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Pakistan releases top Taliban commander ‘at US request’

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Islamabad :Pakistan has released Mullah Baradar, a senior Taliban commander, as a “confidence-building” measure requested by the US, which is engaged in so-called peace talks with the insurgents.

Abdul Ghani Baradar, the former right-hand man of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, had been held in Pakistani detention for over eight years, sources said.

The move is said to be aimed at aiding the so-called peace talks between the US and the militant group, after the two sides agreed in Doha, Qatar to continue the secretive negotiations.

 

Less than two weeks ago, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met with Taliban representatives in Qatar to discuss a “peace” deal.

“Baradar was freed yesterday afternoon and he joined his family,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP in a WhatsApp message.

A Pakistani intelligence official also noted that Baradar was “released a couple of days ago”.

Baradar was the most high-profile Taliban leader detained by Pakistan since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. He was arrested in the southern port city of Karachi in 2010, reportedly in an operation that was described as a huge blow to the militant group.

Apart from Baradar, several other senior Taliban leaders were freed this week following direct talks with Khalilzad on October 12, a senior Taliban official told AFP, adding that they believe the releases were made at US request.

According to the official, Baradar will likely stay in Pakistan and shuttle between the group’s Doha office, Kabul and Islamabad.

The Taliban announced on October 13 that they would continue talks with the US, even though no tangible agreement was reached in the first round of meeting in Doha.

Washington’s repeated outreach to the Taliban contradicts its efforts to link other countries, including Iran and Russia, to the militant group.

Early this week, the US Treasury Department blacklisted nine men, including two Iranian military officers, over allegations that they were “linked with the Taliban”.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin claimed that the Iranians were providing financial and material support to the Taliban.

Washington has a long history of liaison with the Taliban, starting with the militant group’s years of war with the Soviets over their occupation of Afghanistan.

Following the Soviet withdrawal, the US saw the group as a counterbalance to Iran’s Islamic Republic and maintained its links with the Taliban.

The Taliban government, however, was toppled during the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 because the group refused to expel the al-Qaeda which Washington blames for the 9/11 attacks.

Senior US politicians have said the CIA also created al-Qaeda with the help of British, Pakistani and Saudi intelligence agencies to counter Iran.


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‘Aid to Pak will remain suspended,’ says US

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Washington: Ahead of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the United States, a Congressional report has said that the security assistance to Pakistan would remain suspended pending “decisive and irreversible” action against terrorist groups.

At the direction of US President Donald Trump, the United States had suspended all its security assistance to Pakistan in January 2018. This is first high-level visit by a Pakistani Prime Minster to the White House during the Trump administration.

“Pakistan is a haven for numerous Islamist extremist and terrorist groups, and successive Pakistani governments are widely believed to have tolerated and even supported some of these as proxies in Islamabad’s historical conflicts with its neighbours,” the independent Congressional Research Service (CRS) said in a latest report on Pakistan.

 

The CRS is an independent and bipartisan research wing of the US Congress, which prepares periodic reports on issues of interest for lawmakers to make informed decisions. Its reports are prepared by eminent experts of the field and are not considered as an official view of the US Congress.

The latest CRS report told lawmakers that the 2011 revelation that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had enjoyed years-long refuge in Pakistan led to intensive US government scrutiny of the bilateral relationship. It also sparked congressional questioning of the wisdom of providing significant aid to a nation that may not have the intention or capacity to be an effective partner.

The Trump administration has taken a harder line on Pakistan than its predecessors, sharply cutting assistance and suspending security-related aid, said the CRS report dated July 15.

“The United States continues to press for decisive and irreversible action against externally-focused terror groups and UN-designated terrorist organizations operating from its territory,” it said. “Pending such action, security assistance will remain suspended.”

During a September 2018 visit to Islamabad amidst talk of a “reset” of bilateral ties, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed hope that the US could find common ground with Pakistan’s new leadership, but mutual distrust was seen to be pervasive in the relationship and American leverage was much reduced.

In mid-2017, the administration announced that it would “pause” disbursement of USD 255 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and announced a broader security aid suspension in January 2018. According to the State Department, about USD 790 million in unobligated FMF dating back to 2001 is affected.

Pakistani politicians and analysts of all stripes decried what they perceived as an effort to scapegoat their country for US policy failures in Afghanistan.

The administration’s 2020 budget request for assistance to Pakistan totals about USD 70 million, including USD 48 million for economic and development aid.

Noting that numerous indigenous terrorist groups operate on or from Pakistani territoryor areas under its occupation, many designated as ‘Foreign Terrorist Organisations’ under the US law, the CRS said incidents of domestic terrorism decreased since the Pakistan Army launched major operations in 2014.

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Trump says US Navy ‘destroyed’ Iranian drone

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WASHINGTON: The United States said that a US Navy ship had “destroyed” an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz after the aircraft threatened the vessel, but Iran said it had no information about losing a drone.

In the latest episode to stir tensions in the Gulf, US President Donald Trump told an event at the White House that the drone had flown to within 1,000 yards (metres) of the USS Boxer and had ignored “multiple calls to stand down.”

“This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters. The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, facilities and interests,” Trump said. “The drone was immediately destroyed,” he added.

 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters at the United Nations: “We have no information about losing a drone today.”

The Pentagon said in a statement that the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, had taken “defensive action” against a drone on Thursday morning as the Boxer was moving into the Strait of Hormuz.

“We do assess it was an Iranian drone,” said Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Tensions in the Gulf region are high, with fears that the United States and Iran could stumble into war.

The United States has blamed Iran for a series of attacks since mid-May on shipping around the Strait of Hormuz, the world`s most important oil artery. Tehran rejects the allegations.

Iran in June shot down a US military surveillance drone in the Gulf with a surface-to-air missile. Iran says the drone was in its airspace, but Washington says it was in international skies.

Trump said at the time the United States had come close to launching a military strike on Iran in retaliation for the downing of the US drone.

The increased use of drones by Iran and its allies for surveillance and attacks across the Middle East is raising alarms in Washington.

The United States believes that Iran-linked militia in Iraq have recently increased their surveillance of American troops and bases in the country by using off-the-shelf, commercially available drones, U.S. officials say.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the drone on Thursday was brought down through electronic jamming.

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‘More for more,’ says Iran Foreign Minister; makes nuclear offer to US

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Washington: Iran signalled a willingness to engage in diplomacy to defuse tensions with the United States with a modest offer on its nuclear programme that met immediate scepticism in Washington.

Iran’s Foreign Minister told reporters in New York that Iran could immediately ratify a document prescribing more intrusive inspections of its nuclear programme if the United States abandoned its economic sanctions, media organisations reported.

The document, known as the Additional Protocol, gives UN inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) more tools to verify that a nuclear programme is peaceful.

 

While US officials suggested they viewed the idea as a non-starter, analysts said it could provide an opening for US President Donald Trump’s administration to pursue diplomacy.

The Iran nuclear agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Monday that Iran has exceeded a limit on its enriched uranium reserves set by a 2015 nuclear deal, semi-official news agency ISNA reported.

“If Trump wants more for more, we can ratify the Additional Protocol and he can lift the sanctions he set,” the Guardian newspaper quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as telling reporters.

However, since Iran is already implementing the protocol and has often offered in the past to ratify it, it was not clear that Zarif’s proposal constituted much of a concession.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal agreed to by Tehran, Iran must seek ratification of the protocol eight years after the deal was adopted. That would be the same time that the United States must seek permanent termination of many of its sanctions on Iran.

US officials responded sceptically, suggesting it was a disingenuous effort to get sanctions relief.

“Their whole game is to try to get any sanctions relief they can while maintaining the ability to get a nuclear weapon in the future,” said an official on condition of anonymity, saying Iran was “trying to spin a small action into” something bigger.

The official noted that under the offer, Iran would keep enriching uranium, a process that can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, and would do nothing to rein in its support for regional proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

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