Afghan Lawmakers Voice Alarm On Air Force As US Withdrawal Nears

Kabul: Afghan lawmakers on Friday voiced alarm that their air force was depleted in the face of a Taliban offensive as they asked the United States to finalize assistance ahead of a troop withdrawal. In virtual talks this week with the US Congress, an Afghan delegation said it appealed for quick action on aircraft maintenance and munitions supplies as President Joe Biden prepares to end America’s longest-ever war by the end of next month.

“The security situation is really getting terrible,” said senior Afghan MP Haji Ajmal Rahmani, referring to a Taliban offensive. Rahmani said that one-third of the 150-strong fleet was already grounded due to maintenance issues. He said the Afghans had also run out of laser-guided munitions as the United States and NATO allies had handled 80 to 90 percent of the armaments and did not leave a supply during hasty pullouts of air assets. Laser-guided munitions are critical to pinpointing targets and minimizing civilian casualties, he said.

“The feedback was that it will take some more time because they have to make the orders and it will take time to produce and ship to Afghanistan,” he told a roundtable of the US State Department Correspondents’ Association. “They are talking of around one year, more or less, until it will reach Afghanistan. This is something very much needed at this critical time.”

Mir Haider Afzaly, chairman of the parliamentary defence committee, said that planes were grounded due to a lack of spare ports, Covid concerns that kept away US technicians and the aging of the fleet. He said the United States has not yet delivered promised Black Hawk helicopters that could help upgrade the air force. The United States has invested more than $8 billion to develop Afghanistan’s air force, which was virtually non-existent when the 2001 invasion toppled the Taliban after the September 11 attacks. The Pentagon confirmed on Thursday that the United States in recent days has again used airpower to support Afghan forces against the Taliban, amid fears that the insurgents will make rapid gains or even take over after US troops leave at the end of next month.

This comes even as the United Nations in a new report is warning that the threat from terror groups such as Daesh and al Qaeda is expanding in many places in Afghanistan where the security situation remains fragile with uncertainty surrounding the peace process and a risk of further deterioration. The report by the UN Security Council says that despite territorial, leadership, manpower and financial losses during 2020 in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, Daesh’s Khorasan branch, or ISIL-K, has moved into other provinces, including Nuristan, Badghis, Sar-e-Pul, Baghlan, Badakhshan, Kunduz and Kabul, where fighters have formed sleeper cells.

The report says that the group has strengthened its positions in and around Kabul, where it conducts most of its attacks, targeting minorities, activists, government employees and personnel of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. The report says that most recently, Daesh claimed responsibility for the brutal attack of June 8, when 10 humanitarian deminers working with HALO Trust in Baghlan Province were killed and 16 were injured. “In its efforts to resurge, ISIL-K has prioritized the recruitment and training of new supporters; its leaders also hope to attract intransigent Taliban and other militants who reject the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the United States and the Taliban and to recruit fighters from the Syrian Arab Republic, Iraq and other conflict zones,” the report says.

The report states that the estimates of the strength of Daesh’s Khorasan branch range widely, with one member state reporting between 500 and 1,500 fighters and another stating that it may rise to as many as 10,000 over the medium term. “One member state stressed that ISIL-K was largely underground and clandestine,” the report says. “Its leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, alias Sanaullah, cooperates with Sheikh Tamim, head of the al-Sadiq office.”

The report says that Tamim and his office are tasked by Daesh core to oversee the network connecting the Khorasan branch with Daesh presences in the wider region. The UN report says that as reported by the UN Monitoring Team in its twelfth report to the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1988 (2011), al Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the eastern, southern and south-eastern regions. The report says that al Qaeda’s weekly Thabat newsletter reports on its operations inside Afghanistan. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimroz provinces, the report says.

Since the death of Asim Umar in 2019, AQIS has been led by Osama Mahmood, the report says, adding that the group consists mainly of Afghan and Pakistani nationals, but also individuals from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar. On March 30, AQIS commander Dawlat Bek Tajiki (alias Abu Mohammad al-Tajiki) was killed by Afghan forces in Gyan district of Paktika province. “Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is assessed by member states to be alive but ailing in Afghanistan.
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SayfAl Adl, his most likely successor, is reported to remain in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the report states.

Member states differ as to what Al Adl’s options would be if he was called upon to succeed al-Zawahiri, but most assess that he would have to move and that basing himself in Afghanistan might not be an option, the report says. The leadership succession calculations of Al Qaeda are complicated by the peace process in Afghanistan where, under the Doha agreement of February 2020, the Taliban is committed to suppressing any international terrorist threat, the report says, but adds that it is unclear whether Sayf-Al Adl would be able to travel to Afghanistan to take up the position of leader of Al Qaeda.

The report mentions that some member states point to his history of living and operating in Africa and assess that he might choose to base himself there. The report also says that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, faces financial difficulties and a Taliban that is less accommodating than it used to be.

Meanwhile, Pakistan Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed has said that Pakistan has moved the Frontier Constabulary, Levies Force and other militias from the frontline positions along the Pak-Afghan border as the army has started to man those positions. He said the FC Balochistan and other militias working under the interior ministry had been called back from border patrolling. “Now regular army troops are manning the border after replacing the paramilitary forces,” the minister said, adding the decision had been made in wake of the volatile situation across the border.

Talking to Dawn, Ahmed said the situation not only demanded containment of influx of refugees from Afghanistan but also entry of armed army personnel and militants into Pakistan. Minister links decision to volatile situation in Afghanistan. “However, the current volatile situation (in Afghanistan) demands that regular military troops be deployed along the border.”

Also, ahead of US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken’s India visit, Washington has described India as a “critical partner in the region” with both countries having a “shared interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan”. Blinken will be in Delhi on 27 and 28 July, his first to the Indian capital since the new Biden administration took charge.

In India, he will call on PM Modi and hold talks with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and External Affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar. In a briefing ahead of the visit, Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson said, “We welcome India’s shared commitment to peace and supporting economic development in Afghanistan.” He explained, “We expect that all the countries in the region have a shared interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan going forward” and so “we will certainly be looking at talking with our Indian partners about how we can work together to realize that goal, to find ways to bring the parties together, and continue to pursue a negotiated settlement to end the longstanding war.”

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