Islamic State attacks Kabul gathering, killing at least 32

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi

KABUL (Reuters) – Islamic State gunmen opened fire at a ceremony in Kabul on Friday, killing at least 32 people in the first major attack in the city since the United States reached an agreement with the Afghan Taliban on a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.

A top Afghan political leader, Abdullah Abdullah, was present along with other key political figures and escaped unharmed.

Some 81 people were wounded, a government spokesman said, adding that the death toll could rise.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, the group’s Amaq news agency reported on its telegram channel.

The Taliban, who were ousted from power by U.S.-led troops in 2001, denied involvement almost immediately.

The gathering marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Abdul Ali Mazari, an ethnic Hazara leader who was killed in 1995 after being taken prisoner by the Taliban.

Several people were killed in a similar attack on the same commemoration last year, which Islamic State had also said was carried out by its militants.

“The attack started with a boom, apparently a rocket landed in the area, Abdullah and some other politicians … escaped the attack unhurt,” Abdullah’s spokesman, Fraidoon Kwazoon, who was also present, told Reuters by telephone.

Broadcaster Tolo News showed live footage of people running for cover as gunfire was heard.

Afghan defense forces continued to fight gunmen throughout the day, finally securing the area by killing about three gunmen in the late afternoon, according to ministry of interior spokesman Nasrat Rahimi.

President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that the attack was “a crime against humanity and against the national unity of Afghanistan”.

Abdullah was runner-up in the last three Afghan presidential elections, each of which he disputed. He has served as chief executive of a coalition government since 2014 and is also a former foreign minister.

Ghani said he had telephoned Abdullah, his longtime political rival. Abdullah is contesting an Electoral Commission announcement last month declaring Ghani the winner of September’s presidential election.

Dozens of relatives gathered at the morgue of a hospital not far from the blast, with many breaking down in tears as they waited to identify their loved ones.

Ambulances and stretchers bustled back and forth at the hospital to deliver the wounded for treatment.

“I was at the ceremony when gunshots started. I rushed toward the door to get out of the area but suddenly my foot was hit by a bullet,” Mukhtar Jan told Reuters from a stretcher at the hospital.

Ali Attayee, at the hospital to support his wounded brother, said: “Those who committed this crime want to destroy our people… We’re sorry for those committing such crimes.”

Representatives of the United States, European Union and NATO condemned the attack.

“We strongly condemn today’s vicious attack…We stand with Afghanistan for peace,” the U.S. charge d’affaires in Kabul, Ross Wilson, wrote on Twitter.

The attack was one of the largest on civilians in Afghanistan in a year.

“Horrific attack in Kabul today…heartbreaking and unacceptable. We are tired of war and violence,” said Shahrzad Akbar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Hazaras are mostly Shi’ite Muslims. Minority Shi’ites have been repeatedly attacked by Sunni militants in Afghanistan.

The United States has sought to spearhead efforts toward a lasting peace arrangement. Violence decreased during a seven-day hold-down accord with the Taliban before last Saturday’s deal, though the Taliban have since resumed attacks on Afghan forces.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Orooj Hakimi, Rupam Jain, Samargul Zwak, Sayed Hassib and Hesham Abdul Khalek; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield and Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Robert Birsel, Kevin Liffey, Peter Graff and Nick Macfie)

U.S. committed to pulling foreign forces out of Afghanistan: official

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with the U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad (L), during a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan January 27, 2019. Presidential Palace office/Handout via REUTERS

By Rupam Jain

KABUL (Reuters) – A senior U.S. government official, speaking after six days of U.S. peace talks with Afghan Taliban militants, said on Monday that Washington was committed to withdrawing foreign forces from Afghanistan to end more than 17 years of war.

The official, who declined to be identified, described “significant progress” in talks last week with the Taliban in Qatar about a foreign troop pullout, but more negotiations were needed on a ceasefire and its timing.

“Of course we don’t seek a permanent military presence in Afghanistan,” the official said in the capital Kabul.

“Our goal is to help bring peace in Afghanistan and we would like a future partnership, newly defined with a post peace government,” the official told Reuters. “We would like to leave a good legacy.”

There could not be a withdrawal without a ceasefire, the official said.

The issue looms as a sticking point in the next round of talks on Feb. 25, with the U.S. official saying Taliban negotiators wanted a full withdrawal before a ceasefire.

Despite the presence of U.S.-led foreign forces training, advising and assisting their Afghan counterparts, the Taliban control nearly half of Afghanistan and stage near-daily attacks against the Western-backed Afghan government and its security forces.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said last week that 45,000 members of the country’s security forces had been killed since he took office in 2014.

There were reports last month that the United States was considering pulling out almost half of its forces, but a White House spokesman said U.S. President Donald Trump had not issued orders to withdraw. However, the administration has not denied the reports.

CORE CONCERNS

Both U.S. officials and the hardline Islamic group hailed progress after the talks on Saturday with U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. He told the New York Times on Monday that a draft framework had been completed but details still needed to be fleshed out.

Taliban sources told Reuters on Saturday that the United States had agreed on the withdrawal of foreign troops within 18 months of the signing of a pact but the U.S. official said a timeline was not discussed.

The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led mission and a U.S. counter-terrorism mission largely directed at groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Some 8,000 troops from 38 other countries are participating in the operation, known as Resolute Support.

The official said progress was made on addressing core U.S. concerns that Afghanistan will not be used as a base by al Qaeda or Islamic State for attacks against the United States and its allies.

“That is why we came to Afghanistan in the first place,” the official said.

Apart from the ceasefire, the Taliban did not discuss the need for talks with the Afghan government to reach a durable political settlement, the U.S. official said.

The Taliban have repeatedly refused to talk to the Afghan government, which they see as a puppet of the United States, throwing into question how effective a peace deal could really be.

The Taliban do want, however, to join an interim government post-deal – something that alarms Ghani.

Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American diplomat, met Ghani for four hours on Sunday to outline progress and seek his support.

In response, Ghani said in a televised address that the presence of foreign forces was based on an international agreement and they will not be required for ever.

“No Afghans want foreign forces in their country for the long term,” Ghani said.

“The current presence of foreign forces is based on need…and according to an exact and arranged plan we are trying to bring down that number to zero.”

(Reporting by Rupam Jain and Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Writing by Greg Torode; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Afghan Taliban call off peace talks with U.S. over ‘agenda differences’

FILE PHOTO: Taliban walk as they celebrate ceasefire in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan June 16, 2018.REUTERS/Parwiz

By Jibran Ahmad

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Afghan Taliban said on Tuesday they had called off peace talks with U.S. officials in Qatar this week due to an “agenda disagreement”, especially over the involvement of Afghan officials as well as a possible ceasefire and prisoner exchange.

Two days of peace talks had been set to start on Wednesday, Taliban officials told Reuters earlier, but the hardline Islamic militant group had refused to allow “puppet” Afghan officials to join.

The war in Afghanistan is America’s longest overseas military intervention. It has cost Washington nearly a trillion dollars and killed tens of thousands of people.

“The U.S. officials insisted that the Taliban should meet the Afghan authorities in Qatar and both sides were in disagreement over declaring a ceasefire in 2019,” a Taliban source told Reuters.

“Both sides have agreed to not meet in Qatar.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said earlier the two sides were still working on the technical details and were not clear on the agenda for the talks.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the cancellation.

The talks, which would have been the fourth round with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, would have involved a U.S. withdrawal, prisoner exchange and the lifting of a ban on movement of Taliban leaders, a Taliban leader had told Reuters.

Taliban sources said that they had demanded U.S. authorities release 25,000 prisoners and they would free 3,000, but that U.S. officials were not keen to discuss the exchange at this stage.

“We would never announce any ceasefire until and unless we achieve major gains on the ground. We have the feeling that Zalmay Khalilzad doesn’t have enough power to make important decisions,” a second Taliban official said.

The Taliban said Khalilzad would visit the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China to continue the discussion. Khalilzad’s office was not available for comment.

The Taliban have rejected repeated requests from regional powers to allow Afghan officials to take part in the talks, insisting that the United States is their main adversary in the 17-year war.

The insurgents, seeking to reimpose strict Islamic law after their 2001 ouster by U.S.-led troops, called off a meeting with U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia this week because of Riyadh’s insistence on bringing the Western-backed Afghan government to the table.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE took part in the last round of talks in December.

Western diplomats based in Kabul said Pakistan’s cooperation in the peace process will be crucial to its success. Independent security analysts and diplomats said the neighboring country’s powerful military has kept close ties with the Afghan Taliban.

U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of providing safe haven to Taliban militants in its border regions and using them as an arm of its foreign policy. Pakistan denies the claim.

The United States, which sent troops to Afghanistan in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and at the peak of the deployment had more than 100,000 troops in the country, withdrew most of its forces in 2014.

It keeps around 14,000 troops there as part of a NATO-led mission aiding Afghan security forces and hunting militants.

Reports last month about U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan triggered uncertainty in Kabul which depends on the United States and other foreign powers for military support and training.

As peace talks gained momentum a draft agreement drawn up by the influential U.S. think tank RAND Corporation outlining the clauses for a potential peace deal was circulated among Afghan officials and diplomats in Kabul.

The document, reviewed by Reuters, suggests that the United States and NATO withdraw their military missions in phases over an expected period of 18 months. It adds that the United States may continue providing civilian assistance.

(Additonal reporting by James Mackenzie in Islamabad, Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain in Kabul; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. suspends at least $900 million in security aid to Pakistan

President Donald Trump speaks during an address from the White House in Washington, U.S., December 6, 2017.

By Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said on Thursday it was suspending at least $900 million in security assistance to Pakistan until it takes action against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network militant groups.

The U.S. State Department announced the decision, saying it reflected the Trump administration’s frustration that Pakistan has not done more against the two groups that Washington says use sanctuaries in Pakistan to launch attacks in neighboring Afghanistan that have killed U.S., Afghan and other forces.

The department declined to say exactly how much aid would be suspended, saying the numbers were still being calculated and included funding from both the State and Defense departments.

Pakistan has long rejected accusations that it fails to tackle the militants battling the Kabul government and U.S.-led foreign forces in Afghanistan, from sanctuaries on its side of the border.

On Friday, Pakistan criticized what it called “shifting goalposts” and said the U.S. suspension of aid was counter-productive.

U.S. officials said two main categories of aid are affected: foreign military financing (FMF), which funds purchases of U.S. military hardware, training and services, and coalition support funds (CSF), which reimburse Pakistan for counter-terrorism operations. They said they could make exceptions to fund critical U.S. national security priorities.

CSF funds, which fall under Defense Department authority, are covered by the freeze, said Pentagon spokesman Commander Patrick Evans, saying Congress authorized up to $900 million in such money for Pakistan for fiscal year 2017, which ended Sept. 30. None of that money has yet been disbursed.

The freeze also covers $255 million in FMF for fiscal year 2016, which falls under State Department authority and whose suspension has already been announced, as well as unspecified amounts of FMF that went unspent in earlier fiscal years.

Briefing reporters, U.S. officials stressed the suspension did not affect civilian aid to Pakistan and that the money could go through if Islamabad took decisive action against the groups.

“Our hope is that they will see this as a further indication of this administration’s immense frustration with the trajectory of our relationship and that they need to be serious about taking the steps we have asked in order to put it on more solid footing,” a senior State Department official told reporters.

“We’re hoping that Pakistan will see this as an incentive, not a punishment,” he added.

The Trump administration briefed Congress on its decision on Wednesday.

‘COUNTERPRODUCTIVE’

Pakistan is largely shrugging off the proposed U.S. aid cuts but frets that Washington could take more drastic measures to deter what it sees as Pakistan’s support for the Taliban.

Pakistan is worried about the influence of old rival India in Afghanistan, and at the same time has been battling a Pakistani Taliban insurgency that Pakistan says was largely fueled by its support for the U.S. war on terrorism launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

“Arbitrary deadlines, unilateral pronouncements and shifting goalposts are counterproductive in addressing common threats,” the Pakistani foreign ministry said in a statement.

Pakistan was engaged with the U.S. administration on security cooperation and awaited further detail, it said.

Tense ties between the uneasy allies nosedived on Jan. 1 when U.S. President Donald Trump lashed out on Twitter against Islamabad’s “lies and deceit” despite $33 billion in aid and the White House warned of “specific actions” to pressure Pakistan.

Trump’s frustrations are shared by some U.S. lawmakers, who accused Pakistan of playing a double game by allowing militant groups sanctuary – which Islamabad denies – despite promising to crack down on them.

“Pakistan is one of the most duplicitous governments I’ve had any involvement with,” Senator Bob Corker, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters. “Their, in essence, support of the Haqqani network, or … allowing them to have safe harbor in their country when they’re the greatest threat to our men and women in uniform.”

South Asia expert Christine Fair of Georgetown University voiced concern that Pakistan might retaliate for the suspension by closing the highways from the port city of Karachi on which equipment is trucked to land-locked Afghanistan and the airspace through which supplies are flown to U.S.-led international forces there.

“What is the plan if they close the GLOCs?” she asked, using the military acronym for Ground Lines of Communications.

“What if the Pakistanis shut down the ALOCs (Air Lines of Communications). How do you keep supplying the ANSF?” she asked, referring to the Afghan national security forces.

“Pakistan could be within their rights if they tell us you don’t have flyover rights anymore,” she said.

(Addititional reporting by David Alexander, Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle and Drazen Jorgic in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by James Dalgleish, Robert Birsel)

Pakistan summons U.S. ambassador after Trump’s angry tweet

David Hale, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, speaks at the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi, Pakistan, July 26, 2016.

By Drazen Jorgic

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan has summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s angry tweet about Pakistani “lies and deceit”, which Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif dismissed as a political stunt.

David Hale was summoned by the Pakistan foreign office on Monday to explain Trump’s tweet, media said. The ministry could not be reached for comment but the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad confirmed on Tuesday that a meeting had taken place.

Trump said the United States had had been rewarded with “nothing but lies and deceit” for “foolishly” giving Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid in the last 15 years.

“They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” he tweeted on Monday.

His words drew praise from Pakistan’s old foe, India, and neighboring Afghanistan, but long-time ally China defended Pakistan.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Tuesday chaired a National Security Committee meeting of civilian and military chiefs, focusing on Trump’s tweet. The meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, was brought forward by a day and followed an earlier meeting of army generals.

Relations with Washington have been strained for years over Islamabad’s alleged support for Haqqani network militants, who are allied with the Afghan Taliban.

The United States also alleges that senior Afghan Taliban commanders live on Pakistani soil, and has signaled that it will cut aid and take other steps if Islamabad does not stop helping or turning a blind eye to Haqqani militants crossing the border to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

In 2016, Taliban leader Mullah Mansour was killed by a U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan and in 2011, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. troops in the garrison town of Abbottabad.

Islamabad bristles at the suggestion that it is not doing enough to fight Islamist militants, noting that its casualties at the hands of Islamists since 2001 number in the tens of thousands.

“DEAD-END STREET”

Foreign Minister Asif dismissed Trump’s comments as a political stunt born out of frustration over U.S. failures in Afghanistan, where Afghan Taliban militants have been gaining territory and carrying out major attacks.

“He has tweeted against us and Iran for his domestic consumption,” Asif told Geo TV on Monday.

“He is again and again displacing his frustrations on Pakistan over failures in Afghanistan as they are trapped in dead-end street in Afghanistan.”

Asif added that Pakistan did not need U.S. aid.

A U.S. National Security Council official on Monday said the White House did not plan to send an already-delayed $255 million in aid to Pakistan “at this time” and that “the administration continues to review Pakistan’s level of cooperation”.

Afghan defense spokesman General Dawlat Waziri said Trump had “declared the reality”, adding that “Pakistan has never helped or participated in tackling terrorism”.

Jitendra Singh, a junior minister at the Indian prime minister’s office, said Trump’s comment had “vindicated India’s stand as far as terror is concerned and as far as Pakistan’s role in perpetrating terrorism is concerned”.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, asked during a briefing about Trump’s tweet, did not mention the United States.

“We have said many times that Pakistan has put forth great effort and made great sacrifices in combating terrorism,” he said. “It has made a prominent contribution to global anti-terror efforts.”

Pakistani officials say tough U.S. measures threaten to push Pakistan further into the arms of China, which has pledged to invest $57 billion in Pakistani infrastructure as part of its vast Belt and Road initiative.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic in ISLAMABAD, Syed Raza Hassan in KARACHI, Malini Menon in NEW DELHI, Mirwais Harooni in KABUL; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Kevin Liffey)