group, which has resurged since its regime was toppled by the US invasion in 2001, made a vague pledge this month to reduce civilian casualties.

Civilians have long paid a disproportionate price in the nearly 18 years since the US invaded Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, the UN released a report showing that casualties have dropped 27 percent in the first half of 2019 compared to the same period last year, which was a record — but nonetheless 1,366 civilians were killed and another 2,446 injured.

Child casualties represented almost a third of the overall total of civilian casualties.

The UN also said that US and pro-government forces caused more civilian deaths than the Taliban and other insurgent groups for the second quarter running.

It branded efforts to reduce the violence “insufficient”.

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

At least 20 people were killed on 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.

There are also doubts the election will happen at all, with lingering questions about whether Afghanistan should hold a key poll amid a months-long, US-led push to forge a peace deal with the Taliban.

This week US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that President Donald Trump wants to begin withdrawing troops before the vote, though he emphasised in comments to reporters Tuesday that there is “no deadline”.

But the push 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.

AFP

20 Dead As Violence Mars Afghan Election Season Start

 

 

Deadly violence marred the start of Afghanistan’s election season on the weekend, after President Ashraf Ghani insisted “peace is coming” to the war-torn nation.

At least 20 people were killed and 50 others wounded on Sunday in an attack targeting the Kabul office of Ghani’s running mate, Amrullah Saleh.

The violence came on the first day of campaigning for the upcoming presidential elections, serving as a grim reminder of Afghanistan’s woeful security situation and the sort of mayhem and murder that have beset previous polls.

The attack began around 4:40 pm (1210 GMT), when a huge blast struck near the office of Green Trend, a youth and reform-focused civil society organisation Saleh heads. He escaped without serious injury, his office said.

The interior ministry said the assault began when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed car at the entrance to the building, then three attackers ran inside.

After about six hours the siege ended with all attackers killed and the rescue of about 150 people who had been trapped in the building, according to the interior ministry, which also provided the toll of 20 dead and 50 wounded.

No group immediately claimed responsibility.

Earlier on Sunday, a buoyant Ghani kicked off his campaign by insisting “peace is coming,” after nearly 18 years of conflict, and that pivotal talks with the Islamist extremist Taliban would take place.

He is hoping to fend off challenges from 17 other candidates to score a second term at twice-postponed presidential elections now slated for September 28.

On Saturday Ghani’s peace minister, Abdul Salam Rahimi, said direct talks would take place with the Taliban within two weeks as part of a larger, US-led push for peace.

Such a development could be crucial, as the Taliban — who now control or influence about half of Afghanistan — have so far refused to speak to Ghani’s government. They consider the Kabul administration illegitimate.

– Despondent voters –
War aside, the country faces a host of major issues ahead of the election, including rocketing crime, a lacklustre economy, soaring unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure.

Voters are despondent about the prospects of a fair election. Many worry about a repeat of violent attacks on previous polling stations by the Taliban and other insurgent groups trying to undermine Afghanistan’s fragile democracy.

Ghani insisted this year’s vote would be “clean”, but distrust is rife.

Sayed Jan, a 27-year-old student, said he won’t be voting as he has lost faith since the 2014 election that was mired in allegations of fraud and ballot stuffing.

“We have been betrayed by the candidates in the past. We cannot trust them this time,” he told AFP.

“We need peace in Afghanistan instead of elections. Even if I vote, the election will be fraudulent.”

‘Opportunities for peace’

In Kabul, security forces fanned out across the city as leading candidates held rallies.

Ghani’s top rival is Abdullah Abdullah, who currently serves as the president’s chief executive under an awkward power-sharing arrangement brokered by the US after the 2014 election.

“It is our national and religious duty to take advantage of any opportunities for peace,” Abdullah told a campaign rally.

One crucial issue is that the elections happen at all: they were postponed twice this year and further delays could lead to more distrust.

Despite Ghani’s claim that a summit between his government and the Taliban would take place shortly, the insurgents said they would only talk to Kabul after the US had announced a timeline for a withdrawal of foreign forces — a major part of any deal.

“The Kabul administration will be considered a political side, just like others, and not a government,” Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen wrote in Pashto on Twitter.

Diplomatic sources have told AFP the Afghan-Taliban talks are scheduled to begin in Oslo on August 7.

US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said Saturday that new “intra-Afghan” negotiations would only take place after the US and Taliban had concluded their own agreements.

Washington is hoping for a political agreement with the insurgents ahead of the September presidential election.

Other presidential candidates include Ghani’s former national security advisor Hanif Atmar and former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, nicknamed the “Butcher of Kabul” for his alleged role in the killing of thousands of people in the capital in the 1990s.

AFP