Tag Archive: Land of Fallen Empires


March 10, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. military said Tuesday, taking a step forward on its peace deal with the Taliban while also praising Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s promise to start releasing Taliban prisoners after he had delayed for over a week.

The U.S.-Taliban deal signed on Feb. 29 was touted as Washington’s effort to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan. The next crucial step was to be intra-Afghan talks in which all factions including the Taliban would negotiate a road map for their country’s future.

But Ghani and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, were each sworn in as president in separate ceremonies on Monday. Abdallah and the elections complaints commission had charged fraud in last year’s vote. The dueling inaugurations have thrown plans for talks with the Taliban into chaos, although Ghani said Tuesday that he’d start putting together a negotiating team.

The disarray on the Afghan government side is indicative of the uphill task facing Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as he tries to get Afghanistan’s bickering leadership to come together. In an early Tuesday tweet, Khalilzad said he hoped the two leaders can “come to an agreement on an inclusive and broadly accepted government. We will continue to assist.”

U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan Sonny Leggett said in a statement Tuesday that the military had begun its “conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days.” Currently, the U.S. has about 13,000 soldiers in Afghanistan — 8,000 of whom are involved in training and advising Afghanistan’s National Security Forces, while about 5,000 are involved in anti-terror operations and militarily supporting the Afghan army when they are requested.

Ghani had been dragging his feet on releasing some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, something agreed to in the U.S.-Taliban deal. Ghani promised Monday to announce a decree to free the prisoners, after the U.S. and a number of foreign dignitaries appeared to back his claim to the presidency by sending their representatives to his inauguration.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement Monday saying, “We also welcome President Ghani’s announcement that he will issue a decree March 10 on Taliban prisoner release.” Taliban officials said late Monday that a flurry of biometric identifications were being conducted on Taliban prisoners, hinting at a mass release, according to prisoners currently in lockup. The Taliban officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media.

Pompeo also said he “strongly opposed” the establishment of a parallel government in Kabul, despite the early signs of one emerging. Abdullah had quickly sent his vice-presidents to occupy the official offices on Monday, ahead of Ghani’s plan to send his vice presidents to their offices Tuesday.

Pompeo warned against “any use of force to resolve political differences.” Both candidates — but particularly Abdullah — are backed by warlords with heavily armed militias, underscoring fears they could use force to back their candidate.

The U.S. has said its partial troop withdrawal over an 18-month period provided for in the deal will be linked to the Taliban keeping their promises to help fight terror in Afghanistan, but not to the success of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

On the weekend, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said the insurgent group was committed to their agreement with the United States and called on Washington to do its part to make sure their prisoners were freed.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a rocket attack that took place during Ghani’s inauguration ceremony. IS also claimed a brutal attack last week on a gathering of minority Shiites that killed 32 and injured scores more. The U.S. in reaching its deal with the Taliban said they expected the Taliban, which has been battling Afghanistan’s IS affiliate, to further aid in the effort to defeat IS.

Gannon reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Tameem Akhgar in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.

March 05, 2020

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Appeals judges at the International Criminal Court gave the green light Thursday for prosecutors to open an investigation targeting the Taliban, Afghan forces and U.S. military and CIA personnel for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The decision marked the first time the court’s prosecutor has been authorized to investigate U.S. forces. Washington has long rejected the court’s jurisdiction and refuses to cooperate with it. In 2018, then U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said the court established in 2002 to prosecute atrocities throughout the world ” unacceptably threatens American sovereignty and U.S. national security interests.”

The global court set itself on a collision course with Washington with Thursday’s decision to uphold an appeal by prosecutors against a pretrial chamber’s rejection in April last year of Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s request to open a probe in Afghanistan.

Pretrial judges last year acknowledged that widespread crimes have been committed in Afghanistan, but rejected the investigation saying it wouldn’t be in the interests of justice because the expected lack of cooperation meant convictions would ultimately be unlikely.

That decision drew fierce criticism from human rights organizations who said it neglected the desire of victims to see justice in Afghanistan and effectively rewarded states that refused to cooperate with the Hague-based court.

Even though an investigation has now been authorized, it remains to be seen if any suspects eventually indicted by prosecutors will appear in court in The Hague — both Afghanistan and the United States have strongly opposed the investigation and the U.S. government refuses to cooperate with the global court.

Rights groups, however, applauded the decision. “The ICC Appeals Chamber’s decision to green light an investigation of brutal crimes in Afghanistan despite extreme pressure on the court’s independence reaffirms the court’s essential role for victims when all other doors to justice are closed,” said Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.

She added that the decision “also sends a much-needed signal to current and would-be perpetrators of atrocities that justice may one day catch up to them.” At a hearing in December, prosecutors argued that pretrial judges at the global court overstepped their powers in April last year when they refused to authorize an investigation. The appeals judges agreed.

“The Appeals Chamber considers it appropriate to amend the appealed decision to the effect that the prosecutor is authorized to commence an investigation into alleged crimes committed on the territory of Afghanistan since May 1, 2003, as well as other alleged crimes that have a nexus to the armed conflict in Afghanistan,” Presiding Judge Piotr Hofmanski said.

After a preliminary probe in Afghanistan that lasted more than a decade, Bensouda asked judges in November 2017 to authorize a far-reaching investigation. She said there is information that members of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies “committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence against conflict-related detainees in Afghanistan and other locations, principally in the 2003-2004 period.”

Katherine Gallagher, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents a group of victims of U.S. detention program, said the decision “breathed new life into the mantra that ‘no one is above the law’ and restored some hope that justice can be available—and applied — to all.”

Gallagher represented two men still being held in U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay, Sharqawi Al-Hajj and Guled Duran, and the wife of a third man who has died. Bensouda also said in her request to open an investigation that the Taliban and other insurgent groups have killed more than 17,000 Afghan civilians since 2009, including some 7,000 targeted killings, and that Afghan security forces are suspected of torturing prisoners at government detention centers.

Thursday’s ruling comes days after an ambitious peace deal was signed by the U.S. and the Taliban. At a December hearing, the government of Afghanistan said it objected to the investigation and has set up a special unit to investigate war crimes. The ICC is a court of last resort that only takes on cases if domestic jurisdictions are unable or unwilling to prosecute.

There was no official U.S. delegation at December’s appeal hearing, but President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, appeared on behalf of the European branch of the American Center for Law and Justice and told judges that the U.S. position wouldn’t change.

He told appeals judges that “it is not in the interests of justice to waste the court’s resources while ignoring the reality of principled non-cooperation.” In a speech in 2018 on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Bolton said the U.S. would use “any means necessary” to protect Americans and citizens of allied countries, like Israel, “from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court.” The White House said that to the extent permitted by U.S. law, the Trump administration would ban ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the United States, sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system and prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system.

“We will not cooperate with the ICC,” Bolton said, adding that “for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

September 28, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s presidential polls closed Saturday amid fears that accusations of fraud and misconduct could overwhelm any election results, while insurgent attacks aimed at disrupting voting in the country’s north and south caused dozens of casualties.

An upsurge in violence in the run-up to the elections, following the collapse of U.S.-Taliban talks to end America’s longest war, had already rattled Afghanistan in the past weeks. Yet on Saturday, many voters expressed equal fear and frustration over relentless government corruption and the widespread chaos at polling stations.

A deeply flawed election and contested result could drive the war-weary country into chaos. Many Afghans found incomplete voters’ lists, unworkable biometric identification systems aimed at curbing fraud, and in some cases hostile election workers.

Ruhollah Nawroz, a representative of the Independent Complaints Commission tasked with monitoring the process, said the problems are countrywide. Nawroz said he arrived at a polling center in the Taimani neighborhood of Kabul, the capital, at 6 a.m. and “hour by hour I was facing problems.”

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time and closed at 5 p.m. after the Independent Election Commission (IEC) extended polling by one hour. Preliminary results won’t be out until Oct. 17, with a final vote count on Nov. 7. If no candidate wins 51 percent of the vote, a second round will be held between the two leading candidates.

Voter Hajji Faqir Bohman, who was speaking on behalf of disgruntled voters at the Taimani polling center, said the polling was so disorganized and flawed that even if his candidate wins “I will never believe that it was a fair election.”

The leading contenders are incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his partner in the five-year-old unity government, Abdullah Abdullah, who already alleges power abuse by his opponent. Cameras crowded both men as they cast their vote earlier in Kabul, with Ghani telling voters they too had a responsibility to call out instances of fraud.

A young woman, Shabnam Rezayee, was attacked by an election worker after insisting on seeing the voter’s list when she was told her name was not on the list. Rezayee said the worker hurled abuses at her, directing her insults at her ethnicity. She then punched and scratched her.

When it ended and the attacker left, Rezayee found her name on the list and voted. “I am very strong,” she said. In Kabul, turnout was sporadic and in the morning hours it was rare to see a crowded polling center. Afghans who had patiently lined up before the voting centers were opened, entered in some locations to find that election officials had yet to arrive by opening time.

Imam Baksh, who works as a security guard, said he wasn’t worried about his safety as he stood waiting to mark his ballot, wondering whom he would vote for. “All of them have been so disappointing for our country,” he said.

The government’s push to hold the vote was in itself controversial. In an interview with The Associated Press last week, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who still wields heavy influence, warned that the vote could be destabilizing for the country at a time of deep political uncertainty and hinder restarting the peace process with the Taliban.

On Saturday, one of the first reports of violence came from southern Afghanistan, the former spiritual heartland of the Taliban. A bomb attack on a local mosque where a polling station was located wounded 15 people, a doctor at the main hospital in the city of Kandahar said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media.

The wounded included a police officer and several election officials, along with voters. Three were in critical condition. In northern Kunduz, where Taliban have previously threatened the city — even briefly taking control of some areas — insurgents fired mortar rounds into the municipality and attacked Afghan security forces on its outskirts, said Ghulam Rabani Rabani, a council member for the province.

Rabani said the attacks are to “frighten people and force them to stay in their homes and not participate in the election.” He said ongoing fighting has wounded as many as 40 people. Tens of thousands of police, intelligence officials and Afghan National Army personnel were deployed throughout the country to protect the 4,942 election centers. Authorities said 431 polling centers will stay closed because it was impossible to guarantee their security since they were either in areas under Taliban control or where insurgents could threaten nearby villages.

At one polling station in Kabul’s well-to-do Shahr-e-Now neighborhood, election workers struggled with biometric machines as well as finding names on voters’ lists. Ahmad Shah, 32, cast his vote, but said the election worker forgot to ink his finger — which is mandatory to prevent multiple voting by the same person.

“What sort of system is this?” he asked, frustrated that he had risked his safety to vote and expressed fear that fraud will mar the election results. “It’s a mess.” Still, 63-year old Ahmad Khan urged people to vote.

“It is the only way to show the Taliban we are not afraid of them,” he said, though he too worried at the apparent glitches in the process. In Kabul traffic was light, with police and the army scattered throughout the city, stopping cars and looking for anything out of the ordinary. Larger vehicles were not being allowed into the capital on Saturday, which is normally a working day but for the elections was declared a holiday.

Campaigning for Saturday’s elections was subdued and went into high gear barely two weeks ahead of the polls as most of the 18 presidential candidates expected a deal between the United States and the Taliban to delay the vote. But on Sept. 7, President Donald Trump declared a deal that seemed imminent dead after violent attacks in Kabul killed 12 people, including two U.S.-led coalition soldiers, one of whom was American.

While many of the presidential candidates withdrew from the election, none formally did so, leaving all 18 candidates on the ballot. Elections in Afghanistan are notoriously flawed and in the last presidential polls in 2014, allegations of widespread corruption were so massive that the United States intervened to prevent violence. No winner was declared and the U.S. cobbled together the unity government in which Ghani and Abdullah shared equal power — Ghani as president and Abdullah as chief executive, a newly created position.

Constant bickering and infighting within the government frustrated attempts to bring in substantive legislation as security, which has been tenuous, continued to deteriorate, frustrating Afghans and causing many to flee as refugees.

Neighboring Pakistan, routinely accused of aiding insurgents, said it was re-opening its borders with Afghanistan after receiving a request from the Afghan defense minister to allow Afghans to return home to vote. Pakistan had announced the border would be closed Saturday and Sunday.

Associated Press writer Mukhtar Amiri in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.

September 28, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghans headed to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president amid high security and Taliban threats to disrupt the elections, with the rebels warning citizens to stay home or risk being hurt.

Still at some polling stations in the capital voters lined up even before the centers opened, while in others election workers had yet to arrive by poll opening time. Imam Baksh, who works as a security guard, said he wasn’t worried about his safety as he stood waiting to mark his ballot, wondering who he would vote for.

“All of them have been so disappointing for our country,” he said. The leading contenders are incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his partner in the 5-year-old unity government, Abdullah Abdullah, who already alleges power abuse by his opponent. Cameras crowded both men as they cast their vote, with Ghani telling voters they too had a responsibility to call out instances of fraud.

Fear and frustration at the relentless corruption that has characterized successive governments ranks high among the concerns of Afghanistan’s 9.6 million eligible voters. Even in the early hours of voting, complaints had begun to be raised such as polling stations in the posh Wazir Akbar region opening late and biometric machines, aimed at curbing fraud, not working.

In the northern Taimani neighborhood of mostly ethnic Hazaras, two-thirds of the voting registration papers had yet to arrive and angry voters were told their names were not on the list. Abdul Ghafoor, who spoke on behalf of dozens of men waiting to cast their ballot, said that of about 3,000 registered voters only 400 appeared on the list that had arrived at the center.

Ghafoor said he was told to return at 2 p.m. and that he would be allowed to vote even if his name was not on the list and without using the biometric machine. “But how can they do this? My vote won’t count if I am not on a list,” he said.

In Khoja Ali Mohfaq Herawi mosque in Kabul’s well-to-do Shahr-e-Now neighborhood, election workers struggled with biometric machines as well as finding names on voters’ lists. Ahmad Shah, 32, cast his vote, but said the election worker forgot to ink his finger — which is mandatory to prevent multiple voting by the same person.

“What sort of system is this?” he asked, frustrated that he had risked his safety to vote and expressed fear that fraud will mar the election results. “It’s a mess.” Still, 63-year old Ahmad Khan urged people to vote.

“It is the only way to show the Taliban we are not afraid of them,” he said, though he too worried at the apparent glitches in the process. Tens of thousands of police, intelligence officials and Afghan National Army personnel have been deployed throughout the country to protect the 4,942 election centers. Authorities said 431 polling centers will stay closed because it was impossible to guarantee their security since they were either in areas under Taliban control or where insurgents could threaten nearby villages.

In Kabul traffic was light, with police and the army scattered throughout the city, stopping cars and looking for anything out of the ordinary. The Taliban said they would take particular aim at Afghanistan’s cities.

Outfitted in bullet-proof vests, their rifles by their side, soldiers slowed traffic to a crawl as they searched vehicles. Larger vehicles were not being allowed into the capital on Saturday, which is a usual working day but for the elections was declared a holiday.

Neighbor Pakistan, routinely accused of aiding insurgents, announced it was closing its borders with Afghanistan Saturday and Sunday to further protect security in the war-weary country. Campaigning for Saturday’s elections was subdued and went into high gear barely two weeks ahead of the polls as most of the 18 presidential candidates expected a deal between the United States and the Taliban to delay the vote. But on Sept. 7, President Donald Trump declared a deal that seemed imminent dead after violent attacks in Kabul killed 12 people, including two U.S.-led coalition soldiers, one of whom was American.

While many of the presidential candidates withdrew from the election, none formally did so, leaving all 18 candidates on the ballot. Elections in Afghanistan are notoriously flawed and in the last presidential polls in 2014, allegations of widespread corruption were so massive that the United States intervened to prevent violence. No winner was declared and the U.S. cobbled together the unity government in which Ghani and Abdullah shared equal power — Ghani as president and Abdullah as chief executive, a newly created position.

Constant bickering and infighting within the government frustrated attempts to bring in substantive legislation as security, which has been tenuous, continued to deteriorate, frustrating Afghans and causing many to flee as refugees.

Associated Press writer Mukhtar Amiri contributed to this report.

October 21, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections entered a second day on Sunday following violence and chaos that caused delays and interruptions on the first day of polling. Independent Elections Commission Chairman Abdul Badi Sayat said more than 3 million people out of 8.8 million registered voters cast their ballots on Saturday. The biggest turnout was in Kabul and the lowest in the southern Uruzgan province.

Polling on Sunday continues in 401 voting centers, including 45 in Kabul. Polls close at 4 p.m. (1130 GMT). The results of the polling will not be released before mid-November and final results will not be out until December.

The first parliamentary elections since 2010 are being held against a backdrop of near-daily attacks by the Taliban, who have seized nearly half the country and have repeatedly refused offers to negotiate with the Kabul government. The U.S.-backed government is rife with corruption, and many Afghans have said they do not expect the elections to be fair.

Officials at polling stations struggled with voter registration and a new biometric system that was aimed at stemming fraud but instead created enormous confusion because many of those trained on the system did not show up for work. The biometric machines arrived just a month before polls and there was no time to do field testing.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan praised those who had made an effort to vote despite the technical issues, many of whom waited in long lines for hours as polling stations remained open late. “Those eligible voters who were not able to cast their vote, due to technical issues, deserve the right to vote,” it said in a statement.

The Taliban had vowed to attack the election, and on the first day of polling at least 36 people were killed in nearly 200 attacks, including 27 civilians, according to Interior Minister Akhtar Mohammed Ibrahimi. He said security forces killed 31 insurgents in gun battles.

October 20, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections in eight years suffered from violence and chaos Saturday, with a multitude of attacks killing at least 3 people, key election workers failing to show up and many polling stations staying open hours later than scheduled to handle long lines of voters.

Problems surrounding the elections — already three years overdue — threaten to compromise the credibility of polls which an independent monitoring group said were also marred by incidences of ballot stuffing and intimidation by armed men affiliated with candidates in 19 of the country’s 32 provinces. Some areas have yet to vote, including Kandahar, where the provincial police chief was gunned down Thursday.

Stakes were high in these elections for Afghans who hoped to reform Parliament, challenging the dominance of warlords and the politically corrupt and replacing them with a younger, more educated generation of politicians. They were also high for the U.S., which is still seeking an exit strategy after 17 years of a war there that has cost more than $900 billion and claimed more than 2,400 U.S. service personnel.

The most serious attack on the polls was in a northern Kabul neighborhood where a suicide bomber blew himself up just as voting was about to end, killing three people and wounding another 20, many of them seriously, said Dr. Esa Hashemi, a physician at the nearby Afghan Hospital.

The police and Interior Ministry officials reported a total of 15 casualties, without providing details on the number of those killed and wounded. However, Najib Danish, a ministry spokesman, said police officers were among the dead.

Polling stations also struggled with voter registration and a new biometric system that was aimed at stemming fraud, but instead created enormous confusion because many of those trained on the system did not show up for work. Also, the biometric machines were received just a month before polls and there was no time to do field testing.

Many polling stations opened as much as five hours behind schedule. The Independent Election Commission was uncertain how many of the estimated 21,000 polling stations closed by 4 p.m. local time, the original closing time. Polling was extended until 8 p.m. local time for all those polling stations that opened late, and those that could not open before 1 p.m. local time will open Sunday.

Afghanistan’s deputy chief executive Mohammad Mohaqiq expressed outrage at the chaotic start to polling and assailed election preparation by the country’s election commission. “The people rushed like a flood to the polling stations, but the election commission employees were not present, and in some cases they were there but there were no electoral materials and in most cases the biometric systems was not working,” he said.

“The widespread reports today of confusion and incompetence in the administration of the elections … suggest that bureaucratic failures and lack of political will to prioritize organizing credible parliamentary elections may do more to delegitimize the election results than threats and violent attacks by the Taliban and Daesh,” said Andrew Wilder, vice-president of Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, using the Arabic acronym name for the Islamic State group.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani marked his ballot at the start of voting. In a televised speech afterward, he congratulated Afghans on another election and praised the security forces, particularly the air force, for getting ballots to Afghanistan’s remotest corners.

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said, also reminding those elected that they are there to serve the people and ensure the rule of law. North of Kabul, thousands of outraged voters blocked a road after waiting more than five hours for a polling station to open, said Mohammad Azim, the governor of Qarabagh district where the demonstration took place.

Election Commission Commissioner Abdul Badi Sayat said dozens of teachers who had been trained in the new biometric system had not shown up for work at the polling stations. It wasn’t clear whether that was related to a Taliban warning directed specifically at teachers and students telling them to stay away from the polls.

“The long lines at many polling stations today, despite the threats and violent attacks by the Taliban and Daesh, clearly demonstrate that the problem with Afghan elections is not the enthusiasm of Afghan voters for a democratic future,” said Wilder.

The Defense Ministry said it had increased its deployment of National Security Forces to 70,000 from the original 50,000 to protect polling stations. Elections in the provinces of Kandahar and Ghazni have been delayed as well as in 11 of the country’s nearly 400 districts.

The Independent Election Commission registered 8.8 million people. Wasima Badghisy, a commission member, called voters “very, very brave” and said a turnout of 5 million would be a success. At a polling station in crowded west Kabul, Khoda Baksh said he arrived nearly two hours early to cast his vote, dismissing Taliban threats of violence.

“We don’t care about their threats. The Taliban are threatening us all the time,” said 55-year-old Baksh, who said he wanted to see a new generation of politicians take power in Afghanistan’s 249-seat Parliament. He bemoaned the current Parliament dominated by warlords and corrupt elite. “They have done zero for us.”

In the run-up to the elections, two candidates were killed while polling in Kandahar was delayed for a week after a rogue guard gunned down the powerful provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq. In the capital of Kabul, security was tight, with police and military personnel stopping vehicles at dozens of checkpoints throughout the congested city.

Commission deputy spokesman Aziz Ibrahimi said results of Saturday’s voting will not be released before mid-November and final results will not be out until later in December.

October 20, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Some Afghans lined up for hours to cast their vote Saturday in Parliamentary elections that are being protected by tens of thousands of security forces, who are on alert nationwide following a campaign marred by relentless violence.

As voting began, polling workers struggled with a new biometric system and in several polling stations workers took an extraordinary amount of time to locate names on voter lists. In some polling stations in the capital Kabul voting started as much as an hour late causing small disturbances by frustrated voters, some of whom had come to vote nearly two hours before polls opened.

The new biometric machines meant to curtail fraud were late additions to Afghanistan’s elections and had not been tested in the field nor had workers had more than a few weeks to learn the system. Even the Independent Election Commission chairman Abdul Badih Sayat warned ahead of polling that the system might experience glitches and asked for voters’ patience.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani marked his ballot at the start of voting. In a televised speech afterward, he congratulated Afghans on another election and praised the security forces, particularly the air force, for getting ballots to Afghanistan’s remotest corners. He also reminded those elected to Parliament that they are there to serve the people and ensure the rule of law.

The Independent Election Commission registered 8.8. million people. Wasima Badghisy, a commission member, called voters “very, very brave” and said a turnout of 5 million will be a success. At a polling station in crowded west Kabul, Khoda Baksh said he arrived nearly two hours early to cast his vote, dismissing Taliban threats of violence.

“We don’t care about their threats. The Taliban are threatening us all the time,” said 55-year-old Baksh, who said he wanted to see a new generation of politicians take power in Afghanistan’s 249-seat Parliament. He bemoaned the current Parliament dominated by warlords and a corrupt elite. “They have done zero for us.”

Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah waited to mark his ballot as polling workers struggled to move voters through the process. “Holding the election is a huge step in the lives of the Afghan people,” Abdullah said after casting his vote. “The beginning of the process was a bit slow, but that was just because of a new system and the Independent Election Commission employees needed more instruction.”

The first violence to be reported since the start of polling occurred in a northern Kabul neighborhood. Qarbagh district Gov. Azim Dilagha said a small explosion frightened voters but no injuries were reported.

In the run-up to the elections, two candidates were killed while polling in Kandahar was delayed for a week after a rogue guard gunned down the powerful provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq. In the capital of Kabul, security was tight, with police and military personnel stopping vehicles at dozens of checkpoints throughout the congested city.

Commission deputy spokesman Aziz Ibrahimi said results of Saturday’s voting will not be released before mid-November and final results will not be out until later in December. More than 50,000 Afghan National Security Forces personnel have been deployed to protect the 21,000 polling stations. Insecurity forced the election commission to close nearly a third of its polling centers and cancel elections in 11 of nearly 400 districts. As well as Kandahar, elections will not be held in Ghazni province, where polls have been postponed until next year.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt Saturday’s vote, warning teachers and students not to allow schools to be used for as precincts and warning Afghans to stay away from the polls. Ghani said Afghans alone are carrying out elections as he praised the millions of voters who registered, defying threats from insurgents.

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “The more than 8 million people who registered have shown that they themselves will decide the future of Afghanistan.”

Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Kabul contributed.

August 16, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — As Afghanistan’s Shiites mourned their dead and held funeral services Thursday, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the horrific suicide bombing in Kabul that targeted a Shiite neighborhood the previous day, killing 34 students.

Grieving families gathered to bury their dead but even amid the somber atmosphere there was no respite from violence, underscoring the near-daily, persistent threats in the war-battered country. Two gunmen besieged a compound belonging to the Afghan intelligence service in a northwestern Kabul neighborhood early Thursday, opening fire as Afghan security forces moved in to cut them off. The standoff lasted for nearly six hours before police killed the gunmen and secured the area. The Islamic State group, in a posting on its Aamaq News Agency, claimed more than 200 people were killed or wounded in Wednesday’s suicide bombing.

The bomber, who had walked into a classroom in a one-room building at a Shiite educational center in the neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, where he set off his explosives, was identified as “the martyrdom-seeking brother Abdul Raouf al-Khorasani.” Afghanistan’s IS affiliate is known as The Islamic State in Khorasan Province, after an ancient name of the area that encompassed parts of present-day Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The bombing also wounded 57 students, according to Health Ministry spokesman Wahid Majroh. Earlier on Thursday, the ministry revised an earlier death toll from the attack down to 34, not 48. Most of the victims were young men and women, high school graduates preparing for university entrance exams in the Shiite area’s educational center.

Kabul hospitals were completely overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of the attack as officials collected data on the casualties, leading to the confusion and the initial wrong toll. The Dasht-e-Barchi area is populated by members of Afghanistan’s minority ethnic Hazaras — a Shiite community that has in the past been targeted by similar large-scale attacks.

IS, which considers Shiites to be heretics, frequently targets them, attacking their mosques, schools and cultural centers. In the past two years, there have been at least 13 attacks on the Shiite community in Kabul alone.

Fifteen of the victims’ bodies were taken Thursday to a Hazara community compound in Kabul where a mass funeral service was being held. The remaining victims were taken to their villages to be buried there, said Gulam Hassan, the cousin of one of the victims.

The attack, which came at the end of more than a week of assaults that have left scores of Afghan troops and civilians dead, shows how militants are still able to stage large-scale attacks — even in the capital of Kabul — and undermine efforts by Afghan forces to provide security and stability on their own.

Amnesty International on Thursday denounced the attack on the Shiites, calling it a war crime. “The deliberate targeting of civilians and the targeting of places of education is a war crime,” said Samira Hamidi, Amnesty’s South Asia campaigner. “Mounting civilian casualties show beyond any doubt that Afghanistan and, in particular, its capital, Kabul, are not safe.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has also condemned the “terrorist” attack on the Shiites that “martyred and wounded the innocent” — students attending class — and ordered an investigation to determine how the bomber had managed to sneak into the compound, which has its own guards.

Survivors on Thursday struggled to come to terms with the bombing. In a Kabul hospital, Anifa Ahmadi sat by the bedside of her 17-year-old daughter Sima, who was wounded in the attack. Sima was in the front row of the classroom in the single-room building where the explosion occurred.

“I had told her and told her, ‘Don’t go to school. We are under attack everywhere. No place is safe for us.’ But she said ‘No, no, no’,” the mother said. Sima appeared undeterred despite injuries to her legs and arms and said she would go back to school. “I won’t let anyone stop me, I will resist all terrorist attacks to have the future I want,” she said.

Nahida Rahimi, a doctor at Kabul’s Isteqlal Hospital, where some of the wounded are being treated, said a mother told her she had lost a son in Wednesday’s bombing after already losing another a year earlier in another suicide bombing, also in Kabul, that targeted Shiites.

“We were both crying,” the doctor said. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, four policemen were killed and four were seriously wounded late Wednesday when they tried to defuse a car bomb they found in southern Kandahar province, according to Zia Durrani, provincial police spokesman.

Kandahar was the religious heartland of the Taliban during their five-year rule that ended with the 2001 invasion by U.S. and NATO forces following the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.

August 15, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide bomber targeted students preparing for university exams in a Shiite neighborhood of Kabul on Wednesday, killing at least 48 people and wounding 67 in an attack blamed on the Islamic State group, officials said.

The bombing was the latest large-scale assault on Afghanistan’s Shiite community, which has increasingly been targeted by Sunni extremists who consider Shiites to be heretics. It comes amid a particularly bloody week in Afghanistan that has seen Taliban attacks kill scores of Afghan troops and civilians.

The bomber detonated his explosives inside a private building in the Dasht-i Barcha area of Kabul where a group of young Shiite men and women, all high school graduates, were studying for university entrance exams.

The spokesman for the public health ministry, Wahid Majroh, said the casualty figures were not final and that the death toll — which steadily rose in the immediate aftermath of the bombing — could rise further.

Majroh did not say if all the victims were students and whether any of their teachers were also among the casualties. The explosion initially set off gunfire from Afghan guards in the area, leading to assumptions that there were more attackers involved. Officials later said all indications were that there was only one bomber.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but Jawad Ghawari, a member of the city’s Shiite clerical council, blamed IS, which has carried similar attacks in the past, hitting mosques, schools and cultural centers.

In the past two years, Ghawari said there were at least 13 attacks on the Shiite community in Kabul alone. Abdul Hossain Hossainzada, a Shiite community leader in the western Kabul neighborhood, said the bomber apparently targeted the course, which had young men and women studying together.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied his group’s involvement in the attack. Meanwhile, a Taliban assault on two adjacent checkpoints in northern Afghanistan late on Tuesday night killed at least 30 soldiers and policemen, officials said.

The attack took place in northern Baghlan province, in the Baghlan-I Markazi district, said Mohammad Safdar Mohseni, the head of the provincial council. Dilawar Aymaq, a parliamentarian from Baghlan, said the attack targeted a military checkpoint and another manned by the so-called local police, militias recruited and paid by the Interior Ministry.

Abdul Hai Nemati, the governor of Baghlan, said at least nine security forces were still missing and four others were wounded in the attack. He said reinforcements have been dispatched to help recapture the checkpoints.

Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the assault. Also Wednesday, life was gradually returning to normal in parts of the eastern city of Ghazni after a massive, days-long Taliban attack, though sporadic gunbattles was still underway in some neighborhoods.

Afghans emerged from their homes and some shops reopened in Ghazni, where the Taliban launched a coordinated offensive last Friday, overwhelming the city’s defenses and capturing several neighborhoods. Afghan forces repelled the initial assault and in recent days have struggled to flush the insurgents out of residential areas where they are holed up.

The United States and NATO have launched airstrikes and sent military advisers to aid Afghan forces as they fight for the city, just 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the Afghan capital with a population of some 270,000 people.

Arif Noori, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said Wednesday that “life is getting back to normal” after at least 35 civilians were killed in recent days. But he said wounded people were still arriving at the city’s only hospital, which has been overwhelmed by the casualties.

Hundreds of people have fled the fighting in Ghazni, which has also killed about 100 members of the Afghan security forces. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Taliban attacked a police checkpoint in the southern Zabul province early Wednesday, killing four policemen, according to the provincial police chief, Mustafa Mayar, who said another three officers were wounded. He said seven attackers were killed and five were wounded during the battle, in which the Taliban used artillery and heavy weapons.

The Taliban have seized several districts across the country in recent years and carry out near-daily attacks targeting Afghan security forces. The assault on Ghazni was widely seen as a show of force ahead of possible peace talks with the U.S., which has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly 17 years.

Also on Wednesday, six children were killed when they tinkered with an unexploded rocket shell, causing it to blow up, said Sarhadi Zwak, spokesman for the governor of the eastern Laghman province. Zwak said that the victims were girls, aged 10-12, who were gathering firewood on Wednesday.

He blamed the Taliban, saying the rockets they fire at Afghan security forces often harm civilians. Afghanistan is littered with unexploded ordnance left by decades of war. It is also plagued by roadside bombs planted by insurgents, which are usually intended for government officials or security forces, but often kill and maim civilians.

August 13, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Four days of ferocious fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban over a key provincial capital has claimed the lives of about 100 Afghan policemen and soldiers and at least 20 civilians, the defense minister said Monday.

The staggering numbers provided by Gen. Tareq Shah Bahrami were the first official casualty toll since the Taliban launched a massive assault on Ghazni, the capital of Ghazni province, last Friday. The multi-pronged assault overwhelmed the city’s defenses and allowed insurgents to capture several parts of it. It was a major show of force by the Taliban, who infiltrated deep into this strategic city barely 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the capital, Kabul.

The United States has sent military advisers to aid Afghan forces. The fall of Ghazni, a city of 270,000 people, would mark an important victory for the Taliban. It would also cut off a key highway linking Kabul to the southern provinces, the Taliban’s traditional heartland.

Bahrami, the defense minister, spoke to reporters at a press conference in Kabul on Monday. He said the casualty figures are not yet definite and that the numbers might change. He didn’t offer a breakdown of the casualties but Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak said nearly 70 policemen were among those killed.

Bahrami said about 1,000 additional troops have been sent to Ghazni and helped prevent the city from falling into Taliban hands. He also said 194 insurgents, including 12 leaders, were killed — with Pakistani, Chechen and Arabs foreign fighters among the dead.

The attack on Ghazni began on Friday, with insurgents infiltrating people’s homes and slipping out into the night to attack Afghan forces. The Taliban also destroyed a telecommunications tower on the city’s outskirts, cutting off all landline and cell phone links to the city and making it difficult to confirm details of the fighting.

Afghan authorities have insisted that the city would not fall to the Taliban and that Afghan forces remained in control of key government positions and other institutions there. Najib Danish, the Interior Ministry’s spokesman, said earlier on Monday that reinforcements have been sent to Ghazni to clear the remaining Taliban.

Col. Fared Mashal, the province’s police chief, said the majority of the insurgents fighting in Ghazni are foreigners, including Pakistanis and Chechens. “The Taliban have failed in reaching their goal,” Mashal added.

Over the past months, the insurgents have seized several districts across Afghanistan, staging near-daily attacks on Afghan security forces, but have been unable to capture and hold urban areas. The United States and NATO formally concluded their combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, but have since then repeatedly come to the aid of Afghan forces as they struggle to combat the resurgent Taliban.

The United Nations has expressed its concerns for the civilians caught up in the fighting in Ghazni. Ghazni’s residents “have seen their city turn into a battlefield since Friday morning, with fighting and clashes reportedly still ongoing. We have received initial reports of a number of civilian casualties and of people trying to reach safe areas outside of the city,” said Rik Peeperkorn, acting U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan.

Ghazni’s hospitals are running out of medicines and people are unable to safely bring casualties, Peeperkorn’s statement added. Electricity, water supply and food are also running low, the statement said.

“Parties to the conflict need to ensure that access to medical services is not denied and respect for medical facilities and staff is upheld,” Peeperkom said. Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association jointly put out a statement condemning the violence in Ghazni and attacks on journalists there.

Media technician Mohammad Dawood was among those killed in Ghazni, the statement said, and also condemned the torching of Ghazni’s radio and television station.

Associated Press reporter Mohammad Anwar Danishyar in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.