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Afghanistan current affairs, news, discussion and update

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Taliban kill 26 government militiamen as talks enter crucial stage
June 29, 2019
Rupam Jain, Abdul Qadir Sediqi

View attachment 8646
FILE PHOTO - U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, speaks during a debate at Tolo TV channel in Kabul, Afghanistan April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban militants killed at least 26 members of a pro-government militia in north Afghanistan on Saturday, officials said, as the militants and U.S. negotiators prepared for a new round of peace talks in Qatar.

The U.S. officials and the Islamist militants are due to launch a seventh round of talks later on Saturday, in what one U.S. official said was a “make-or-break moment” in efforts to end the 18-year war.

The talks will be led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, who has held six rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar’s capital of Doha since October.

But despite the efforts to find peace, fighting between the Taliban and government forces has not subsided.

In the latest bloodshed, insurgents stormed security posts manned by the pro-government militia in the early hours of Saturday in the Nahrin district of the northern province of Baghlan.

A provincial police spokesman said 26 of the militiamen were killed. A senior defense ministry official in Kabul said the attack was a clear indication that the Taliban wanted to negotiate from a position of strength.

Taliban officials claimed responsibility for the attack, saying their fighters had killed 28 militiamen and wounded 12.

About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.

The focus of the peace talks has been a Taliban demand for the withdrawal of foreign forces and a U.S. demand the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant attacks.

Two other main issues in the process are a ceasefire and talks between the rival Afghan sides - the insurgents and the Western-backed government. But the Taliban have refused to talk to the Afghan government, denouncing it as a “puppet”.

A senior U.S. official, speaking before the latest violence was reported, said both sides were hoping for progress in Qatar.

“There is a genuine sense of expectation on both sides,” said the official, who declined to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to media.

“It’s a make-or-break moment.”

DRAFT AGREEMENT
A Taliban leader in Qatar, who also declined to be identified, said the talks would be crucial.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on a trip to Kabul this week the United States was close to finishing a draft agreement with the militants on counter-terrorism assurances, and he hoped a peace pact could be reached by Sept. 1.

The Taliban control or contest half the country, more than at any time since they were ousted by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.

Afghanistan is due to hold a presidential election this year but the militants reject the process and instead want to form an interim government. But President Ashraf Ghani and leaders of opposition political parties have rejected the demand.

Some Afghan officials fear the United States and the Taliban will strike a deal allowing the war-weary United States to end its involvement and get out, leaving government forces to battle on alone.

The militia members killed on Saturday were among thousands of locally recruited fighters who are brought in to hold areas recaptured from the militants, freeing up the army for new operations.

On Friday, the defense ministry said a senior Taliban governor was killed in an air strike in the eastern province of Logar, and a militant commander was killed in clashes with Afghan security forces in Balkh province in the north.

The Taliban dismissed the reports as government propaganda.

Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel

 

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Taliban kill 26 government militiamen as talks enter crucial stage
June 29, 2019
Rupam Jain, Abdul Qadir Sediqi

View attachment 8646
FILE PHOTO - U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, speaks during a debate at Tolo TV channel in Kabul, Afghanistan April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban militants killed at least 26 members of a pro-government militia in north Afghanistan on Saturday, officials said, as the militants and U.S. negotiators prepared for a new round of peace talks in Qatar.

The U.S. officials and the Islamist militants are due to launch a seventh round of talks later on Saturday, in what one U.S. official said was a “make-or-break moment” in efforts to end the 18-year war.

The talks will be led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, who has held six rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar’s capital of Doha since October.

But despite the efforts to find peace, fighting between the Taliban and government forces has not subsided.

In the latest bloodshed, insurgents stormed security posts manned by the pro-government militia in the early hours of Saturday in the Nahrin district of the northern province of Baghlan.

A provincial police spokesman said 26 of the militiamen were killed. A senior defense ministry official in Kabul said the attack was a clear indication that the Taliban wanted to negotiate from a position of strength.

Taliban officials claimed responsibility for the attack, saying their fighters had killed 28 militiamen and wounded 12.

About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.

The focus of the peace talks has been a Taliban demand for the withdrawal of foreign forces and a U.S. demand the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant attacks.

Two other main issues in the process are a ceasefire and talks between the rival Afghan sides - the insurgents and the Western-backed government. But the Taliban have refused to talk to the Afghan government, denouncing it as a “puppet”.

A senior U.S. official, speaking before the latest violence was reported, said both sides were hoping for progress in Qatar.

“There is a genuine sense of expectation on both sides,” said the official, who declined to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to media.

“It’s a make-or-break moment.”

DRAFT AGREEMENT
A Taliban leader in Qatar, who also declined to be identified, said the talks would be crucial.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on a trip to Kabul this week the United States was close to finishing a draft agreement with the militants on counter-terrorism assurances, and he hoped a peace pact could be reached by Sept. 1.

The Taliban control or contest half the country, more than at any time since they were ousted by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.

Afghanistan is due to hold a presidential election this year but the militants reject the process and instead want to form an interim government. But President Ashraf Ghani and leaders of opposition political parties have rejected the demand.

Some Afghan officials fear the United States and the Taliban will strike a deal allowing the war-weary United States to end its involvement and get out, leaving government forces to battle on alone.

The militia members killed on Saturday were among thousands of locally recruited fighters who are brought in to hold areas recaptured from the militants, freeing up the army for new operations.

On Friday, the defense ministry said a senior Taliban governor was killed in an air strike in the eastern province of Logar, and a militant commander was killed in clashes with Afghan security forces in Balkh province in the north.

The Taliban dismissed the reports as government propaganda.

Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel

 

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Dozens killed, more than 100 wounded in Kabul car bomb blast
02 July 2019
By Darryl Coote & Clyde Hughes

View attachment 8936
Afghan security officials secure the scene of a suicide bomb blast near a governmental institution in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan on Monday. Photo by Hedayatullah Amid/EPA-EFE


July 1 (UPI) -- Dozens of Afghans were killed and more than 100 were wounded, including many children, in a car bomb explosion in the Afghan capital on Monday.

Authorities said almost 50 children were among the 105 injured in the blast, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, Tolo News reported.


Officials say the attack left up to 40 people dead, many security force members, the Washington Post reported.

The Taliban said in a statement that it had killed "dozens of [Department of Justice] officers and soldiers" in the attack.


Interior Ministry spokesman Nusrat Rahimi said the car bomb was detonated in Kabul targeting the Ministry of Defense's logistics and engineering center, located in a township where more than 100 families reside.

The Afghanistan Football Federation, which is in the vicinity of the blast, said it caused "serious injury" to players and staff. Some, it said, were cut with glass as a result of the explosion.

Special forces officers cordoned off an area where they exchanged fire with five attackers. Authorities reported that all five had been killed by Monday afternoon following an eight-hour gunfight.

Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said the attack puts on display the Taliban's "inherent criminal nature."

"We will not be deterred by such outrage to pursue and punish the miscreants," he said on Twitter.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said via Twitter that the explosion was followed by "multiple martyrdom seekers" who engaged in a firefight with Afghan forces.



The U.S. Embassy, which is in the vicinity, said it has not been impacted by the attack.

"We strongly condemn the Taliban's latest brutal attack against fellow Afghans," it tweeted.


U.S. Embassy Kabul
✔@USEmbassyKabul


The US Emb was not impacted by the ongoing #KabulAttack. Our thanks to the first responders in Kbl for their dedication to their fellow Afg citizens, and our condolences to those affected by the attack. We strongly condemn the Taliban’s latest brutal attack against fellow Afgs.
84
11:52 AM - Jul 1, 2019
Twitter Ads info and privacy


Earlier, Mustafa Kazemi, director of police organizational communications for the Ministry of Interior Affairs, reported the explosion occurred at about 8:55 a.m.

"I was too close to the area but safe," he said. "Ears are still blocked."

The White House condemned the attack Monday night, saying it "demonstrates the Taliban's callous disregard for their fellow Afghans, who repeatedly voice the urgency of finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict."

The attack came amid ongoing negotiations between the United States and the Taliban in Qatar over U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, counterterrorism assurances, a cease-fire and intra-Afghan negotiations.

There has been a recent increase in attacks in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Prior to the car bombing in Kabul, Mujahid said that there had been 52 operations within the past 24 hours, resulting in almost 200 people killed.

Despite the recent uptick in violence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Sibghat Ahmadi is optimistic about starting intra-Afghan talks within the coming weeks.

"The Afghan government is ready for unconditional talks with the Taliban given that achievements of Afghanistan are protected," he said.

 

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U.S. Envoy Hails Latest Talks With Taliban as the Best Ever
06 July 2019
Jacquelyn Martin - AP
KATHY GANNON - AP
View attachment 9119
Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. peace envoy to Afghanistan said Saturday that for the first time he can report “substantive” progress on all four issues key to a peace agreement in the country’s 17-year war, calling the latest round of talks with the Taliban the “most productive” so far.

Zalmay Khalilzad said talks with the Taliban had been exclusively about troop withdrawal and anti-terrorism guarantees. But on Saturday, he said the discussions have broadened to include a timeline for both intra-Afghan negotiations as well as a cease-fire. He declined to give details, however. The talks were to resume Tuesday.

Khalilzad said it will ultimately be up to Afghans to decide among themselves the agenda for negotiations as well as the terms of a cease-fire.

So far, the Taliban have refused to talk directly with the current Afghan government, considering it a U.S. puppet. The insurgents, however, have consistently said they will sit down with any Afghan, even a government official, but as an ordinary citizen and not as a government representative.

The Taliban currently control nearly half of Afghanistan, and are more powerful than at any time since the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

More than 2,400 U.S. service personnel have died in Afghanistan since the coalition invaded to oust the Taliban and hunt down al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

In a press briefing in Doha, where he has been meeting the Taliban, Khalilzad said he hoped that all-Afghan talks that begin Sunday — also in Doha — will be a precursor to negotiations to hammer out the framework for Afghanistan’s post-war future — what he called the “actual give and take about the future of the country, the political roadmap that will take place during negotiations.”

He said Washington’s “aspiration” is to have that framework in place by Sept. 1 and ahead of the Afghan presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28.

Khalilzad refused to be drawn into specifics but said an agreement on the framework for Afghanistan’s future would be akin to a blueprint that would lay out issues important to all sides in the conflict, including constitutional revisions, interim government versus elections, the fate of militias, a cease-fire and even whether the country should be named the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

A visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, at the end of last month seemed to give fresh impetus to peace efforts and Sept. 1 emerged as a target date for a peace deal to end America’s longest running military engagement.

Khalilzad’s appointment last September began the accelerated effort to find a negotiated end to Afghanistan’s war.

Since then, Khalilzad has held scores of talks with the Afghan government in Kabul and abroad, with the Taliban as well as with Afghanistan’s neighbors — including Pakistan, which has been accused of aiding the insurgents.

Khalilzad said the atmosphere during recent talks was the best yet, with both sides finding shared humor as opposed to previous talks which had on occasion ended in acrimony, shouting and the occasional walk out.

Several prominent Afghan figures left Kabul for Doha on Saturday ahead of much-anticipated all-Afghan talks to begin Sunday. Those discussions are co-sponsored by Germany and Qatar, and include the Taliban.

An April round of intra-Afghan talks were scuttled after the two sides could not agree on participants. The Afghan government had submitted a list of 250 people. The Taliban likened it to a wedding party.

This time the Taliban say 60 people will participate.

Attaullah Rahman Salim, the deputy head of the government’s high peace council, said 64 would be sitting around the table.

The list includes senior members of the government, former mujahedeen who fought the Soviet in the 1980s as well as former government officials, former ambassadors, civil society representatives and a small number of women.

Khalilzad said for the first time the Afghan-to-Afghan talks include senior members of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, even if they are there as ordinary Afghans. Khalilzad said the exchange allows both sides to get to know the other, which he hopes will lead to negotiations.

Participants at the table will be there “on equal footing” and not as government representatives, according to the German and Qatari sponsors of the talks.

Afghan President Ghani, who has been conspicuously quiet about the upcoming intra-Afghan dialogue, has consistently demanded the Taliban talk directly with the government.

U.S. Envoy Hails Latest Talks With Taliban as the Best Ever
 

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Taliban, Afghan leaders agree to peace 'road map' ahead of U.S. talks
JULY 9, 2019
By Clyde Hughes

View attachment 9290
A man carries a wounded child at the site of a suicide bombing in Kabul , Afghanistan, on April 22, 2018. File Photo by Ezatullah Alidost/UPI | License Photo

July 9 (UPI) -- Taliban officials and Afghan government leaders, acting in an unofficial capacity, said Tuesday they've ended two days of meetings in Qatar with an eight-point road map for peace.

The two groups agreed to continue "all-inclusive Afghan negotiations" and said the country will be a "united" and "Islamic" one that sets aside "all ethnic differences." It also asks for an end to civilian casualties and the protection for women's rights in an "Islamic framework."

Though the agreement is nonbinding, it signals room for moves that could accelerate the end of the 18-year conflict.

Tuesday's progress follows weeks of negotiations between Taliban leaders and the United States, but no official representatives of the Afghan government -- a stipulation insisted upon by Taliban leaders. While the Taliban participated in the latest meetings with Afghan leaders individually, it still refuses to meet with the current government in its official capacity, dismissing it as a "puppet" of the United States.

Some fear the Taliban wants to move Afghanistan into Islamic Sharia law that dominated before the conflict began in late 2001. Some U.S. officials hope a peace agreement could be reached for Afghan's presidential elections on Sept. 28, possibly by the Sept. 1.

"Glad to see common understanding on difficult issues," female Afghan lawmaker Fawzia Koofi tweeted. "The conference itself was a success in pursuing peace agenda."
U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad declared the separate discussions as positive, and pledged official talks between the militant group and the U.S. government would resume later Tuesday.

"The intra-Afghan Conference on Peace just concluded on a very positive note," Khalilzad tweeted. "I congratulate the participants -- Afghan society representatives across generations, senior government officials, Taliban -- for finding common ground.

"This dialogue gives hope for further progress to end the 40-year long war and the terrible suffering of the Afghan people."

 

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U.S., Taliban officials visit Pakistan after stalled peace talks
OCT. 2, 2019
By Nicholas Sakelaris


Taliban militants pose for a photograph in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on June 17, 2018. File Photo by Muhammad Sadiq/EPA-EFE


Oct. 2 (UPI) -- Representatives of the Taliban and United States met with Pakistani government officials in Islamabad Wednesday, amid peace talks aimed at ending the 18-year American presence that have dragged on for months.

Taliban founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar said the insurgent group was in Pakistan to address "important issues," as was Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for peace talks. It wasn't clear, however, whether they would meet with each other.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has said he would talk to U.S. President Donald Trump about resuming peace talks after they abruptly ended last month. Before they did, plans called for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban -- including a pledge to keep terrorists out of Afghanistan.

Peace negotiations, however, have been tricky. Although U.S. and Taliban officials have met, the group refuses to deal with the Afghan government -- and Kabul has insisted it be part of any resolution.

"We have objected to being part of the negotiations and not being a central part of this discussion," Afghan national security adviser Hambullah Mohib said. "Also if we want to see peace in Afghanistan, the Afghan government must be at the forefront of any negotiations."

Fighting in Afghanistan, meanwhile, has intensified this week. Officials said Taliban attacks in Taluqan have killed more than 30 people and displaced dozens of families. Takhar government spokesman Mohammad Jawad Hijri said other airstrikes have killed 36 Taliban and security forces are successfully repelling fighters.
 

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Congressional leaders travel to Afghanistan amid uncertainty over troop deployments overseas
21 Oct, 2019

WXRWO5QNSZF5FOG2PCWCRACPRQ - Copy.jpg

An Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter assigned to 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, flies over Camp Morehead in eastern Afghanistan on Oct. 23, 2016. (Capt. Grace Geiger/Army)


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi make a surprise stop in Afghanistan on Sunday, visiting with U.S. military personnel and Afghan government officials as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation monitoring progress there.

The move comes amid uncertainty surrounding U.S. troop combat deployments — particularly in the Middle East, where special forces service members were pulled back from positions in Syria — and conflicting plans from White House and congressional leaders on how to draw down military presence overseas.

In a statement, Pelosi, D-Calif., said the visit to the war zone was “essential for Congress to conduct effective oversight of our mission in Afghanistan.”

The visit included meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah as well as conversations with U.S. military leaders, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Commander Gen. Austin Miller.

Lawmakers also met with U.S. and Afghan troops at Camp Morehead, located near Kabul.

“In addition, our delegation had the opportunity to meet with civil society leaders in Afghanistan, including Afghan women,” Pelosi’s statement said. “While Afghan women have made some progress in some areas, more work is needed to ensure their security and durable economic and educational opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan.”

The Afghanistan stop was added on to a planned high-level congressional visit with officials in Jordan this weekend, where lawmakers discussed instability in Syria and neighboring countries.

That situation has drawn the majority of U.S. foreign policy focus in recent days, with critics attacking President Donald Trump’s moves ahead of a Turkish military assault on Syrian border towns and Kurish allies of American forces.


Trump has also repeatedly promised to decrease the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, although the American troop totals have increased during his presidential term. Over the weekend, Miller told the New York Times that the number of U.S. servicemembers in the country has dropped by about 2,000 in recent months, as various missions and tours have wrapped up.

Pelosi’s Afghanistan delegation included one Republican — House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas — and several other high-ranking House Democrats, including House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

The lawmakers also praised the visit as an opportunity to “bring the thanks of the United States Congress to our heroic men and women serving on the front line in Afghanistan.”
 

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U.S. quietly withdraws 2,000 troops from Afghanistan
Oct. 21, 2019
By Clyde Hughes

US-quietly-withdraws-2000-troops-from-Afghanistan - Copy.jpg

A handout photo shows Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani (R) meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Sunday. Photo by Afghanistan President Office/EPA-EFE

us-troops-afghanistan-01-ht-jc-191021_hpMain_12x5_992 - Copy.jpg

Oct. 21 (UPI) -- The United States has reduced the size of its fighting force in Afghanistan by 2,000 with little fanfare, despite the lack of a peace deal with the Taliban.

Gen. Austin Miller, the commanding officer of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Monday that the U.S. has about 12,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan. While Afghan officials have not talked about the drop, one said that the government, which remains at odds with the Taliban, has approved of the current troop withdrawal.

U.S. and Taliban negotiators were on the verge of signing a peace deal despite the Taliban, which continued a terrorism campaign in the country, refusing to meet with the current Afghan government. That deal fell apart last month when a Taliban attack killed an American soldier.

The U.S. had planned to drop its troop presence to 8,600 initially under the U.S.-Taliban peace deal that was ultimately scrapped.

"As we work in Afghanistan with our partners, we're always looking to optimize the force," Miller said. "I'm confident that we have the right capabilities to one reach our objectives as well as to continue to train, advise and assist throughout the country."

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who visited Afghanistan this weekend, said he expects a peace agreement will eventually be struck there to end America's longest-running war.

"That's the best way forward, and I'll leave it to State Department to comment on where things stand," Esper said Saturday en route to Afghanistan. "And then with regard to a withdraw of forces, as we've always said, that it'll be conditions-based, but we're confident that we can go down to 8,600 without affecting our C.T. operations, if you will.

"But all that -- again, we think a political agreement is always the best way forward with regard to next steps in Afghanistan," he added.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said a congressional delegation to talk with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Miller in Kabul as well on Sunday. The group also spoke with Esper.
 

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U.S. Is Quietly Reducing Its Forces in Afghanistan
New York Times
Thomas Gibbons-NeffMujib Mashal
By Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Mujib Mashal
Published Oct. 21, 2019
Updated Oct. 22, 2019, 1:15 a.m. ET


KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States has been quietly reducing its troop strength in Afghanistan despite the lack of a peace deal with the Taliban, weakening its hand in any future negotiations with the insurgents.

The top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, said Monday that the size of the force in the country had dropped by 2,000 over the last year, down to somewhere between 13,000 and 12,000.

American negotiators had tried to use troop reduction as a bargaining chip in their long peace talks with the Taliban, hoping to get some concessions from the insurgent group. President Trump abruptly aborted those talks last month.

The disclosure that the United States has in fact already been pulling back troops in Afghanistan, deal or no deal, came just weeks after Mr. Trump stunned allies and adversaries alike by pulling American forces from parts of Syria.

In both cases, critics said Washington was giving up invaluable leverage in negotiations to shape the future of the two countries.

In peace talks with the Taliban aimed at ending the United States’ longest war, American negotiators worked hard to try to convince the insurgents that Washington was truly committed to Afghanistan, and that they should not try to wait out the Americans.

But Mr. Trump has made no secret of his desire to pull the United States out of “endless wars” — and the Taliban knows that.

Like much of the world, the insurgents have been closely watching the events in Syria, where the Trump administration allowed Turkey to move against Kurdish fighters who had long been closely allied with American forces.

“The U.S. follows its interests everywhere, and once it doesn’t reach those interests, it leaves the area,” Khairullah Khairkhwa, a senior Taliban negotiator, said in an interview posted on the group’s website recently. “The best example of that is the abandoning of the Kurds in Syria. It’s clear the Kabul administration will face the same fate.”

General Miller discussed the troop reductions on Monday at a news conference in Kabul.

Other American and Afghan officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the plan, said that the eventual force size could drop to as low as 8,600 — roughly the size of an initial reduction envisioned in a draft agreement with the Taliban before Mr. Trump halted peace talks last month.

Rather than issuing a formal withdrawal order, they are reducing the force gradually by not replacing troops that cycle out.

A senior Afghan official said the Afghan government had signed off on the reduction. Officials would not discuss other details of the draw down, including any specific timeline for it.

The confirmation of the troop reduction came as the American defense secretary, Mark T. Esper, was making a visit to Afghanistan. Earlier in his visit, Mr. Esper had seemed to allude to some potential reduction in American forces, saying that drawing down to 8,600 troops would not affect important counter terrorism operations in Afghanistan.

For months, there has been debate within the Trump administration on meeting the president’s goal of stopping what he has described as open-ended American military entanglements in foreign conflicts. Amid the president’s growing frustration, diplomats negotiating a peace deal in Afghanistan dangled troop reductions before the Taliban, which has long demanded a complete American troop withdrawal.

The decision to reduce American troops even without a deal does not just give the United States less leverage over the terms of any settlement with the Taliban. It is also likely to mean a significant shift away from the United States military’s longstanding mission of training the Afghan military as American officials concentrate on counterterrorism operations, officials said.

Reducing the number of troops ahead of a complete departure from the country was always the most important American bargaining chip in any negotiations with the Taliban to end the long war. But from the start, Mr. Trump made it abundantly clear that he wanted out of Afghanistan.

At one stage halfway through the yearlong negotiations, Mr. Trump stumbled during a Fox News interview, incorrectly saying that the number of American troops in Afghanistan was 9,000, and not the roughly 14,000 it was listed at.

Many, including some Taliban officials taking part in the talks, which were held in Qatar, read Mr. Trump’s remarks as confirmation that the American decision to draw down had already been made whether the insurgents offered concessions or not.

American military officials, though wary of leaving Afghanistan altogether, had signed off on the first stages of a troop drawdown in a draft peace agreement that called for called for 5,400 American troops to leave the country over about five months. The measure was put forward to show the Taliban that the Americans would abide by the proposed deal in return for the insurgent group reducing violence in Afghanistan, according to officials taking part in the negotiations.

But the negotiations collapsed in September when Mr. Trump pulled the plug on the deal his diplomats had finalized and initialed after a year of negotiations.

American officials have since quietly signaled that they are trying to keep the talks with the Taliban alive. Earlier this month, the chief negotiator for the United States, Zalmay Khalilzad, met informally with Taliban officials in Pakistan.

The current process of troop reduction outside of peace talks gives more control over the process to General Miller and the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which had criticized the United States for negotiating a troop withdrawal with the insurgents rather than with the country’s elected government.

Last year in January, Mr. Ghani, perceiving that Mr. Trump urgently wanted to cut costs in Afghanistan, said he would be happy to directly negotiate some degree of troop reductions with the Americans if they would avoid rushing into a bad deal with the Taliban.

General Miller had long set out a goal of an 8,600-member troop force as being both a desired level and as the minimum needed to support the Afghan military, according to two defense officials.

General Miller, a Special Operations officer by profession, has a reputation for whittling down military units and commands to “trim the fat” and best accomplish their mission. In the last year that he has led the Afghan mission, American troops have focused on seeking out leadership for Afghan forces who can better carry the burden of the war, while the United States can focus its resources in backing them up with air power.

At the height of the war, in 2010 and 2011, more than 100,000 American troops were stationed in Afghanistan, aided by tens of thousands of soldiers from NATO allies in what made up one of the biggest military coalitions in the world.

Now, a further reduction in American forces would mean that the burden of training the Afghan military would fall more heavily on the roughly 8,500 NATO forces and other allies in the country.

It is unclear, however, whether a reduction in American forces might lead to some reconsideration by NATO allies as well. In a recent interview with The New York Times, NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, would not speculate on any reduction of troops, but added that NATO remains committed to the mission in Afghanistan.

“We have adjusted that many times, and we will always assess exactly the way and the composition of our forces in Afghanistan,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

The plan to shrink the force in Afghanistan comes as much of the world’s attention has been focused on the retreat of American forces from the front line in Syria as Turkish-backed troops advance into the country. And in many ways, the changes in Syria and Afghanistan are linked.

In December, in the aftermath of Mr. Trump’s first announcement that American forces would be leaving Syria, he also demanded the withdrawal of 7,000 troops from Afghanistan. Mr. Trump’s orders sent the Pentagon and the American command in the Middle East scrambling in an effort to persuade the president otherwise, officials say.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a reporter in the Washington bureau and a former Marine infantryman. @tmgneff

Mujib Mashal is a senior correspondent in Afghanistan. Born in Kabul, he wrote for magazines such as The Atlantic, Harper’s, Time and others before joining The Times. @MujMash
 

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I started to think this was Trump's call. He has been actively working towards Russia's interests.
But, if that was the case, he would make a big deal out of it and it would be rather spontaneous - that's his signature.

The quite long drawdown appears to be orchestrated behind closed curtains. Which means some has been asked (kindly) to fill the vacuum. We fit snugly into the missing puzzle piece.
Does this mean that the Village Idiot has been ignored in the afghan context?
@Khafee Sahib your thoughts?
 

!eon

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Did a secret Afghan deal just happen?


Pakistan is abuzz with the noise of Maulana’s dharna among other things. American media is abuzz with Trump’s impeachment and his decision to pull out troops from Syria, among no other things. However, it almost came as a shock to read the news that the newly-appointed US Defence Secretary, Mark Esper — who was called “Esperanto” by his tweeting boss — arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced trip on Sunday. Not much has been reported about what he did there. There has been a renewed hope of resurrecting the peace talks between the United States and the Taliban. The talks had been cancelled by President Trump citing an uptick in violence and the death of a US soldier. Secretary Esper, while in Afghanistan, said, “The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement. That is the best way forward.”


Secretary Esper’s arrival in Afghanistan is not the only news I was flabbergasted by. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was also in Afghanistan on Sunday. She reportedly met Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah as well as American military commanders, diplomats and civil society leaders. Interestingly, the US media on Sunday did talk of Pelosi but only in the context of Trump’s impeachment. Somehow, Pelosi in Afghanistan either totally escaped their radar or was deliberately drowned in other stories.


Earlier this month, Taliban leaders were hosted by Islamabad, where they met Pakistani officials. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quraishi infuriated India by hugging Taliban officials. There was also a meeting between Taliban officials, including the co-founder, Mullah Baradar, and the US Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, in Islamabad, who were coincidentally there at the same time. General Austin Miller, the commander of the American-led forces in Afghanistan, happened to be in Islamabad then too. It remains murky whether the General also attended the meeting. Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the American-led coalition in Afghanistan, declined to comment on General Miller’s travels.


The Taliban members also chose to be tight-lipped about the meeting which is quite unusual. Before Trump cancelled the talks, an agreement had been reached by both sides and even initialed, only awaiting formal signatures. Khalilzad and the Doha-based Taliban had spent nine rounds of negotiations to reach that “in principle” agreement. Not much has been said about what truly made Trump cancel a done deal.


Then on Monday, General Miller announced that the size of the force has dropped by 2,000 over the last year, dropping to 12,000-13,000. American and Afghan officials also hinted at the eventual size of the force dropping to 8,600. That is roughly the same size that was agreed upon in that “in principle” agreement with the Taliban. I wonder if a secret deal with the Taliban has been executed. If we connect the dots, it seems a deal was made in the shadows — of Margalla Hills — instead of the Catoctin Mountains of the leafy Camp David.


Now, this shadow deal could work for all the stakeholders: one, the Taliban wouldn’t have to talk to Ghani, who would be spared the embarrassment. Because, truthfully, the talks had collapsed because there were indications that the Taliban refused to stand next to President Ghani at Camp David before the formal signing and announcement of the deal. Two, Trump gets his troops out and keeps his campaign word to end “endless wars”. That can get him re-elected. That is what this is all about anyway. Three, America makes a face-saving deal where it doesn’t appear to be abandoning its allies, which is exactly what it is coming under fire for in Syria. Here is a free advice for India, take it or leave it: pack your bags before the Americans do, because for you, winter is coming in Afghanistan.


Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2019.

@AliYusuf @Khafee
 
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Afghanistan's Taliban meets Chinese government in Beijing

KABUL (Reuters) - A Taliban delegation met China’s special representative for Afghanistan in Beijing to discuss the group’s peace talks with the United States, a spokesman for the Islamist insurgency said.

The meeting, on Sunday, comes after U.S. President Donald Trump’s 11th-hour cancellation earlier this month of negotiations with the Taliban, which many had hoped would pave the way to a broader peace deal with the Afghan government and ending an 18-year war.

The Taliban’s nine-member delegation traveled to Beijing and met Deng Xijun, China’s special representative for Afghanistan, said Suhail Shaheen, the Afghan group’s spokesman in Qatar, on his official Twitter account on Sunday.

Qatar was where the Taliban and the United States held peace talks over the past year.

“The Chinese special representative said the U.S.-Taliban deal is a good framework for the peaceful solution of the Afghan issue and they support it,” Shaheen wrote.

Mullah Baradar, the Taliban delegation’s leader, said they had held a dialogue and reached a “comprehensive deal”, Shaheen tweeted.

“Now, if the U.S. president cannot stay committed to his words and breaks his promise, then he is responsible for any kind of distraction and bloodshed in Afghanistan,” Baradar said, according to Shaheen.

Speaking in Beijing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang confirmed that Baradar and several of his assistants came to China for exchanges in recent days.

“China’s relevant foreign ministry official exchanged opinions with Baradar regarding the situation in Afghanistan and promoting Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process,” Geng said.


Afghanistan will this coming week hold its fourth presidential elections since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban from power in 2001.

Those elections have gained importance since the collapse of the peace talks, as the negotiations could have led to the creation of an interim government, now a more distant prospect.

In June, before the peace talks fell apart, another Taliban team went to China to meet with the government.

At the time, a foreign ministry spokesman said China supported Afghans resolving their problems themselves through talks, and the visit was an important part of China promoting such peace talks.

China’s far western region of Xinjiang shares a short border with Afghanistan.

China has long worried about links between militant groups and what it says are Islamist extremists operating in Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uighur people, who speak a Turkic language.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday called on all countries to resist China’s demands to repatriate ethnic Uighurs, saying Beijing’s campaign in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang was an “attempt to erase its own citizens”.

Geng said Pompeo had slandered China, and that its policies in Xinjiang were fundamentally no different than what other countries had done to guard against extremism and terrorism.


U.N. experts and activists say at least 1 million Uighurs, and members of other largely Muslim minority groups, have been detained in camps in the remote Xinjiang region.

China, a close ally of Pakistan, has been deepening its economic and political ties with Kabul and is also using its influence to try to bring the two uneasy neighbors closer.
 

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