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It was saddening and maddening to watch events unfold in Afghanistan this week.

General McKenzie and the Taliban

On August 29, the Washington Post reported that General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the United States Central Command, refused an offer from the Taliban to stay out of Kabul and let the US control the city:

The US never should have handed back control of Bagram Air Base, the size of a small city, in July.

On the other hand:

Britain plans air strikes

The Afghanistan war is over, or maybe not:

This was The Independent‘s front page on Tuesday, August 31:

The Royal Air Force, following the United States, is planning fresh air strikes to defeat terror, according to The Telegraph (emphases mine unless otherwise stated):

Just three days after the British military presence in Afghanistan ended after 20 years of conflict, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, head of the Royal Air Force, told The Telegraph: “Ultimately, what this boils down to is that we’ve got to be able to play a global role in the global coalition to defeat Daesh [IS] – whether it’s strike or whether it’s moving troops or equipment into a particular country at scale and at speed.”

Earlier on Monday, August 30, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that Britain was willing to use ‘all means necessary’:

His comments come after Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, said on Monday that Britain was willing to use “all means necessary” to combat IS amid warnings that the chaos in Afghanistan has increased the terror threat to the UK.

Mr Raab signed a joint statement issued by the US-led coalition that previously targeted IS in Syria and Iraq, vowing to “draw on all elements of national power – military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic, law enforcement” to crush the terror group.

He said: “The UK stands united with our coalition partners in mourning those killed by Daesh’s horrific attack at Kabul airport and in our unwavering collective resolve to combat Daesh networks by all means available, wherever they operate.”

An examination of how this will be done has already started:

The Telegraph understands that government officials have examined logistics for air strikes raising questions about where RAF jets would be based, how they would refuel and how targets would be identified on the ground.

Sir Mike said he was in discussion with his international counterparts about long-term plans to base more RAF units overseas, including the Protector drone which is due to come into service in 2024.

Meanwhile, news emerged alleging that the Pentagon accused the UK’s evacuation efforts of being indirectly responsible for the death of 13 American soldiers in the terror bombing last Wednesday:

The projection of unity from the global coalition to defeat IS came as the Pentagon faced a backlash from Tory MPs over the leaked minutes of classified calls among American commanders that took place last week.

The conference call transcripts were said to cite the UK evacuation effort as the reason for keeping open Abbey Gate at Kabul airport, where 13 American personnel were later killed by a suicide bomb.

However, a UK Government source hit back at the claim, insisting: “I don’t think it was just the UK using the gate.” The Pentagon said the Politico story was based on “unlawful disclosure of classified information”.

A flurry of diplomatic activity took place on Monday, aimed at building international consensus on Afghanistan.

The story made the front page of The Times. Pictured are two little boys who lost their lives in last week’s bombing:

On Tuesday, Dominic Raab appeared on BBC Breakfast to defend the continuing British evacuation on the day of the bombing:

He said (emphasis in the original):

We coordinated very closely with the US, in particular around the ISIS-K threat which we anticipated, although tragically were not able to prevent, but it is certainly right to say we got our civilians out of the processing centre by Abbey Gate, but it is just not true to suggest that other than securing our civilians inside the airport that we were pushing to leave the gate open.

This story will run and run for political reasons. The BBC and other media outlets want Raab to jump or be pushed. After all, he did support Brexit and served as Boris’s deputy PM when the former was in the hospital last year with coronavirus.

The Taliban celebrate

On Monday, August 30, the Taliban celebrated the final departure of US troops:

Note the British and American law enforcement hats on the table:

On Sunday, August 29, a group of armed Taliban stood menacingly behind a television news presenter who was on air. The Daily Mail has the story, along with photos and a video. It’s like something out of a hostage movie:

In the 42-second clip, which has since been viewed more than 1 million times, the news anchor is surrounded by eight armed men who appear to be guarding him as he reads.

It has been reported they stormed the building on Sunday and demanded the presenter speak with them.

According to WIO News, the news anchor carried out a debate with the militants while on air.

The news outlet reports that the presenter spoke about the collapse of the Government in Afghanistan and urged the Afghan people not to be afraid.

During the show, called Pardaz, the anchor also reportedly told people to co-operate with the group.

The video was filmed as US armed forces said they had carried out a successful drone strike mission which prevented a second terrorist attack at Kabul airport …

Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad retweeted the video and wrote: ‘This is surreal. 

‘Taliban militants are posing behind this visibly petrified TV host with guns and making him to say that people of #Afghanistan shouldn’t be scared of the Islamic Emirate.

‘Taliban itself is synonymous with fear in the minds of millions. This is just another proof.’

Al Qaeda boss returns to Afghanistan

On Monday, August 30, the Daily Mail reported that an Al Qaeda supremo, Amin ul-Haq, has returned to Afghanistan.

He received a hero’s welcome:

A close aide of Osama bin Laden has returned to his home in Afghanistan after 20 years of US occupation just hours until American forces finish their evacuation from the war-torn country by President Joe Biden‘s deadline, a video purports to show.

Amin ul-Haq, a top Al Qaeda arms supplier, returned to his hometown in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province on Monday just over two weeks after the Taliban completed its lightening fast offensive to take over nearly all of the country.

Ul-Haq headed bin Laden’s security when he was occupying the Tora Bora cave complex. The two men escaped together when US forces attacked the complex, according to NBC.

The Al Qaeda leader was killed by US forces in Pakistan in 2011.  

In the video, a car carrying ul-Haq is seen driving through a checkpoint amid a small crowd. 

At one point the car stops and ul-Haq rolls down the window. Apparent admirers crowd the vehicle’s passenger side, with men taking turns grasping and even kissing the top Al Qaeda associate’s hand. 

Two men take a few steps forward along with the slow-moving car in order to take a [photo] next to ul-Haq.

The car is then followed by a procession of vehicles carrying heavily-armed fighters, some flying the Taliban’s flag.

Asked about ul-Haq’s return to Afghanistan, the Pentagon told DailyMail.com that it does not comment on intelligence matters. 

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment.

His release is part of the withdrawal agreement, which began with President Trump:

A United Nations report from June estimated there were several dozen to 500 Al Qaeda-affiliated individuals, with most ‘core membership’ existing outside of Afghanistan. 

The report also notes that while communication between Al Qaeda and Taliban was infrequent at the time, one UN member state claimed there was ‘regular communication’ related to the Taliban’s peace talks with the Trump administration.

In the February 2020 Doha agreement negotiated by Trump, the Taliban promised it would ‘not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including Al Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.’

In return the group secured the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners against the wishes of the Afghan government and Trump agreed to withdraw troops by May 1.

But based on the Monday video of ul-Haq’s return the militants seemed to encourage and even celebrate the Islamist figure’s homecoming. 

Ul-Haq had been a member of Hizb-i Islami Khalis, one of seven groups that fought against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan.

Future evacuation of refugees to the UK

Tuesday’s edition of the i paper summed up the situation in Afghanistan perfectly, especially the future of civilian evacuations:

That morning, Dominic Raab gave an interview to Nick Ferrari on LBC (radio).

Guido Fawkes has the story (emphases in the original):

On reports that 7,000 Brits were left behind, Raab told LBC’s Nick Ferrari he couldn’t “give a firm figure”, though he estimates it’s likely in the “low hundreds”. Asked about doubts over his own future, he said it was “just ridiculous“:

“Anyone taking time out during the evacuation…to go and brief, anonymously, newspapers with a totally inaccurate, skewed set of reporting I’m afraid lacks any credibility and is probably engaged in buck-passing themselves.”

I have wondered why British nationals — civilians — would fly into Afghanistan when it is clear the place is highly dangerous.

On August 30, The Times reported on a taxi driver and shopkeeper, both Britons, who lost their lives in the terror bombing last week.

The taxi driver, Sultan Rez, 48, had just received British citizenship and was on his way to rescue his family:

Rez had lived and worked in England as a taxi driver since 2002 and he was given permission by Britain to take his family out of Afghanistan.

He flew to Pakistan on August 23, a week after getting British citizenship. He drove into Afghanistan to collect his wife, Mangala, grandson Muhammad Raza aged 23 months, and Muhammad’s sister Kalsoom, aged five months, from Jalalabad. He took them to Kabul to spend three days awaiting their flight.

Seven of his relatives had permission to leave and the family was being processed close to a gate when the attacker struck.

“He sacrificed his life to bring them back here and paid the ultimate price,” Shakrullah, Rez’s son from north London, told The Sun on Sunday.

My father had gone out there to bring all the family back to the UK. He had been sent an email giving him and all the others special permission to board an evacuation plane to the UK.”

Some of the Rez family survived and were allowed to board their flight, but his father died and a little boy is missing. His toddler grandson is at the French Medical Institute for Mothers and Children, too injured to be airlifted. The little boy’s mother is now in London, hoping for a swift reunion. The Ministry of Defence is aware of the situation.

The shopkeeper, Musa Popal, ran a shop in north London. They went to Afghanistan to visit relatives in June:

Musa Popal, 60, moved to Britain in 1999 and ran the Madeena supermarket in Hendon, north London, for more than 20 years.

He and his wife Saleema, 60, flew to Kandahar in June to visit relatives including a son and daughter who live in Afghanistan. The London couple went to Kabul airport after the Taliban took over.

Popal’s remains were found in a hospital in the Afghan capital. Because of his injuries, his family in Britain were only shown a video of his feet and shoes. He has been buried in Afghanistan in a ceremony attended by hundreds of mourners.

His wife, who saw the suicide bombing from a distance, was uninjured but their grandson Hameed, 14, who was standing with Popal, remains missing.

“I’m really worried about my mum and other siblings being targeted by the Taliban,” the couple’s daughter Zohra said.

My mum, she has no documents now because my dad was holding everything when he died. She and the rest of my family are still in danger, and we still might lose them. And yet we can’t get through to the Foreign Office.

Their number is constantly engaged. We feel completely ignored. But we must get them to safety. I can’t live without them. We need the government’s help.”

Yet, in the video above, Dominic Raab said that the Foreign Office has been answering calls in less than a minute. Perhaps they need more phones and more people to answer them?

The harrowing journey to freedom

In a related article, Charlie Faulkner wrote an excellent report on refugee evacuations for The Times: ‘Salvation at last for passengers on final civilian flight out of Kabul’. Reading it made me feel as if I were there. It is as factual as it is moving.

His article includes an illustration showing the evacuation routes and all the countries involved in this humanitarian effort. In addition to the US and the UK, Germany, Italy, Japan, Australia and New Zealand also took part.

Reporting from Kabul, Charlie Faulkner tells of the queues of people waiting for coaches (buses) to take them to the airport, after the terror bombing prevented a previous effort:

The same people, more than 200 of them – families, young and old, educated, poor, wealthy, journalists, activists, artists – regrouped at the meeting point where the five coaches were waiting at 8.30pm to take them into the airport …

People waving paperwork still pleaded for a seat on the bus. “I have German citizenship,” said one man as he showed his documentation. “Please, I beg you, please let my family on the bus,” cried another lady. But this list had been put together and approved days ago; first by the German government, which had granted visas for everyone on the list, and then by the US authorities. It was impossible for further names to be added.

A mother with five young children was resisting being hurried on to a bus; she wasn’t going anywhere until each of her children had a hold of her hands or the straps on her handbag. There have been many stories of families being separated during the chaos at the airport over the past two weeks.

Because of the terror incident, passengers were no longer allowed to carry rucksacks. They had to put all their belongings into plastic bags.

Rerouting people was also a priority to ensure safe passage to the airport. An Australian film-maker, Jordan Bryon, was one of the organisers, working with a German organisation:

… five coaches were organised at a separate location on Thursday, where Jordan Bryon, an Australian film-maker, found himself responsible for overseeing the operation. A German organisation called Kabulluftbrücke, formed of journalists and activists, had made the evacuation possible.

Those in charge had to negotiate with the Taliban along the way. There was also a lot of shooting going on in Kabul.

It was also extremely hot, but the bus doors could not be opened for security reasons:

“The traffic was at a standstill, there was quite a lot of shooting going on. We just realised it was impossible,” said Bryon. “We were sweltering hot because we couldn’t open the doors – there were hundreds of people outside who would just try to force their way on to the coaches if we did. It was hectic, passengers were worried those outside would break the glass windows in their attempts to get on.”

As the traffic prevented Bryon’s group from reaching the airport that day, the coach drivers had to find a place to park for everyone to spend the night on the buses.

The night-time stop allowed stowaways to break into the luggage area of the coaches:

The luggage compartments beneath the coaches were checked. Five stowaways were discovered and removed, and off the convoy went again.

On the way back to the airport the next day, the Taliban forced the coaches to stop to demand that a family be allowed on board. What could one do but say yes:

“I had been so militant about the list but at this point all I could do was welcome them with a smile,” said Bryon.

Stowaways were still getting on board outside of the coaches:

The biggest challenge was keeping the coaches free of anyone not on the list. At one point about 25 people who had somehow sneaked onto the back of one of the vehicles had to be removed.

At another Taliban checkpoint, the coaches were allowed to proceed only if they took ‘a few people’ with Canadian visas. Again, Bryon had to agree to take extra passengers but was surprised to find that ‘a few’ turned out to be 40 people, most of whom didn’t have paperwork after all.

At another checkpoint, the Taliban commander threatened to stop the convoy of coaches, saying that Afghans were no longer allowed to leave the country. Bryon said:

He said everyone needed to stay to promote Sharia law. At which point people got scared and didn’t want to push on. Many went home or back to the hotels they had been staying in.

Around midnight on Saturday, August 28, the road to the airport was suddenly empty. By then, the passengers were tired, hungry and sitting in a stinky atmosphere. The Taliban did not help the situation:

The smell of stale urine wafted from the back of the coach. A Taliban fighter up ahead fired his gun into the air indiscriminately, rattling the windows. The passengers waited nervously to see if the promised Taliban escort – the last hope of reaching the entrance – would materialise.

The Taliban came through for the coaches and the passengers, but the drama did not end there.

Not everyone, even those whose names had been on the official list, were allowed their flight to freedom:

The atmosphere was tense. Quietly they filed off the bus as instructed and formed separate lines of men and women. A total of 189 names were called out from the list, one by one. In a very anticlimactic manner, the man calling the names simply said: “That’s it, that’s all the names.”

A group of about 20 people didn’t make it. Most had never been on the list in the first place, but six had. The reason they didn’t make the final call is unknown.

“My heart sank,” said Bryon. “But there was nothing we could do. The Taliban pushed us back towards the first checkpoint and that was it, it was over.”

Soon after, the plane carrying the five coachloads of passengers thundered down the runway and took to the sky — the final civilian flight, it is thought, out of Afghanistan.

At midnight the airport was officially handed over to the Taliban, and US and UK forces began their exit.

How utterly heartbreaking — and terrifying — for those left behind.

However, the Daily Mail says that evacuation flights are scheduled to continue on August 30:

Flights will continue on Monday – 17 jets are expected to take more than 3,000 people out of Kabul, the majority of whom are Afghan.

————————————————————–

May the good Lord guide the Western coalition out of this disastrous mess.

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