Russia denies aiding Afghan Taliban in wake of US general’s comments

Taliban fighters (AFP)
Updated 25 March 2018
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Russia denies aiding Afghan Taliban in wake of US general’s comments

KABUL: Russia has rejected comments by NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan that it has been supporting and even supplying weapons to the Taliban, in a clash of words that underlines growing tension over Moscow’s involvement in the conflict.
In an interview with the BBC last week, General John Nicholson said that Russia had been acting to undermine US efforts in Afghanistan despite shared interests in fighting terrorism and narcotics, with indications that Moscow was providing financial support and even arms.
“We’ve had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and said this was given by the Russians to the Taliban,” he said.
A statement from the Russian embassy in Kabul dismissed the comments as “idle gossip,” repeating previous denials by Russian officials.
“Once again, we insist that such statements are absolutely baseless and appeal to officials not to talk nonsense,” the embassy said.
US commanders, including Nicholson, have said on several occasions over the past year that Russia may be supplying arms to the Taliban although no confirmed evidence has so far been made public.
However, Nicholson’s comments were unusually blunt and came in a context of growing tensions between NATO members and Moscow over the case of Sergei Skripal, a former intelligence agent found poisoned with a rare nerve agent in Britain.
Russian officials have said that their limited contacts with the Taliban were aimed at encouraging peace talks and ensuring the safety of Russian citizens. Moscow has offered to help coordinate peace talks in Afghanistan.
Taliban officials have told Reuters that the group has had significant contacts with Moscow since at least 2007, adding that Russian involvement did not extend beyond “moral and political support.”
Moscow has been critical of the United States and NATO over their handling of the war in Afghanistan, but Russia initially helped provide helicopters for the Afghan military and agreed to a supply route for coalition materials through Russia.
Most of that cooperation has fallen apart as relations between Russia and the West deteriorated in recent years over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.


Afghan polling centers plagued by problems as casualties surge

Updated 23 min 56 sec ago
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Afghan polling centers plagued by problems as casualties surge

  • Nearly nine million voters registered for the election, but many are allegedly based on fake identification documents
  • Despite the chaos, the UN said the election was “an important milestone in Afghanistan’s transition to self-reliance”

KABUL: Problems plagued hundreds of Afghan polling centers Sunday in the shambolic legislative election’s second day of voting, fueling criticism of organizers and eroding hopes for credible results after a ballot marred by deadly violence.
As voting restarted in more than 20 provinces, an AFP tally of official casualty figures showed the number of civilians and security forces killed or wounded in poll-related violence on Saturday was nearly 300 — almost twice the figure released by the interior ministry.
The huge discrepancy adds to concerns about the lack of transparency and credibility of the long-delayed election that is seen as a dry run for next year’s presidential vote.
At some of the 253 polling centers opened for voting on Sunday, election workers still struggled to use biometric verification devices and voter rolls were “either incomplete or non-existent,” Electoral Complaints Commission spokesman Ali Reza Rohani told reporters.
“Most of the problems we had yesterday still exist today,” said Rohani, adding some polling sites again opened late and had insufficient ballot papers.
Another 148 polling sites that were supposed to open remained closed for security reasons, the Independent Election Commission told AFP.
The IEC’s chronic mishandling of the parliamentary election, which is the third since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, has all but dashed hopes it can organize the presidential ballot, scheduled for April.
“This does not bode well for next year,” Afghanistan Analysts Network co-director Thomas Ruttig told AFP.
“The IEC has clearly shown its lack of capacity to run acceptable and transparent elections, instead publishing doctored figures.”
A Western official, who had monitored the months-long preparations, told AFP they had no confidence left in the IEC.
“None at all,” they said on the condition of anonymity.
“With the current IEC leadership there are a lot of doubts that they would be able to handle the presidential election properly,” political analyst Haroun Mir said.
Initial IEC figures show around three million people risked their lives to vote on Saturday — many waiting hours for polling centers to open — despite scores of militant attacks.
Nearly nine million voters registered for the parliamentary election, but many suspect a significant number of those were based on fake identification documents that fraudsters planned to use to stuff ballot boxes.
But the fact any Afghans turned out to vote was an achievement in itself, some observers noted.
“The people of Afghanistan showed that they are still hopeful for their future,” Mir said.
Despite the shortcomings in the voting process, that was “undoubtedly a great achievement,” he said.
Turnout was likely affected after the Taliban issued several warnings in the days leading up to the poll demanding the more than 2,500 candidates for the lower house candidates withdraw from the race and for voters to stay home.
The militant group on Saturday claimed it carried out more than 400 attacks on the “fake election.”
Official observers described disorder and chaos at polling centers on Saturday where election workers did not know how to use biometric devices that the IEC had rolled out at the eleventh hour to appease political leaders and said were required for votes to be counted.
Many voters who had registered their names months ago were not on the roll, and the Taliban commandeered some polling centers and refused to let people cast their ballots.
There are concerns that extending voting by a day could “impact transparency of the process” and provide “opportunity for fraud,” Election and Transparency Watch Organization of Afghanistan said.
As vote counting continued and officials began the process of transferring ballot boxes to Kabul, Afghan voters and candidates took to social media to vent their frustration at the debacle.
“Shame on the IEC,” Hosai Mangal wrote on the IEC’s official Facebook page.
“There was no order at all, I could not find my name at the polling center where I registered.”
Another angry voter wrote: “The worst elections ever.”
But embattled IEC chief Abdul Badi Sayyad on Sunday defended the organization’s handling of the election, saying the problems were not due to “weak management.”
Despite the chaos, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which has spearheaded international efforts to advise the IEC, said the election was “an important milestone in Afghanistan’s transition to self-reliance.”
UNAMA urged observers, political parties, candidates and voters to play a “constructive role in the days ahead to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process as votes are tallied.”
Elections will be held in the southern province of Kandahar on October 27 after the vote was suspended following Thursday’s assassination of a powerful police chief.