In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s anti-Daesh squad gains a reputation for ruthlessness

In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s anti-Daesh squad gains a reputation for ruthlessness
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A Pashtun boy warily eyes an Afghan government soldier in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan. The region is at the heart of a bitter fight for supremacy between Taliban and Daesh rivals. (AN Photo/Chris Sands)
In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s anti-Daesh squad gains a reputation for ruthlessness
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Red Unit fighters made their name crushing dissent within the Taliban.
Updated 28 June 2018

In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s anti-Daesh squad gains a reputation for ruthlessness

In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s anti-Daesh squad gains a reputation for ruthlessness
  • The elusive commando ‘Red Unit’ strikes fear even among its fanatical rivals
  • The insurgent's commandos also target Afghan forces and Nato troops

KABUL: Hunkered down in mountain trenches overlooking a vast area of desert and mud-walled houses in southern Afghanistan, the Daesh fighters opened fire on the approaching Taliban, wounding four and sending the others scrambling for cover.

It was the start of a battle neither group could afford to lose. Whoever triumphed would take a significant step toward controlling the future of one of the world’s most intractable insurgencies.

Daesh wanted to turn Afghanistan into the latest outpost in its self-declared caliphate, while the Taliban feared being overrun by the fanatics who made their name sweeping all before them in Iraq and Syria.

What happened next — in the fall of 2015 — has gone down in radical circles as the moment a new Taliban rapid-response force gained a decisive advantage in the extremists’ bitter civil war.

Now notorious among civilians and fellow militants, the force has gone on to play a key role in the Taliban’s increasingly violent and effective campaign to retake control of Afghanistan. It is the spearhead of what the Afghan government refers to as the “Red Unit” or “Danger Unit” — an elite group of thousands of insurgent commandos equipped with US-made assault rifles, night vision apparatus, heavy machine guns and 82mm rockets.

In contrast to their rival’s growing strength, Daesh has resorted to staging spectacular attacks on soft targets in Kabul, seemingly conceding that it cannot hold swathes of territory against its better organized foe.

“Before the war we were walking around jointly, not bothering each other,” recalled Qazi Halim, a nom de guerre for one of the Taliban’s quick-reaction force commandos. Now “this is the only unit which has defeated Daesh and of which Daesh is afraid,” he said.

Halim, a Pashtun in his late 20s or early 30s, was speaking to Arab News shortly before he was killed in a US airstrike on Tuesday.

A three-day cease-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan government during Eid this month led to joyous scenes across Afghanistan, as insurgents mingled freely with soldiers and government officials. The Taliban said that the brief truce proved the fundamentalist movement was united and that “all combatants strictly follow” orders. This has not always been the case, however.

For months before the 2015 confrontation in Zabul province, a fierce struggle for the right to lead Afghanistan’s insurgency had been unfolding within the Taliban.

The movement was openly divided for the first time in its history as rank-and-file members reeled from the news that its spiritual founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had died from natural causes in 2013, only for his closest confidants to cover up his death for more than two years. Daesh hoped to exploit the divisions and become the main insurgent faction in the region.

In response to this unprecedented challenge to its dominance, the Taliban stepped up plans to activate a special forces commando unit tasked with crushing any dissent within the movement’s ranks and wiping out its rivals, Halim told Arab News.

In the summer of 2015, pictures began circulating on social media showing the Red Unit already in training, with recruits dressed in combat fatigues and black balaclavas doing push-ups, firing heavy machine guns and crawling through obstacle courses. But it was not until the Taliban began to fracture after Omar’s confirmed death that the commandos sprang into action.

Arab News has learnt that the Red Unit is divided into several battalion-sized teams of 300 to 350 men, picked according to how they perform at the Taliban’s training camps. Each team is given responsibility for a province. In emergencies, the teams work together to cover a zone consisting of several provinces. As well as fighting rival insurgents, they also fight Afghan government forces and US troops.

One of the first teams was sent to the province of Farah, on the Iranian border in western Afghanistan, where a Taliban splinter group under a dissident commander, Mullah Mohammed Rasool, had formed.

The Red Unit’s commandos swept into the area with devastating effect, killing several of Rasool’s men and forcing him to flee to Pakistan. Mullah Mansour Dadullah, an experienced fighter from a notorious insurgent family, stepped into his place.

Under Dadullah’s leadership, the Taliban splinter group declared its allegiance to Daesh and moved into Zabul, an impoverished region of wadis, deserts and mountains dominated by ethnic Pashtuns. It settled in the district of Khak-e Afghan in the north of the province.

Out of the Afghan government’s reach and initially welcomed by local villagers, the Daesh fighters began to expand their area of operations. They soon targeted Highway One, the main road linking Kabul and the south of Afghanistan.

After a number of pinprick ambushes in which they kidnapped civilians traveling along the highway, they abducted dozens of Hazaras, an ethnic minority of predominantly Shiite Muslims. Those taken hostage included women and children.

The abductions provoked outrage among Afghans in Kabul, who criticized the government for being unable to protect its own people. The Taliban sensed an opportunity. Eager to win more public support for its insurgency and desperate to prevent Daesh from making further inroads into its territory, the movement came up with a plan to hit back.

First the Taliban sent a delegation of muftis — Islamic legal experts — and clerics to Khak-e Afghan. The delegation and a group of Daesh scholars spent a week trying to persuade each other that only their group should be allowed to operate in the country.

When the Taliban muftis ordered their rivals to surrender, the talks broke down. Rather than wait for tensions to cool, the Taliban then sent hundreds of Red Unit commandos to the area in November 2015. They were drawn from the teams for the provinces of Zabul, Ghazni and Maidan Wardak.

Halim, from Maidan Wardak, was among them. The first name of his nom de guerre — Qazi — is an honorific denoting someone trained in Islamic law. In Arabic and Pashto, it means “judge.” The second part of the nom de guerre — Halim — has been changed to protect his identity because he did not have the Taliban’s permission to talk to Arab News.

Arriving in Khak-e Afghan, he found the Daesh fighters were a mixture of Afghans from across the country and militants from Uzbekistan, who had their families with them. Villagers reported seeing them traveling around the area on motorbikes decorated with Dadullah’s name and the slogan “Long live Daesh.”

The Red Unit tried for a final time to convince the Daesh militants to surrender, sending a squad toward their mountain headquarters with an offer of clemency. It was then that the Daesh fighters opened fire, injuring four of the Talibs and triggering the battle that would change the course of the insurgents’ civil war.

A relative of Dadullah’s who tried to evacuate the Daesh leader after the fighting began confirmed to Arab News that the Taliban’s commandos were in Khak-e Afghan at the time. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said: “They did the fighting and they cleared the area.” He added that their only aim seemed to be “to kill Mansour Dadullah.”

After the advance squad was hit, the Red Unit commandos regrouped and resumed their attack at night, this time breaking through the Daesh lines. They began heading deeper into the mountains, killing dozens of fighters as they progressed.

Over the next few days they searched local houses and found a number of the kidnapped Hazaras tied up and blindfolded. Others lay dead, “slaughtered just hours before,” said Halim.

When he and his fellow commandos captured nine of the Uzbeks alive, they assembled a makeshift Islamic court to put them on trial. After ordering them to confess in front of the hostages to being members of Daesh, they hanged all nine.

The Red Unit commandos eventually tracked down Dadullah by monitoring the military radio traffic of the surviving Daesh fighters. They arrested the leader, took him to an isolated valley and shot him.

By the end of the operation, four members of the Red Unit were dead, but word of the commandos’ strength had spread across Afghanistan, striking fear into Daesh and causing alarm within the Afghan government.

The Taliban leadership was so impressed by its troops’ showing in Zabul that it turned them into a quick-reaction force under the leadership of its most famous commander, a Pashtun named Pir Agha.

Although much of his background remains a mystery, Agha is believed to be in his 40s and from Sangisar in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar. Afghans who have met him describe him as an uncomplicated, but persuasive, public speaker.

One businessman came face to face with Agha about a year before the Red Unit was formed, in a ramshackle bazaar in Helmand province, near Pakistan.

The businessman, who asked to remain anonymous, told Arab News that Agha gave a speech in the border town of Baramcha to a number of local traders who had assembled in a mosque there. In the speech, he denounced Daesh and asked them to donate money to the Taliban.

Agha has since stepped down from his role as head of the quick-reaction force to become the Taliban’s shadow governor for Paktika province. However, his commandos continue to call their force the “Unit of Pir Agha” in homage to his leadership.

They are currently led by Mawlawi Abdullah, a Talib from Maidan Wardak who was the main field commander in the Zabul battle.

Now the pride of the Red Unit, the quick-reaction force has proved to be an elusive and formidable enemy for both Daesh and the Afghan government. Last fall it was deployed to Achin district in Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan. Halim claimed a number of the Daesh fighters he encountered there were in their teens.

Then, on April 2 this year, Afghan helicopter gunships attacked a religious ceremony in the northern province of Kunduz, killing at least 36 people, including 30 children, according to a UN investigation.

The government claimed its intended target was the Red Unit. Before his death this week, Halim was unconcerned about being a wanted man. With the cease-fire over and the Taliban again on the offensive, he walked the streets of Kabul in a prayer cap and shalwar kameez — waiting for a mission that would prove to be his last.

EU targets key Belarus sectors after plane diversion

EU targets key Belarus sectors after plane diversion
Updated 21 June 2021

EU targets key Belarus sectors after plane diversion

EU targets key Belarus sectors after plane diversion
  • Ministers meeting in Luxembourg backed broad-ranging measures targeting major revenue sources for Belarus
  • Officials said measures include ban on sales of surveillance equipment and tightening of an arms embargo to be formally adopted by 27-nation bloc

LUXEMBOURG: EU foreign ministers on Monday agreed to sanction key sectors of the Belarus economy as the bloc ratchets up pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko after the forced landing of an airliner.
Ministers meeting in Luxembourg backed broad-ranging measures targeting major revenue sources for the Belarusian regime: potash fertilizer exports, the tobacco industry, petroleum and petrochemical products.
Officials said the measures — including a ban on sales of surveillance equipment to Belarus and tightening of an arms embargo — should be formally adopted by the 27-nation bloc in the coming days.
The ministers also officially signed off on adding 86 additional individuals and entities to an assets freeze and visa ban blacklist.
Seven people — including defense minister Viktor Khrenin and transport minister Alexei Avramenko — were sanctioned for the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger jet last month.
The remaining 71 individuals — including Russian tycoon Mikhail Gutseriyev, Lukashenko’s son Dmitry and daughter-in-law Liliya — were targeted for ties to the Belarus government’s sweeping crackdown on opposition or for supporting the regime.
“Today we have confirmed and decided that sectoral sanctions will be taken against Belarus, which will have a severe impact on the Belarusian economy,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said ahead of the meeting.
“We want the release of the political prisoners, an end to the violence against protesters and the opposition, and an inclusive dialogue that will lead to free and fair elections.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said earlier that the economic sanctions should be wrapped up after a summit of the bloc’s leaders in Brussels later this week.
“We’re going to hurt the economy of Belarus heavily.”
EU statistics show that trade with Belarus topped 10 billion euros in 2020.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who insists she rightfully won last year’s poll, welcomed the inclusion of business tycoons and top officials on the blacklist.
“It’s a rather strong sanction list,” she told a press conference in Brussels.
Belarusian strongman Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet on May 23 to intercept the Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania.
When the plane was forced to land in Minsk, Belarus arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega on board.
The EU responded quickly by blocking Belarusian airlines from flying to the bloc and stopped carriers from its 27 nations from using Belarusian airspace.
The bloc had already slapped sanctions last year on 88 individuals — including Lukashenko and his son — over a brutal crackdown on protests since the veteran leader claimed victory at elections in August deemed fraudulent by the West.
The authorities detained thousands during the demonstrations and the EU says that some 500 political prisoners remain behind bars.
“We are clearly showing that Stalinism and state terror no longer have a place in the 21st century,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said.
Lukashenko, ruler of Belarus since 1994, has so far shrugged off the pressure with backing from his key ally Russia.
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis complained that Belarus was hitting back by sending migrants, mostly Iraqis and Syrians, across its border.
He warned the flow could increase after sanctions were approved and that Lithuania “might need help and assistance from other European countries.”

German tourists investigated in Italy for fatal boat crash

German tourists investigated in Italy for fatal boat crash
Updated 21 June 2021

German tourists investigated in Italy for fatal boat crash

German tourists investigated in Italy for fatal boat crash
  • Investigators were awaiting results of blood analyses to determine if tourists were drinking before crash
  • Woman's body was recovered from the lake Sunday evening by Italian firefighter rescue divers

ROME: Two German tourists from Munich are being investigated in Italy for a boat collision on Lake Garda that killed an Italian man and woman, Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police said.
Italian state RaiNews24 TV said investigators were awaiting results on Monday of blood analyzes to determine if the tourists had been drinking before the crash. The Carabinieri said both Germans are free on their own recognizance while under investigation for alleged manslaughter and failure to provide assistance.
The woman’s body was recovered from the lake Sunday evening by Italian firefighter rescue divers and the man’s body was found in their small boat earlier in the day.
The Carabinieri office conducting the investigation declined to give further details because the probe is still ongoing.
The Corriere della Sera newspaper said the victims’ boat was badly gashed near the bow and that the man, 37, had suffered a grave abdominal wound. One of the 25-year-old woman’s legs was partially torn off, it said. A search had been launched for the woman after women’s clothing was found on the boat near the man’s body.
Police located the tourists after people noticed their docked motorboat was damaged, the Italian daily said.
The Italians reportedly had met with friends on shore Saturday evening, then headed out on the man’s boat and were about mid-lake when the vessel was struck by the motorboat. Corriere della Sera said investigators found pieces of wood from the Italian man’s boat imbedded in the tourists’ boat.
Lake Garda, which has many shoreline resorts in northern Italy, is very popular with European visitors.

UN rights chief ‘deeply disturbed’ by ‘serious violations’ in Ethiopia’s Tigray

UN rights chief ‘deeply disturbed’ by ‘serious violations’ in Ethiopia’s Tigray
Updated 21 June 2021

UN rights chief ‘deeply disturbed’ by ‘serious violations’ in Ethiopia’s Tigray

UN rights chief ‘deeply disturbed’ by ‘serious violations’ in Ethiopia’s Tigray
  • Extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children as well as adults, and forced displacement

GENEVA: The UN rights chief voiced alarm Monday at continued reports of “serious violations” in Ethiopia’s violence-wracked Tigray region, by all parties in the conflict, including continued abuses by Eritrean troops.
“I am deeply disturbed by continued reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations and abuses against civilians by all parties to the conflict,” Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council, pointing to “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children as well as adults, and forced displacement.”

US envoy hopes North Korea responds positively on offered talks

US envoy hopes North Korea responds positively on offered talks
Updated 21 June 2021

US envoy hopes North Korea responds positively on offered talks

US envoy hopes North Korea responds positively on offered talks
  • United States’ diplomacy with North Korea stalled over its nuclear program and US-led sanctions

SEOUL: President Joe Biden’s special envoy for North Korea said Monday he hopes to see a positive reaction from the North soon on US offers for talks after the North Korean leader ordered officials to prepare for both dialogue and confrontation.
Sung Kim, Biden’s special representative for North Korea, is in Seoul to speak with South Korean and Japanese officials about the United States’ stalled diplomacy with the North over its nuclear program and US-led sanctions.
The trilateral talks followed a North Korean political conference last week where leader Kim Jong Un called for stronger efforts to improve his nation’s economy, further battered last year by pandemic border closures and now facing worsening food shortages.
The US envoy Sung Kim said the allies took note of the North Korean leader’s comments and are hoping the North will respond positively to the proposal of a meeting.
“We continue to hope that the DPRK will respond positively to our outreach and our offer to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions,” Kim said during his meeting with South Korean and Japanese nuclear envoys, Noh Kyu-duk and Takehiro Funakoshi, respectively. He was referring to the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the officials from the three countries reaffirmed a coordinated approach toward North Korea and shared commitment to work toward a quick resumption of dialogue.
North Korea’s economic setbacks followed the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s ambitious summitry with then-President Donald Trump in 2019, when the Americans rejected the North Koreans’ demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of their nuclear capabilities.
Kim Jong Un in recent political speeches has threatened to bolster his nuclear deterrent and claimed that the fate of diplomacy and bilateral relations depends on whether Washington abandons what he calls hostile policies.
US officials have suggested Biden would take the middle ground between Trump’s direct dealings with Kim and President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience.” But some experts say the North likely must take concrete steps toward denuclearization before the Biden administration would ease any sanctions.
South Korea, which is eager for inter-Korean engagement, has expressed optimism about a quick resumption of diplomacy.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Kim’s comments during a ruling party meeting last week, where he said he expected both dialogue and confrontation with the United States, demonstrated a flexibility toward diplomacy.
But others saw Kim’s comments as merely a reiteration of Pyongyang’s wait-and-see stance of insisting Washington budge and offer concessions first.
While Kim urged officials to boost agricultural production and brace for prolonged COVID-19 restrictions, none of the decisions reported after the party meeting seemed directly related to facilitating talks with the United States.
While displaying an openness to talks, the Biden administration has provided little detail about its policy on North Korea beyond a long-term principle of taking a “calibrated and practical approach” on diplomacy while simultaneously upholding sanctions against the country.
Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected and was elected a South Korean lawmaker, posted on Facebook that Kim’s comments at the party meeting seemed tailored to mirror what the Biden administration has said about the North.
“Advocates of engagement see Kim Jong Un’s recent mention of dialogue as a sign North Korea is opening the door for talks, but Pyongyang has not yet expressed a willingness for working-level negotiations on denuclearization,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
He said the North may return to negotiations only after demonstrating its strength with post-pandemic economic recovery and provocative military tests, which could possibly come later this summer when the United States and South Korea usually hold their combined military exercises. The allies describe the drills as defensive in nature, but the North claims they are invasion rehearsals.

China urges US not to seek ‘political manipulation’ after Taiwan COVID-19 vaccine aid

China urges US not to seek ‘political manipulation’ after Taiwan COVID-19 vaccine aid
Updated 21 June 2021

China urges US not to seek ‘political manipulation’ after Taiwan COVID-19 vaccine aid

China urges US not to seek ‘political manipulation’ after Taiwan COVID-19 vaccine aid
  • The United States delivers 2.5 million COVID-19 shots to Chinese-claimed Taiwan

BEIJING: China’s foreign ministry urged the United States on Monday not to seek “political manipulation” in the name of vaccine assistance after the United States delivered 2.5 million COVID-19 shots to Chinese-claimed Taiwan.
Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian made the comment at a daily news briefing in Beijing.