Taliban strikes on Afghan bases a ‘show of strength’ against Trump

Above, Afghan security personnel gather as they keep watch near the site of a suicide bomb attack near the Marshal Fahim military academy base in Kabul. (AFP)
Updated 22 October 2017
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Taliban strikes on Afghan bases a ‘show of strength’ against Trump

KABUL: A spate of deadly Taliban attacks targeting Afghan forces this week was a show of strength against Donald Trump’s new strategy, and signaled a push to strike security bases rather than cities, analysts said.
In three of the four ambushes since Tuesday, militants used bomb-laden Humvees to blast their way into targets, seeking to demoralize war-weary security forces, and steal weapons and vehicles to fuel their insurgency.
It marks a change in focus from recent years when the Taliban fought to control and hold provincial capitals, such as the northern city of Kunduz, which briefly fell to the militants twice in the past 24 months.
“(The Taliban) want to be showing their potency after the summer unveiling of the Trump policy of staying on with larger forces,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“They haven’t tried to hold provincial capitals... they are not wasting their assets on that.”
Militants have launched several devastating assaults on security forces already this year, including an attack on a base in northern Mazar-i-Sharif in the spring in which at least 144 people were killed.
But this week stands apart for the number of attacks in such a short time — five in as many days with an overall death toll of around 200 people including 150 military and police — and coming after the US and Afghan forces have stepped up their own offensives.
In August, Trump announced that American forces would stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, increasing attacks on insurgents and deploying more troops.
Following his announcement the US has dramatically ramped up airstrikes, with more bombs and missiles dropped in September than in any month since October 2010.
A recent flurry of drone strikes in the lawless region near the border with Pakistan’s tribal areas has also seen dozens of militants killed.
This week’s attacks are the Taliban’s response, a spokesman said, calling it “a clear message... The enemy who thought they had scared us with the new Trump strategy have now been given a lesson.”
The attacks also came after talks between Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China at the start of the week seeking ways to end the Taliban’s 16-year insurgency.
“I think the Taliban wanted to send a very strong message that it prefers to fight rather than talk and that it has the ability to fight very well,” said analyst Michael Kugelman, of the Wilson Center in Washington.
The message has proved devastating: hundreds killed and wounded over a bloody few days that left military bases and police headquarters destroyed or severely damaged.
The deadliest attack was on a police compound in the city of Gardez, where Taliban militants detonated three explosive-packed vehicles including a Humvee. At least 60 people were killed in the blasts and ensuing battle, officials said.
The militants also attacked a police headquarters in Ghazni twice, and detonated a suicide bomb on Afghan police trainees in Kabul that killed 15.
Attacking security targets kills three birds with one stone: it allows the Taliban to deflect criticism over civilian casualties, devastate Afghan forces, and steal equipment.
The Taliban has acquired “dozens” of armored Humvees and pickup trucks in recent years, defense ministry deputy spokesman Mohammad Radmanesh said.
“The Humvees and other military vehicles are stronger than ordinary ones and you can load a lot of explosives in it,” General Abdul Wahid Taqat, a former intelligence chief, said.
“I would think that could be pretty demoralizing for Afghan forces knowing that their own weaponry is being used against them by the enemy,” Kugelman said.
Such erosion of morale can be lethal, as officials have previously pointed out.
Afghan forces, already beset by desertions and corruption, have seen casualties soar to what a US watchdog has described as “shockingly high” levels since NATO forces officially ended their combat mission in 2014.
Morale is further eroded by long-running fears the militants have insider help — everything from insurgents in the ranks to corrupt Afghan forces selling equipment to the Taliban, said retired Afghan army general Atiqullah Amarkhail.
The question of how to ward off such guerilla attacks is one that officials have not yet been able to fully answer.
One security source who spoke anonymously to AFP said Afghan forces should “come out of their bases and choose offensive mode,” warning that areas patrolled by police at night are safer than places the army is deployed.
Felbab-Brown said strengthening checkpoints and improved information sharing would also help.
For Kandahar’s police chief General Abdul Raziq, more and faster airstrikes would put a quick end to hours-long assaults such as the one in Gardez this week.
“The Afghan air force should be equipped as soon as possible,” he said.
Raziq said the week’s attacks were not a response to Trump but the militants lashing out after failing to achieve their goals during the summer fighting season.
The Taliban have already threatened more attacks, and Raziq called for swift action.
“Instead of being concerned, we have to take necessary measures,” he warned.


Labour set to vote against Brexit deal, open to second referendum

Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, left, and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry during the third day of the Labour party conference in Liverpool Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 12 min 47 sec ago
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Labour set to vote against Brexit deal, open to second referendum

  • If Theresa May brings back a deal that does not meet our tests — and that looks increasingly likely — Labour will vote against her deal
  • Starmer said May was on course to fail these tests

LIVERPOOL: Britain’s opposition Labour Party is set to vote against any deal Prime Minister Theresa May clinches with the European Union and is open to a second referendum with the option of staying in the bloc, Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said on Tuesday.

With just over six months until Britain leaves the EU, May has yet to reach a deal on the terms of the divorce, and her plan for future trade ties has been rebuffed by both the EU and many lawmakers in her own Conservative Party.

Labour has listed six tests it would apply to any Brexit deal, including whether it ensured a strong future relationship with the EU and delivered the same benefits Britain has as a member of its single market and customs union.

Starmer said May was on course to fail these tests.

He called for an election to allow a Labour government to steer Britain’s departure from the EU, the biggest shift in the country’s foreign and trade policy in decades.

“If Theresa May brings back a deal that does not meet our tests — and that looks increasingly likely — Labour will vote against her deal,” he told Labour members at the party’s conference in the northern city of Liverpool.

He repeated Labour’s argument that if Parliament rejected May’s Chequers deal, named after the prime minister’s country residence where she hashed out a plan with her ministers, the party would press for a general election.

“But if we need to break the impasse our options must include campaigning for a public vote and nobody is ruling out remain as an option,” he said to a standing ovation and prolonged applause in a packed conference hall.

The Conservative Party’s chairman, Brandon Lewis, accused Labour of breaking “their promises” and taking “us back to square one on Brexit.” 

The EU indicated officials in Brussels saw a new referendum as a complication rather than a solution.

“That does not sound like a solution to anything. The first referendum is still keeping us busy. And will they want to have a third one in another two years?” asked a senior EU diplomat in Brussels. “It’s more about power struggles in Britain than about managing Brexit seriously.”

But with May’s plan for maintaining close ties with the EU for trade in goods facing opposition from her own lawmakers, Labour could play a decisive role in whether any Brexit deal is approved by parliament.

May has a working majority of just 13 in the 650-seat parliament and a former junior minister said this month as many as 80 of her own lawmakers were prepared to vote against a Brexit deal based on the Chequers plan.

But like the governing Conservatives and much of the country, Labour is split over how to leave the bloc, with its veteran euroskeptic leader, Jeremy Corbyn, under pressure from many members to move to a more pro-EU position.

Brendan Chilton, general secretary of Brexit campaigning group Labour Leave, accused Starmer of launching a leadership bid and of trying to undermine Corbyn.

“This is a betrayal of the very highest order. It is a betrayal not only of the millions of Labour voters, but of our 2017 manifesto,” he said, referring to the party’s campaign at last year’s election that gained Labour more votes than many expected.

Labour’s conference will vote later on Tuesday on keeping a second Brexit referendum as an option if May fails to get her Brexit plan through parliament.

In the published motion which the Labour conference will debate later on Tuesday, the party again set out is position on Brexit — it wants full participation in the EU’s single market after Brexit and will reject a “no deal Brexit.” 

The wording on a possible second referendum was left vague, opening the way for some to describe it as a fudge when the party’s finance spokesman, John McDonnell, said any such vote should be on how to leave the EU, not whether to do so.

But Starmer was clear. He understood that the motion could allow Britain to vote to stay in the EU.

“This isn’t about frustrating the process,” he said. “It’s about stopping a destructive Tory Brexit. It’s about fighting for our values and about fighting for our country.”