Footage shows the last moments of the TikTok comedian who mocked the Taliban leadership being slapped around by gunmen, before being executed

Taliban fighters have been seizing territory across Afghanistan.

  • The Taliban has admitted to killing comedian Nazar Mohammad, known for his humorous TikTok videos.
  • A viral video showed Mohammad being slapped in a car by two Taliban men.
  • The killing comes amid a surge in fighting as Taliban forces seize territory across Afghanistan.
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The Taliban has admitted to killing a TikTok comedian in Afghanistan after a video of him being slapped by two men went viral.

Comedian Nazar Mohammad, also known as Khasha Zwan, was taken from his home in the southern province of Kandahar and was later shot multiple times and killed. Images of his dead body circulating on social media.

Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that the two men slapping Mohammad in the video were Taliban men and that they would be arrested and tried for murder, according to Al-Jazeera.

Mohammad gained popularity in Afghanistan for posting humorous videos on TikTok.

“Taliban forces apparently executed Khasha Zwan because he poked fun at Taliban leaders,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “His murder and other recent abuses demonstrate the willingness of Taliban commanders to violently crush even the tamest criticism or objection.”

Zabihullah Mujahid alleged that the comedian was a member of the Afghan National Police and had been implicated in the torture and killing of a Taliban man, as reported by Al-Jazeera.

He added that the Taliban men should have arrested the comic and brought him before a Taliban court rather than killing him.

Mohammad’s killing comes amid a surge in fighting in Afghanistan sparked by US military forces withdrawing from the country.

Since Joe Biden announced plans to withdraw in April, the Taliban has been seizing territory across Afghanistan, with one report suggesting they control 55% of the country.

While the Taliban’s territorial gains have so far been mostly rural, in recent weeks they have made gains in provincial capitals and seized border crossings.

According to Human Rights Watch the Taliban has been detaining, and often executing, people associated with the government or police.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen claimed that the group was under orders to not interfere with civilians or impose restrictions in newly captured areas. He said that any wrongdoings would be investigated.

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The US was doomed in Afghanistan and will repeat mistakes if it doesn’t learn from them, top watchdog warns

President Joe Biden has said the US would complete its military withdrawal from Afghanistan by August 31, 2021.

  • The US is withdrawaing its troops from Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting there.
  • The US reconstruction effort during that period was flawed and its failings were obscured by US officials.
  • “Don’t believe what you’re told by the generals … saying we’re never going to do this again,” the watchdog warned.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US approach to reconstructing Afghanistan was inherently flawed, and those mistakes could easily be repeated, the top watchdog for that reconstruction effort warned Thursday in an unsparing assessment of the 20-year war effort.

John Sopko, who has been the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction since July 2012, told reporters at a Defense Writers Group event that the US repeatedly “moved the goalposts” for success in Afghanistan and “kicked the can down the road” in the face of obstacles or failures.

The US tendency to rebuild other governments and militaries in its image is “normal,” but focusing on building a strong central government in Afghanistan was “a mistake,” Sopko said.

“If you read some of the lessons-learned reports done by USAID for the 20 or 30 years before, they said that was a mistake, and if you talk to any experts on Afghanistan, they would have said it was a mistake,” Sopko said. “So that was our first problem.”

Army Special Forces Afghanistan
A Special Forces company commander meets with village elders and Afghan army members in Helmand Province, April 10, 2007.

Short timelines for reconstruction projects and short tours for the officials charged with executing them also undermined US efforts.

“We basically forced our generals, forced our military, forced our ambassadors, forced the USAID to try to show success in short timelines, which they themselves knew were never going to work.”

The troop surge between 2009 and 2011 was illustrative of this approach and its consequences, Sopko said.

“We bring troops in, but we knew we were leaving, so we had to try to turn things around really quickly. So what was the answer? Well, pour in a lot more money, and pouring in a lot more money just created more waste and created more corruption, which alienated the Afghan people.”

Short timelines based on political imperatives are “dooming us to failure in countries like Afghanistan,” Sopko added.

‘They knew’

Donald Rumsfeld US troops soldiers war in Afghanistan
Then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld presents a medal during a ceremony in Khandahar, December 22, 2005.

The US government also muddled or obscured its metrics for success. SIGAR tried several times to review the “assessment tools” the US military was using.

“Every time we went in, the US military changed the goalposts and made it easier to show success, and then finally, when they couldn’t even do that, they classified the assessment tool,” Sopko said.

“So they knew how bad the Afghan military was, and if you had a clearance you could find out, but the average American … wouldn’t know how bad it was, and we were paying for it,” Sopko added.

Critics have long said US goals in Afghanistan were too broad. Longheld suspicions that the US government was telling a misleading or false story about Afghanistan were confirmed by confidential documents obtained by The Washington Post in 2019.

The documents showed US officials were “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable,” The Post said.

US Army 101 Airborne Afghanistan
US soldiers recover bundles of fuel at Forward Operating Base Waza K’wah in the Paktika province of Afghanistan.

Throughout Sopko’s tenure, SIGAR has raised concerns about the US-led train, advise, and assist mission for the Afghan military. Specific concerns included the sustainability of the high-tech hardware the US supplied to Afghan forces, the lack of planning for the “long tail” of logistics, and pervasive corruption.

Ghost soldiers,” created on paper by corrupt commanders who then pocketed those soldiers’ US-paid salaries, remain a problem, as does fuel theft.

A former commander of Combined Security Training Command of Afghanistan told SIGAR that “over half the fuel disappears,” Sopko said. “If you don’t have fuel, the Afghan army doesn’t fight, and if they’re not being paid, they don’t fight, and if they’re not getting the bullets and the food and the other equipment, they don’t fight.”

US military advisors also told SIGAR that regular Afghan troops won’t go into combat without support from Afghan special-operations units. That demand wears out those units, which are also misused when they are available, Sopko said.

The Afghan air force has a major role against the Taliban that will only increase after the US withdraws at the end of August, but it is already being overworked, SIGAR’s latest quarterly report found.

Afghan air force A-29 pilot
An Afghan A-29 pilot talks to maintainers after a mission, at Kandahar Airbase, May 6, 2021.

Five of the air force’s seven airframes saw decreased readiness in June, according to the report, which said all of those airframes are flying at least 25% over their recommended scheduled-maintenance intervals.

Contractors assigned to train Afghan airmen have also been withdrawn. That training has continued virtually, including over Zoom, but such training is not hands-on and limited by a lack of consistent electricity and internet access.

“Our training and our advising and our assistance to the Afghan air force is one of the success stories, and those Afghan pilots and crews and members are not only brave, but they are really as competent as they could be,” Sopko said.

But pilots and mechanics aren’t trained “overnight,” Sopko added. “We’ve highlighted time and again [that] we had unrealistic timelines for all of our work, and that is what now is causing the problems you see with the military.”

Sopko said his office is “still waiting for more details” on the over-the-horizon capability the US military has said for months it would use to continue supporting the Afghan military.

‘Don’t believe what you’re told’

US Army Joseph Collette Afghanistan
A US Army carry team moves the remains of Spc. Joseph P. Collette, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, March 24, 2019.

The Afghan military has hardware and funding from the US and can still turn its performance around, but it will have to change its behavior to do so, Sopko said.

The Afghan government isn’t doomed yet. Sopko cited as an example the government of Mohammad Najibullah, which held on for three years after the Soviet military withdrew in 1989, but Najibullah’s government lasted just three months after Russia withdrew the rest of its support in 1992.

“It’s not over,” Sopko said, adding that as long as there is funding there needs to be oversight. “Otherwise it will be wasted, and it’ll actually harm us in the long run.”

The US government “kicked the can down the road” on other reconstruction projects and assessment efforts, including its counternarcotics program, which was “a total failure,” Sopko has said.

Special operations Bagram Afghanistan
US special operators at Bagram air base on a memorial run for seven special operators killed during Operation Anaconda in March 2002, on March 3, 2015.

Sopko said two words could describe the effort in Afghanistan.

“One is this hubris that we can somehow take a country that was desolate in 2001 and turn it into a little Norway,” Sopko said. “The other thing is mendacity. We exaggerated, over exaggerated – our generals did, our ambassadors did, all of our officials did – to Congress and the American people about [how] we’re just turning the corner.”

Those flaws and that dishonesty are not unprecedented, and they shouldn’t be forgotten, Sopko added.

“What we have identified in Afghanistan is relevant in other places in the world, so don’t believe what you’re told by the generals or the ambassadors or people in the administration saying we’re never going to do this again. That’s exactly what we said after Vietnam,” Sopko said. “Lo and behold, we did Iraq, and we did Afghanistan. We will do this again, and we really need to think and learn from the 20 years in Afghanistan.”

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With the US gone, Afghanistan’s air force has to rely on Zoom calls to learn how to fix its aircraft

Afghan air force UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter
An Afghan air force maintainer works on an UH-60 Blackhawk at Kabul Airbase, May 9, 2021.

  • The US is reducing its presence in Afghanistan, withdrawing its troops and contractors.
  • The US military has been training Afghanistan’s air force, which will be key to fighting the Taliban.
  • Without US support, that air force will struggle to maintain its aircraft and its operations.
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As the US pullout of Afghanistan nears completion, the Taliban continues to seize territory. It has paraded vehicles and weapons captured from Afghan forces and filmed its execution of 22 surrendering Afghan commandos.

While the Afghan military is fighting back, it will soon have to do so without its biggest advantage: US-led coalition airpower.

Instead, the Afghan Air Force will have to provide that support, but even with $8 billion spent and almost a decade of preparation, it still may not be up to the task.

Logistical problems, a lack of trained personnel, and a demanding battlespace are taking its toll on the AAF. Afghan airmen have been training to fix their aircraft over Zoom calls with foreign contractors – a sign of the scramble to prepare for the challenge ahead.

The importance of airpower

Afghan air force Mi-17 helicopter
An Afghan Air Force Mi-17 helicopter flies past commandos during a military exercise at the Kabul Military Training Centre, October 17, 2017.

Airpower was vital in ousting the Taliban after the US invasion, and some of the coalition’s most important victories were made possible by the coalition’s air dominance.

Airpower is important to military operations in Afghanistan because forces attempting to capture and hold territory will have to mass together to do so, said Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“They will have vehicles. They will have larger numbers of infantry converging onto targets and in infrastructure. The whole function of airpower is hitting a target, dropping bombs from fixed-wing aircraft and bombers, and taking them out,” Jones told Insider.

Air dominance also provides the Afghan military and national police with rapid transportation. Coalition and Afghan helicopters and transport planes can drop hundreds of troops and tons of supplies in remote locations that are otherwise inaccessible because of difficult terrain or Taliban presence.

“It’s the air capability that will bring those people there,” Jones said. “Ground transport is slow, and in the environment today, the Taliban does control some key roadways.”

“Because of that, air is really important in transporting key material, weapons, ammunition, and other kinds of support.”

A capable but compromised force

Afghan air force A-29 pilot
An Afghan A-29 pilot talks to maintainers after a mission, at Kandahar Airbase, May 6, 2021.

According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s most recent quarterly report, covering the first three months of 2021, the Afghan air force has 162 aircraft, 143 of which were available for operations.

The AAF inventory is primarily composed of seven airframes.

For attack, it relies on 23 A-29 Super Tucanos and 10 AC-208 Combat Caravans. For transport, it has 23 C-208 Caravans and 2 C-130s. Its helicopter fleet is made up of 13 Mi-17s, 35 MD-530s (which can also be used for light attack), and 37 UH-60 Blackhawks.

The AAF has already shown its ability to fight and transport essentials. In 2018, it conducted its first emergency combat airdrop of supplies, its first nighttime airstrikes, and dropped its first laser-guided bomb.

But the AAF faces a number of logistical issues that prevent it from being fully effective.

The most recent SIGAR report noted that of the 42 aircrew positions assigned to those seven airframes – such as copilot or mission-system operator – only 18 are filled with qualified personnel. Only one aircraft, the C-130, had more than half of its aircrew positions filled by qualified personnel.

While four of the seven airframes met their readiness benchmarks in the first quarter of 2021, the three that didn’t – the MD-530, A-29, and UH-60 – are the most important for attack and transport duties.

Maintenance woes

Afghan air force UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter
Afghan maintainers work on an UH-60 Blackhawk at Kabul Airbase, May 9, 2021.

Things are particularly bad when it comes to maintenance. Only three of the seven airframes had enough qualified maintenance personnel, according to the SIGAR report.

To keep its aircraft flying, the AAF relies on hundreds of private civilian contractors brought in to train AAF personnel and maintain the aircraft until they are ready to do it themselves.

Those contractors are expected to leave around the same time that the last US troops withdraw, which President Joe Biden has said will be by the end of August.

According to the SIGAR report, the NATO command that oversees the training and build-up of the AAF concluded in January that “without continued contractor support, none of the AAF’s airframes can be sustained as combat effective for more than a few months.”

The training still needed and the shrinking timetable has made Zoom training a reasonable alternative despite challenges of such a hands-off instruction method, but the Afghan military also has to make sure that the AAF continues to receive the spare parts, engines, fuel, ammunition, replacement aircraft, and other material it needs.

Many of these items will likely have to be delivered by air, which is costlier and more time-consuming than ground transport. Given the high operational tempo the AAF will soon face, delays and cutbacks could be severe hindrances.

A hard future

Afghan air force MD-580 helicopter
An Afghan air force member loads rockets on an MD-580 helicopter, February 18, 2018.

The AAF is expected to play a key role in Afghanistan’s fight against the Taliban. The Biden administration understands its importance and has promised to continue funding and supplying it.

The AAF too has also shown signs of progress, increasing the number of fully usable aircraft in its inventory and raising its total flight hours year over year.

Some problems may be out of the AAF’s control. It relies on trained soldiers to call in airstrikes and to capture and hold territory. With the Afghan government increasingly reliant on local militias, the AAF may be unable to effectively coordinate with ground forces.

The Afghan air force’s limited pilot corps doesn’t only face threats over the battlefield, however. In recent months, at least seven pilots have been killed while off-base – “targeted and eliminated,” a Taliban spokesman said.

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Trump gets Taliban leader’s name wrong and impersonates him with grunts, videos show

Trump at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona on Saturday night
Former President Donald Trump impersonated Hibatullah Akhundzada by making grunting sounds.

  • Trump referred to Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada as ‘Mohammed’ at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona.
  • He then proceeded to imitate Akhundzada by making grunting sounds, videos show.
  • During the rally, Trump also recalled threatening to bomb the village Akhundzada lived in.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Former President Donald Trump imitated the leader of the Taliban and referred to him by the wrong name while speaking at the “Rally to Protect Our Election” in Phoenix, Arizona on Saturday night.

At the rally, which marks Trump’s first trip back to Arizona since the presidential election, the former president recalled a conversation with Hibatullah Akhundzada from during his presidency.

“I told the Taliban, I spoke to the leader, and I spoke, I said, ‘let’s call him Mohammed,'” Trump said. “I said, ‘Mohammed, we’re leaving.'”

Trump later impersonated Akhundzada by making grunting sounds. “He’s a tough guy,” the former president added.

“Not a lot of social grace, but he was being nice, I think he was being as nice as he could be.”

“That’s all they do is fight,” he continued.

The former president then proceeded to recall a threat he claimed he issued to the Taliban’s leader.

“We’re going to come back and hit you harder than any country has ever been hit,” he said. “And your village, where I know you are and where you have everybody, that’s going to be the point at which the first bomb is dropped.”

The crowd then burst into applause.

Trump had a telephone conversation with Akhundzada, who has been the leader of the Taliban since 2016, in March 2020. At the time, he described it as a “very good talk.”

He told reporters that both parties wanted an end to the violence, the Independent reported, but just hours later the US military conducted an airstrike against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

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The US launched strikes to destroy military equipment the Taliban captured from Afghan security forces

A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet releases flares over Afghanistan, Jan. 23, 2020
A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet releases flares over Afghanistan, Jan. 23, 2020

  • The US carried out multiple airstrikes on the Taliban recently in support of Afghan forces.
  • The strikes targeted enemy personnel, as well as captured military equipment.
  • The US is withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, where it has waged war for nearly two decades.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US military carried out multiple airstrikes against the Taliban this week, in part to destroy military equipment that they captured from the Afghan security forces.

“In the last several days, we have acted, through airstrikes, to support the ANDSF [Afghan national defense and security forces],” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Thursday, declining to offer specifics, the AP reported.

Over the past month, the US has conducted roughly half a dozen airstrikes across Afghanistan, the majority of them being carried out by drones. Some of the strikes targeted “captured military equipment that the Taliban [were] able to seize from the ANDSF,” Voice of America reported, citing a US defense official.

Three of the last four strikes were actually aimed at destroying military equipment, CNN reported, noting that it was US equipment that had been transferred to the Afghan security forces. The AP reported the equipment included a vehicle and artillery.

In addition to military equipment, the recent airstrikes also targeted enemy forces, according to multiple reports.

News of the strikes comes as the US continues to withdraw from the war in Afghanistan, a war that has lasted nearly two decades, making it America’s longest-running conflict.

US Central Command, which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, announced on Tuesday that the US has “completed more than 95% of the entire withdrawal process.”

As the US withdraws its forces, the Taliban has continued to engage the Afghan forces, which have at times struggled to fend off the insurgents.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday that the Taliban currently controls around half of the 419 districts in Afghanistan but none of the 34 provincial capitals, though they are ramping up pressure in these areas.

He acknowledged that the strategic momentum currently appears to be with the Taliban, but he argued that he doesn’t “think the endgame is yet written.”

While the US continues to support the Afghan forces, Milley said that “the future of Afghanistan is squarely in the hands of the Afghan people.”

Milley added that the Afghan forces have the capacity and capability to defend themselves, stressing that “a negative outcome – a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan – is not a foregone conclusion.”

The withdrawal of US forces was negotiated during the Trump administration but upheld by the new Biden administration, which has argued that the US military has accomplished its primary objectives but cannot be responsible for Afghanistan’s security indefinitely.

President Joe Biden said earlier this month that “after 20 years – a trillion dollars spent training and equipping hundreds of thousands of Afghan National Security and Defense Forces, 2,448 Americans killed, 20,722 more wounded, and untold thousands coming home with unseen trauma to their mental health – I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”

The US is currently in the process of evacuating Afghans who supported the US war effort, which is expected to officially conclude at the end of August.

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A war correspondent was killed in Afghanistan days after live-tweeting Taliban RPGs hitting his Humvee

A broken windshield on the Humvee
A still from video footage captured by Danish Siddiqui inside the Humvee.

  • Danish Siddiqui, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for Reuters, was killed in Afghanistan Friday.
  • He had been embedding with Afghan security forces to cover clashes with the Taliban.
  • Days earlier, he had live-tweeted about Taliban RPGs hitting the Humvee he was in.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A war correspondent was killed in Afghanistan days after he live-tweeted about Taliban RPGs hitting his Humvee.

Danish Siddiqui, the Reuters chief photographer and a Pulitzer Prize winner, was killed in clashes in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar city, near a border crossing with Pakistan, Reuters reported, citing an Afghan commander.

The commander said Afghan special forces were fighting to retake a market area of Spin Boldak when Siddiqui and a senior Afghan officer were killed. The commander told Reuters they were killed in Taliban crossfire.

Siddiqui had been embedding with the Afghan special forces since earlier this week, Reuters reported.

On Tuesday, he live-tweeted a mission with the Afghan special forces as they tried to “extract a wounded policeman trapped by Taliban insurgents on the outskirts of Kandahar city.”

He then tweeted as the Humvees, including one he was in, were attacked.

“Rocket propelled grenades (RPG) and other heavy weapon were used by the Taliban against the convoy resulting in the destruction of 3 Humvees. Gunners atop the Humvees swivelled wildly, aiming fire at suspected Taliban fighters who were hard to see,” he tweeted.

This video from Siddiqui shows the moment his vehicle was hit:

“The Humvee in which I was travelling with other special forces was also targeted by at least 3 RPG rounds and other weapons. I was lucky to be safe and capture the visual of one of the rockets hitting the armour plate overhead,” he wrote. His report was later published by Reuters.

Reuters President Michael Friedenberg and Editor-in-Chief Alessandra Galloni said in a statement: “Danish was an outstanding journalist, a devoted husband and father, and a much-loved colleague,” adding that they were “urgently seeking more information.”

Farid Mamundzay, Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, tweeted that he was “deeply disturbed by the sad news of the killing of a friend.”

Other journalists paid tribute to Siddiqui:

Earlier this year Siddiqui also covered the COVID-19 crisis in his native India.

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Biden called the US withdrawal from Afghanistan ‘secure and orderly’ – when in reality it didn’t tell allies, abandoned prisoners, and left interpreters fearing for their lives

Joe Biden speaking lectern afghanistan
President Joe Biden speaks about the Afghanistan drawdown in the White House on July 8, 2021.

  • Biden said Thursday that the US military pullout from Afghanistan was “secure and orderly.”
  • But US troops didn’t tell Afghan allies they were leaving and left 5,000 prisoners.
  • The fate of thousands of Afghan civilians who worked with the US military is also unclear.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

President Joe Biden has described the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan as “secure and orderly,” but the reality on the ground suggests differently.

Speaking at the White House on Thursday, Biden said US military activity would cease on August 31. He previously said he wanted the withdrawal by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks.

“The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way, prioritizing the safety of our troops as they depart,” he said.

However, the US pullout has appeared rushed.

US troops left Bagram Airfield, their key base in Afghanistan, at 3 a.m. last week, the base’s new commander told the BBC.

They were ceding control of the base to the US-allied Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, but didn’t let them know they were leaving, Gen. Mir Asadullah Kohistani said.

“We [heard] some rumor that the Americans had left Bagram … and finally by seven o’clock in the morning, we understood that it was confirmed that they had already left Bagram,” Kohistani told the AP.

The Americans also shut off the base’s power as they left, leaving some 5,000 prisoners, the BBC reported.

People also looted the base shortly after the departure of US troops.

Furthermore, the fate of many Afghan civilians who worked with the US military are now fearing for their lives given that their protection has departed.

Biden said in early July that the thousands of Afghans who helped the US “are not going to be left behind,” but did not specify how.

The Biden administration is now considering whether to offer fast-track visa routes to Afghan women, politicians, journalists, and activists whom the Taliban could punish, Reuters reported. John Kirby, a spokesman for the Pentagon, also said the military was considering relocating Afghan interpreters and their families to other countries, including US territories, The New York Times reported.

Though Biden said that US forces will be gone from Afghanistan by August 31, about 1,000 troops are to remain to guard the US Embassy in Kabul, CNN previously reported.

And as US forces leave Afghanistan, the Taliban are gaining ground, stoking fears that the country could slide into civil war.

Gen. Austin Miller, the top US general in Afghanistan, told the AP earlier this month that civil war was “certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now.”

In his Thursday speech, Biden denied that a Taliban takeover was “inevitable,” saying the Taliban’s 75,000 fighters were no match for the 300,000 troops serving with the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

He also said the US had accomplished all its objectives in Afghanistan, adding: “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”

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The interpreters who say they have been left for dead in Afghanistan as U.S. and U.K. troops pull out after 20-year war

A soldier walks with his arm older the shoulder of his interpreter
A U.S. soldier walks with the unit’s Afghan interpreter in Laghman province in 2014.

  • Thousands of Afghans signed on to work with U.S. forces during the 20-year war, including many who risked their lives and being branded as traitors.
  • As the U.S. withdraws the last of its troops, thousands of Afghan interpreters say they fear for their lives.
  • Some war-time interpreters say they have been blocked from seeking asylum even though they face reprisals from the Taliban.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Aazar had just turned 18 back in 2013, when he signed up to work with Western forces in Afghanistan, perhaps not fully understanding that it would place a clear target on his back.

For 11 months, Aazar – a pseudonym we are using to protect his identity – worked as an interpreter for U.K. troops in Helmand Province. But when he later sought asylum, believing he could fall prey to a vengeful Taliban that saw interpreters as traitors, Aazar learned he was ineligible because the asylum threshold required that Afghan interpreters had worked for at least one year. Aazar fell shy of that by a single month.

He managed to find refuge in New Delhi, India, but he still holds out hope of getting to the U.K. He says the asylum rule is arbitrary and unfair. “If I work one day, [the Taliban] will cut my head,” Aazar said in an interview. “If I work 10 years, they will cut my head.”

Since the start of the US-led war two decades ago, the Taliban has targeted anyone it sees as “stooges” or collaborators. People like Aazar.

Now, as the last American and Western troops withdraw from Afghanistan – President Joe Biden set a deadline of Sept. 11 – Afghanistan’s security forces will soon be on their own.

Taliban fighters have meanwhile taken almost 20 districts over the past two weeks and staged increasingly audacious attacks across the country. A spate of targeted assassinations have killed dozens of journalists, rights workers, academics, religious leaders and other prominent figures over the last year. The majority of these attacks have gone unclaimed, but the Kabul government believes the Taliban are behind most, if not all, of these killings.

Prince Harry, seen in the Afghan desert, points his arm as three men look on.
Prince Harry speaks with two men in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2008 with the help of an Afghan interpreter.

Interpreters fear that they could fall victim to such killings, and the effort to evacuate Locally Employed Staff, or LECs, who worked with foreign forces, has grown increasingly desperate.

In an unusual statement released earlier this month, the Taliban said that Afghans who had committed “treason against Islam and the country” would be left alone as long as they express remorse, and could “return to their normal lives.”

Sayed Jalal Shajjan, a Kabul-based researcher who has been studying the fate of Afghans who worked with foreign forces, says the statement will do little to reassure any of the Afghans who fear for their lives. “It’s not a clear statement. It just further problematizes everything. How exactly should someone show remorse, whom should they approach, and how would they provide adequate proof? A statement alone is not a guarantee.”

On June 4, a bipartisan group of US representatives, many of them veterans, sent a letter to President Biden, calling for the immediate evacuation of all Afghans who worked with American forces to the US territory of Guam, where their asylum applications could be processed in safety.

“If we fail to protect our allies in Afghanistan, it will have a lasting impact on our future partnerships and global reputation,” the letter concluded.

Around 10 men hold signs about the safety of Afghan interpreters in front of the U.S. embassy
Former Afghan interpreters protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul on June 25, 2021.

Earlier this week, Biden said, “Those [Afghans] who helped us are not going to be left behind,” but offered few details as to how he would evacuate thousands of people in a two-and-a-half month period.

In April, the British government introduced a new policy making it much quicker, and easier, for former interpreters to claim asylum. But, again, not everyone is eligible.

Similar cracks exist in the US asylum scheme. Only Afghans who served with American forces for at least two years can apply, leaving many out in the cold.

Last month, a number of global charities, led by the International Refugee Assistance project, released a joint statement. “With the ongoing withdrawal, NATO member states must act urgently to guarantee the safety of present and past Afghan locally engaged civilians,” it read. “Time is running out.”

Time, is of course not on their side. As Shajjan, the researcher, points out, the process of vetting and physically evacuating people usually takes up to nine months.

“That amount of time is no longer feasible.”

“Was he working with the infidels?”

Afghanistan has been plagued by conflict since the communist coup d’etat of 1978. Four decades of war and violence have left a permanent imprint of millions of Afghans who, like Aazar, were born into war.

By 2001, the country, and its citizens had already seen a communist coup, Soviet occupation, a jihad, civil war and five years of Taliban rule. Then, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a coalition of 40 nations, including the UK, Germany and Australia, invaded the country to topple the Taliban, whom they accused of harboring Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of al-Qaeda.

A soldier, accompanied by an interpreter, speaks to a number of men, seated on the ground.
With the help of an interpreter, a U.S. soldier in 2002 speaks to locals about hidden weapons and equipment left by the Taliban.

In 2014, the vast majority of foreign forces withdrew from the country and those that remained moved from a combat role to an advisory one. Since then, more than 26,000 Afghans, and their families, have been granted asylum in the US. But at least 18,000 LECs who worked with the Americans remain in Afghanistan.

The group No One Left Behind says it over 300 interpreters and their family members have been killed because they worked with U.S. forces.

It was around that time that Aazar managed to leave the country.

While still in Helmand Province, he got worrying news from his father back home in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. A distant cousin, who was believed to be linked to the Taliban, visited the family home, claiming he had seen Aazar on the frontline. “He came to my father, and he was asking, where is your son?” Aazar recalled. “Is he alive or dead? Was he working with the infidels?”

Fearing for his life and that of his family, Aazar resigned his post with the U.K. forces and returned to Kabul, where he worked briefly as an English teacher. “I was very afraid,” he said. “I would not go directly to my home. I would change my way. I would be looking back to see if they were following me.”

Soldiers kneel with guns drawn while an elderly Afghan men speaks to a US soldier and his interpreter.
An elderly man is questioned through an interpreter by US soldiers during a morning operation in 2012.

After a close friend who had worked as an interpreter was found dead, Aazar said he fled the country.

Shajjan, the Kabul-based researcher, says people like Aazar, most of whom were young men trying to provide money for their families, are easily identifiable by the Taliban.

“It’s the nature of their work, they are the ones standing next to the foreign troops and telling them everything that’s being said. They are highly visible and extremely vulnerable,” said Shajjan.

Adding to the dangers is the fact that these translators were also present – though their faces were concealed with masks – during the highly controversial night raids into people’s homes and the interrogations conducted by foreign forces.

“All these activities on behalf of the foreign forces made them easily recognizable to people in the community and even easier to pick out and track by the Taliban,” Shajjan said.

“Falling through the cracks”

As a Muslim refugee in India, Aazar’s position has been precarious, even desperate.

Before the pandemic hit, Aazar was working 18 hours a day in a restaurant, sometimes sleeping on tables between shifts. He says he is often underpaid for his work but he has no one to complain to. To Aazar, it all seems like a pitiful reward for his frontline service.

“I’m not blaming the Indian people,” he says. “But it’s very hard… You can’t even get a home, landlords won’t rent to you, because you are a refugee… you can’t get jobs, because you are a refugee.”

An Afghan man, wearing white, speaks to a crowd of US soldiers
Village elders speak with a U.S. Marine through an interpreter in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan in 2008.

“I haven’t seen my family – my father, brother, mother, sister – in eight years,” he said.

In the meantime, he is getting support from the Sulha Alliance, a group founded by U.K. veterans of the Afghan war. Its representatives confirmed elements of Aazar’s story.

Dr. Sara de Jong, a professor of politics at the University of York and one of the group’s founding members, said too many LECs have “fallen through the cracks of the relocation policy.”

“The fact that the government failed to have an appropriate policy in place earlier cannot be a reason to exclude these guys,” she said.

But Aazar could be one of the lucky ones.

Farwan – also a pseudonym – is another LEC working with the Sulha Alliance, and he is still in Afghanistan. “I cannot go outside,” he said in an interview, “because if I go outside, I will be targeted by my tribe, targeted by the Taliban; I will be killed.” His voice is half a whisper over the phone.

Farwan was also working in Helmand, and he was dismissed from the military for fighting with a fellow translator. Because of this disciplinary breach he’s not able to claim asylum in the UK.

A helicopter flies overhead as soldiers run with their full gear in the desert.
U.S. and Afghan soldiers during an operation in Paktika province in 2012.

“I was an interpreter in a patrol base,” he says “I had a fight, one fight, with the other interpreter… then they told me my contract was terminated.”

Last month, near his home in Laghman Province, in eastern Afghanistan, the Afghan National Security Forces managed to repel an attack by the Taliban, and Farwan said he lost his property.

The threats that sparked the war in Afghanistan remain, but methods of dealing with them have changed. Increasingly, the U.S. and other countries rely on local forces to combat extremists, instead helping to train and arm them. In Iraq and Syria, for example, troops from across the world trained local forces to fight the Islamic State.

But without relocation policies in place, the plight of local staff in Afghanistan is showing that working with the international community can have dire consequences.

“These are guys who have had to put bits of people in body bags,” Dr. de Jong said. “We also need to ensure that these people can build up a meaningful life. It’s not just about staying alive. It’s about the right to a life.”

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The Pentagon says US troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of August, well ahead of Biden’s September 11 deadline

A plane lands at Bagram airfield in Afghanistan.
A US Air Force transport plane lands at the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on July 1, 2021.

  • Biden said in April that US troops would be out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.
  • The AP reported Saturday that the military plans to pull troops out by the end of August instead.
  • Around 1,000 troops are to stay to guard the US Embassy in Kabul, CNN reported.
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The Pentagon has said that US troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of August, some time ahead of President Joe Biden’s deadline, the Associated Press reported.

Biden had pledged in April to withdraw US troops by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

However, the AP reported on Saturday, citing officials, that that the military drawdown was already mostly complete, with some logistical issues to be wrapped up in the next few weeks.

The Department of Defense did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

On Thursday, American troops departed from Bagram Airfield, the epicenter of US operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda since 2001.

Control of the base has since been ceded to the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces, the AP reported Friday, citing US officials.

Though the vast majority of US troops are leaving the country, as many as 1,000 troops are to remain to guard the US Embassy in the capital, Kabul, CNN reported.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan comes as the Taliban is resurging, reportedly taking control of dozens of new districts since May.

Gen. Austin Miller, the top US general in Afghanistan, said Tuesday that he was concerned the situation could deteriorate further.

“A civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now, that should be of concern to the world,” Miller told the AP.

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Biden cut off questions on Afghanistan because it is a holiday weekend and he wants to talk about ‘happy things’

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden cut off press questions about Afghanistan on Friday because he didn’t want the negativity ahead of a holiday weekend

  • Biden cut off the press about Afghanistan after taking a few questions Friday.
  • He said he wanted to talk about “happy things,” as US forces left the largest base in Afghanistan.
  • The drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan, America’s longest war, should be complete by September.
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After answering a handful of questions on Afghanistan, President Joe Biden abruptly decided he was not going to answer any more on the subject during a press briefing Friday, saying there is a holiday coming up and he wanted to talk about “happy things.”

The US is in the process of pulling troops out of Afghanistan, where the US military has waged war for nearly two decades. Early Friday, news media reported the US military had left Bagram Air Base, which has been the largest US base in Afghanistan and an operations center in America’s longest war.

The withdrawal of US forces and the pending conclusion of a so-called “forever war” is a major endeavor, one which impacts not just the US but also its NATO allies and Afghan partners.

But during a discussion with the press Friday, the president appeared to grow frustrated after just a few questions on the drawdown and possible repercussions, such as the possibility the Afghan government will collapse before the Taliban without US support.

Answering the first two questions, Biden said that the withdrawal was on track to be completed by September.

As a reporter attempted to ask a third question on the subject, Biden interrupted, saying “I want to talk about happy things, man.” The reporter was permitted to ask his question though, and the president did answer it.

He said that the US military had “worked out an over-the-horizon capacity” to support the Afghan government but emphasized that the Afghans will be primarily responsible for their own security.

When another reporter tried to ask a follow-up, Biden stopped the reporter and said, “I’m not going to answer any more questions on Afghanistan. It’s the Fourth of July.”

“This is a holiday weekend. I’m going to celebrate it. There’s great things happening,” the president said, calling attention instead to purported successes with the economy, jobs, wages, and the pandemic, among other things.

Biden told the reporters that he will later “answer all your negative questions – not negative – your legitimate questions.”

Friday’s remarks are not the first time Biden has gotten testy with the press, which he has suggested is inherently “negative.”

Earlier this month, for instance, when a reporter asked if about the effectiveness of his discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden responded, “Look, to be a good reporter, you’ve got to be negative. You’ve got to have a negative view of life, it seems to me.”

“You never ask a positive question,” he said.

His predecessor, Donald Trump, also frequently expressed displeasure and even anger towards the press and its mission to seek truth by challenging those in power, going so far as to use the Stalinist label of “enemy of the people” against them.

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