U.S. carries out air strike on Taliban, calls for halt to ‘needless attacks’

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday carried out its first air strike on Taliban fighters in Afghanistan since the two sides signed a troop withdrawal agreement on Saturday.

A U.S. forces spokesman confirmed the incident in southern Helmand province, hours after President Donald Trump spoke by phone with chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Baradar Akhund on Tuesday, the first known conversation between a U.S. leader and a top Taliban official.

The Taliban fighters “were actively attacking an (Afghan National Security Forces) checkpoint. This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack,” said Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan in a tweet.

He said Washington was committed to peace but would defend Afghan forces if needed.

“Taliban leadership promised the (international) community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks. We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments,” he said.

The air strike was the first by the United States against the Taliban in 11 days, when a reduction in violence agreement had begun between the sides in the lead up to Saturday’s pact.

Since the signing, the Taliban had decided on Monday to resume normal operations against Afghan forces, though sources have said they will continue to hold back on attacks on foreign forces.

The Taliban has declined to confirm or deny responsibility for any of the attacks.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a Tweet that “according to the plan (the Taliban) is implementing all parts of the agreement one after another in order to keep the fighting reduced.”

A Taliban senior commander in Helmand who declined to be named said that a drone had targeted their position.

“As far as I know we didn’t suffer any human losses but we are working on it and sent our team to the area,” he told Reuters, adding that the group’s senior leadership in Afghanistan had called an emergency meeting to discuss what he described as a “major violation” of the agreement.

“THINGS COULD SPIRAL”

Experts said the public agreement was vague on details around ongoing violence in the country, but that the air strike and comments from U.S. officials suggested the United States had a plan to ensure reduced violence against Afghan forces and civilians.

“It is significant. I don’t think it signals the collapse of the whole U.S.-Taliban agreement…(but) you can easily see how things could spiral,” said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst covering Afghanistan at International Crisis Group.

A spokesman for Helmand’s provincial governor said the Taliban had attacked a security checkpoint in Washer district – a different district to the one in which the U.S. carried out its air strike – on Tuesday evening, killing two police officers.

An interior ministry spokesman, Nasrat Rahimi, said on Wednesday the Taliban had conducted 30 attacks in 15 provinces in the previous 24 hours, killing four civilians and 11 security and defense force members. Seventeen Taliban members had been killed, he said.

The weekend agreement envisages a full withdrawal of all U.S. and coalition forces within 14 months, dependent on security guarantees by the Taliban, but faces a number of hurdles as the United States tries to shepherd the Taliban and Afghan government toward talks.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield in Kabul; additional reporting by Zainullah Stanekzai in Helmand, Sardar Razmal in Kunduz, Orooj Hakimi in Kabul and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; editing by John Stonestreet, William Maclean and Timothy Heritage)

Assange tried to call White House, Hillary Clinton over data dump, his lawyer says

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Julian Assange tried to contact Hillary Clinton and the White House when he realized that unredacted U.S. diplomatic cables given to WikiLeaks were about to be dumped on the internet, his lawyer told his London extradition hearing on Tuesday.

Assange is being sought by the United States on 18 counts of hacking U.S. government computers and an espionage offense, having allegedly conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. soldier known as Bradley Manning, to leak hundreds of thousands of secret documents by WikiLeaks almost a decade ago.

On Monday, the lawyer representing the United States told the hearing that Assange, 48, was wanted for crimes that had endangered people in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who had helped the West, some of whom later disappeared.

U.S. authorities say his actions in recklessly publishing unredacted classified diplomatic cables put informants, dissidents, journalists and human rights activists at risk of torture, abuse or death.

Outlining part of his defense, Assange’s lawyer Mark Summers said allegations that he had helped Manning to break a government password, had encouraged the theft of secret data and knowingly put lives in danger were “lies, lies and more lies”.

He told London’s Woolwich Crown Court that WikiLeaks had received documents from Manning in April 2010. He then made a deal with a number of newspapers, including the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, to begin releasing redacted parts of the 250,000 cables in November that year.

A witness from Der Spiegel said the U.S. State Department had been involved in suggesting redactions in conference calls, Summers said.

However, a password that allowed access to the full unredacted material was published in a book by a Guardian reporter about WikiLeaks in February 2011. In August, another German newspaper reported it had discovered the password and it had access to the archive.

PEOPLE’S LIVES “AT RISK”

Summers said Assange attempted to warn the U.S. government, calling the White House and attempting to speak to then- Secretary of State Clinton, saying “unless we do something, people’s lives are put at risk”.

Summers said the State Department had responded by suggesting that Assange call back “in a couple of hours”.

The United States asked Britain to extradite Assange last year after he was pulled from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he had spent seven years holed up avoiding extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations which have since been dropped.

Assange has served a prison sentence in Britain for skipping bail and remains jailed pending the U.S. extradition request

Supporters hail Assange as an anti-establishment hero who revealed governments’ abuses of power, and argue the action against him is a dangerous infringement of journalists’ rights. Critics cast him as a dangerous enemy of the state who has undermined Western security.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Julian Assange put lives at risk, lawyer for United States says

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Julian Assange is wanted for crimes that put at risk the lives of people in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who had helped the West, some of whom later disappeared, said a lawyer acting for the United States in its bid to extradite him.

Almost a decade since his WikiLeaks website enraged Washington by leaking hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents, Assange, 48, is fighting extradition from Britain to the United States where he is accused of espionage and hacking.

He was wanted, said James Lewis, lawyer for the U.S. authorities, not because he embarrassed the authorities but because he put informants, dissidents, and rights activists at risk of torture, abuse or death.

“What Mr Assange seems to defend by freedom of speech is not the publication of the classified materials but the publication of the names of the sources, the names of people who had put themselves at risk to assist the United States and its allies,” Lewis said at London’s Woolwich Crown Court.

Supporters hail Assange as an anti-establishment hero who revealed governments’ abuses of power, and argue the action against him is a dangerous infringement of journalists’ rights.

Chants from 100 of his backers outside could be clearly heard inside. Assange himself complained about the din.

“I’m finding it difficult concentrating,” said a clean-shaven Assagne, dressed in a blue-grey suit. “This noise is not helping either. I understand and am very appreciative of the public support. They must be disgusted…”

Judge Vanessa Baraitser warned those in the public gallery not to disturb the proceedings.

The United States asked Britain to extradite Assange last year after he was pulled from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he had spent seven years holed up avoiding extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations which have since been dropped.

Assange has served a prison sentence in Britain for skipping bail and remains jailed pending the U.S. extradition request.

Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, has said his case could lead to criminalising activities crucial to investigative journalists, and his work had shed light on how the United States conducted its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are talking about collateral murder, evidence of war crimes,” she said last week. “They are a remarkable resource for those of us seeking to hold governments to account for abuses.”

Lewis, speaking on behalf of the U.S. authorities, said hundreds of people across the world had to be warned after the WikiLeaks disclosures. Some had to be relocated. Others later disappeared, he said, although he said the United States would not try to prove that was directly a result of the disclosures.

Some WikiLeaks information was found at Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, he added.

HERO OR ENEMY?

The United States has charged Assange with 18 criminal counts of conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law. Lewis said Assange had conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. soldier known as Bradley Manning, to hack Department of Defense computers.

He said Assange’s defense team was guilty of hyperbole by suggesting Assange might receive a U.S. jail term of 175 years. Similar cases had led to terms of about 40-60 months, he said.

Assange attracted a host of well-known backers, with those criticizing the case against him ranging from leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn to Roger Waters, co-founder of rock group Pink Floyd. Designer Vivienne Westwood was among protesters outside court.

In addition to releasing military records, WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders. Assange made headlines in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 U.S. helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

The hearing will not decide if Assange is guilty of any wrongdoing, but whether the extradition request meets the requirements set out under a 2003 UK-U.S. treaty, which critics say is stacked in Washington’s favor.

The case will get under way before being postponed until May 18, when it will resume again for a further three weeks to allow both sides more time to gather evidence.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff)

‘Historic’ U.S.-Taliban pact to be signed soon, says Taliban leader

KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban’s deputy leader said the group would soon sign a agreement with the United States to reduce violence for seven days, adding that militant commanders were “fully committed” to observing the “historic” accord.

“That we today stand at the threshold of a peace agreement with the United States is no small milestone,” Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times, in the first significant public statement by a Taliban leader on the accord for a week-long reduction in violence (RIV).

The agreement in principle, which was struck during negotiations between U.S. and Taliban representatives in Qatar, could lead to a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

“Achieving the potential of the agreement, ensuring its success and earning lasting peace will depend on an equally scrupulous observance by the United States of each of its commitments,” wrote Haqqani, who is also head of the Pakistan-linked Haqqani Network.

Clashes between Afghan forces and Taliban fighters have continued, but Afghanistan’s acting interior minister said on Tuesday an agreement to cut violence would be enforced within five days.

Haqqani also addressed fears about Afghanistan becoming once again a springboard for Islamist militants, calling such concerns “inflated.”

Writing about how women’s rights in Afghanistan would look if foreign forces left, Haqqani envisioned an “Islamic system” in which “the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected.”

The Taliban banned women from education and work and only let them leave their homes in the company of a male relative. Overnight, women disappeared behind the all-enveloping burqa, their activities restricted to their homes.

Haqqani stressed in the piece the need for a complete withdrawal of foreign forces. Officials in Afghanistan and the United States have said a certain number of troops would remain in the country to ensure stability.

The Afghan presidential palace reacted strongly to the article.

“It is sad that the (New York Times) has given their platform to an individual who is on a designated terrorist list. He and his network are behind ruthless attacks against Afghans and foreigners,” Sediq Sediqqi, a palace spokesman, told Reuters.

Meanwhile, recently reelected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for the second time in 24 hours on Thursday to discuss issues related to peace talks and the details of the RIV, Sediqqi said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Helen Popper)

U.S., Taliban reach violence reduction pact that could lead to U.S. withdrawal

By Paul Carrel, Jonathan Landay and Humeyra Pamuk

MUNICH/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has reached agreement with the Taliban on a weeklong reduction of violence that could lead to U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, a senior administration official said on Friday, while cautioning that Taliban needed to honor commitments for the accord to stick.

The announcement followed protracted negotiations in the Qatari capital Doha between the United States and the Taliban and a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during the Munich Security Conference.

A deeper agreement paving the way for a major U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan could be a political boost for U.S. President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly promised to stop “endless wars” as he seeks re-election in November.

“It was violence that derailed the signing of the agreement in September. Now we have an agreement on the reduction of violence. And, should the Talibs implement what they’ve committed to doing, we will move forward with the agreement,” the senior administration official told reporters in Munich.

He added that the agreement was very specific and covered all Afghan forces, saying the U.S. military would be monitoring violence levels to verify whether or not the Taliban was honoring it.

“And our commitment, in terms of reduction of forces which is both conditions based and in phases is very much tied to delivery on the commitments that they have made, and will be,” the official said.

There are about 13,000 U.S. troops as well as thousands of other NATO personnel in Afghanistan, 18 years after a U.S.-led coalition invaded the country following the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

The United States is aiming to cut troop numbers to about 9,000, a Western diplomat told Reuters earlier this week.

Doha has been the venue for talks between the warring sides since 2018 even as fighting has continued across the country, killing hundreds of civilians and soldiers as the Taliban have expanded their territorial control.

Last month the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government agency, assessed that there had been a record-high number of attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces in the last three months of 2019.

The Taliban stages near-daily attacks and though they are negotiating with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the armed group refuses to talk directly to Ghani’s government, calling it a “puppet” of the West.

Once the reduction of violence holds within the seven-day period, the talks would then expand into the next phase, dubbed the inter-Afghan dialogue, involving all parties.

“We’d like to see the Afghan government select a delegation that could go to negotiations. It should be an inclusive delegation that by the government. And then ceasefire comprehensive and permanent ceasefire that ends the Afghan war which will be the one of the first topics of the of the negotiations,” the official said.

He added, while the seven-day clock had not yet begun, he hoped it would “very soon.”

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Mary Milliken and Tom Brown)

U.S., Taliban have negotiated proposal for seven-day reduction in violence: Pentagon chief

(Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday that the United States and the Taliban had negotiated a proposal for a seven-day reduction in violence.

Sources had told Reuters that a U.S.-Taliban peace deal could be signed this month if the Taliban significantly reduces violence, which could lead to an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

“The United States and the Taliban have negotiated a proposal for a seven-day reduction in violence,” Esper told reporters during a news conference in Brussels at NATO headquarters.

“I’m here today consulting with allies about this proposal, and we’ve had a series of productive bilateral and collective meetings about the path forward,” he added.

The tentative timeline shared with Reuters by sources came a day after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said there had been a possible breakthrough in U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar.

The talks had been deadlocked in part over a U.S. demand that the insurgents agree to sharply reduce violence as part of any American troop withdrawal accord.

There are about 13,000 U.S. troops as well as thousands of other NATO personnel in Afghanistan, 18 years after a U.S.-led coalition invaded the country following the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

“It will be a continual evaluative process as we go forward – if we go forward,” Esper added.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Catherine Evans and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. recovers remains from Afghanistan plane crash, verifying identities: official

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Idrees Ali

KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Tuesday recovered the remains of individuals from a U.S. military aircraft that crashed in Afghanistan and was in the process of confirming their identities, a U.S. defense official said on Tuesday.

On Monday, the U.S. military said an E-11A aircraft crashed in the province of Ghazni but disputed Taliban claims to have brought it down.

Earlier on Tuesday, Afghan forces and Taliban fighters clashed in a central region where the U.S. military aircraft crashed as the government tried to reach the wreckage site in a Taliban stronghold.

The U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said multiple attempts had been made to recover the remains but had been hampered because of the terrain and weather.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

Security forces were sent to the site immediately after receiving a report of the crash in the Deh Yak district, but were ambushed by Taliban fighters, Ghazni provincial police chief Khalid Wardak told Reuters.

“As per our information, there are four bodies and two onboard were alive and they are missing,” Wardak said, adding that the forces subsequently received an order to retreat and airborne action is to be taken instead.

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said Afghan forces backed by U.S. military support had tried to capture the area around the crashed aircraft and clashed with fighters of the Islamist militant group.

The attempt was repelled, however, he told Reuters, but added that the Taliban would allow a rescue team access to recover bodies from the crash site.

“Taliban fighters on the ground counted six bodies at the site of the U.S. airplane crash,” he said, adding that while there could have been more, the militant group could not be certain, as fire had reduced everything to ashes.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, U.S. officials said the plane was carrying fewer than five people when it crashed, with one official saying initial information showed there were at least two.

The crashed aircraft, built by Bombardier Inc, is used to provide communication capabilities in remote locations.

The crash came as the Taliban and United States have been in talks on ending the 18-year war in Afghanistan.

Trump has long called for an end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, which began with an American invasion triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that al Qaeda launched from then-Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

(Additional reporting by Rumpam Jain; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. military plane crashes in Afghanistan, Taliban claims responsibility

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Idrees Ali

KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A plane which U.S. officials described as a small U.S. military aircraft crashed in a Taliban-controlled area of central Afghanistan on Monday, and the insurgent group claimed to have brought it down.

The U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there were no indications so far that the plane had been brought down by enemy activity. One of the officials said there were believed to be fewer than 10 people on board.

Pictures and a video on social media purportedly from the crash site showed what could be the remains of a Bombardier E-11A aircraft.

Senior Afghan officials told Reuters the authorities had rushed local personnel to locate and identify the wreckage, in a mountainous area partly controlled by the Taliban. Reuters journalists filmed Afghan soldiers heading toward the snow-covered mountains where the plane crashed in Ghazni province.

“The plane which was on an intelligence mission, was brought down in Sado Khel area of Deh Yak district of Ghazni province,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban in a statement.

Mujahid did not say how fighters had brought the plane down. He said the crew on board included high ranking U.S. officers. A senior defense official denied that senior American officers were involved.

The Taliban control large parts of Ghazni province. The militant group, which has been waging a war against U.S.- led forces since 2001, often exaggerates enemy casualty figures.

Civilian airline Ariana Afghan Airlines denied initial reports that it was the owner of the plane.

“It does not belong to Ariana because the two flights managed by Ariana today, from Herat to Kabul and Herat to Delhi, are safe,” its acting CEO, Mirwais Mirzakwal, told Reuters.

Two officials from Ghazni province said the crashed aircraft appeared to belong to a foreign company.

“There is no exact information on casualties and the name of the airline,” Ghazni provincial governor Wahidullah Kaleemzai told private broadcast

Taliban attack on U.S. military base kills one, injures scores

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Suicide bombers struck the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing at least one person and injuring scores in a major attack that could scupper plans to revive peace talks between the United States and the Taliban.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which struck the Bagram air base north of Kabul.

“First, a heavy-duty Mazda vehicle struck the wall of the American base,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman. “Later several mujahideen equipped with light and heavy weapons were able to attack the American occupiers.”

The Taliban spokesman claimed the attack was still ongoing. The U.S.-led military coalition said the attack was “quickly contained and repelled”.

Abdul Shukoor Qudosi, the district governor of Bagram district, said 87 people were injured and one woman was killed, and that a clearance operation was still ongoing.

Five servicemen from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition, were among those injured, the country’s defense ministry said in a statement. The majority of casualties were Afghan.

“A 30-minute clash also happened between the attackers, who obviously wanted to enter the base, and foreign forces,” said Wahida Shahkar, a spokeswoman for the governor of Parwan province, which includes the Bagram district.

Two attackers detonated vehicles laden with explosives at the southern entrance to the base, while five more opened fire. It was not immediately clear how many of the five gunmen were killed, Shahkar said.

A medical base being built for locals was badly damaged, the coalition of foreign forces in Afghanistan said in a statement. The Taliban denied this.

U.S. President Donald Trump called off talks with the Taliban in September after an attack by the group killed an American soldier. The Taliban controls more territory than at any point since being ousted from power by Afghan foes with U.S. air support in 2001.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Writing by Alasdair Pal)

Shooting in the dark; Afghanistan’s endless war pits brother against brother

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) – The 19-year-old Taliban deserter is haunted by the memory of the attack on a police checkpoint in northern Afghanistan in August.

The Taliban band of around 20 fighters began its assault at 10 pm, he recalled, and by sunrise, all twelve Afghan police were dead.

Kneeling in the blood-soaked sand of the bunker as he and his comrades checked the bodies for weapons and ammunition, the young militant made a terrible discovery – one of the dead men was his elder brother.

Two months later, he fled following an air strike that killed several of his band. Now hiding in Kunduz district, fearing reprisals by the Taliban for deserting, the young man and his father told their harrowing story on condition of anonymity.

“I faced the darkest moment of my life seeing my brother’s body covered with blood and dust,” the younger brother told Reuters, fear visible on his face as he sat inside a car. “For a while the daylight turned to a dark night as if someone put a black hood on my head.”

The father of the brothers said he volunteered the younger boy to fight for the Taliban after the militants learnt that the elder son was with the police.

The government accuses the Taliban of commonly using the tactic to intimidate families caught up in the 18-year-long war.

“The Taliban torture and even kill innocent people to make them to join, mostly in remote rural areas where people have no other option,” said Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan government.

The militant group denies this, though it said it does pressurize families not to join the security services of a government it regards as illegitimate and propped up by foreign forces.

FINE BALANCE

The family, like many in the northern Kunduz province, make a difficult living subsistence farming wheat, rice and mung beans. To ease the hardship, the elder brother enlisted in police in 2006 to help support his family, his father said.

A few months later, he recalled Taliban representatives visiting his mud-brick home to persuade him to make a fateful choice – either he should make his elder son quit the police, or he should volunteer one of his seven other sons to join the militants.

“It was a difficult decision for the whole family, but we had no other choice: the Taliban were extorting us,” he said, a sense of resignation in his voice, on why he allowed his youngest son to join. “They blocked the water to our crops.”

He knew the impact his decision might have.

“Having a son in the police and giving the other to the Taliban means telling them to kill each other,” he said.

The Taliban now controls more territory than at any point since it was ousted from power by U.S.-led coalition forces in 2001. With that gain comes increasing friction with Afghans who have lived in what were previously government-held areas, experts said.

“The Taliban are not aliens: they are undeniable part of Afghan society,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a former general who served in the Afghan army between 1960 and 2009.

“Many families of members of the Afghan security forces are living in rural areas and most of these areas are either completely controlled or heavily influenced by the Taliban.”

Similar stories have emerged elsewhere in the country.

Hikmatullah, a sergeant in the Afghan army from the eastern Nangarhar province, said the Taliban imprisoned one of his younger brothers after he joined the security forces. They eventually released him, but after consulting with his father, he too joined the militant group.

“This decision was not his choice or desire, but he was forced, in fact the whole family was forced because we were frustrated from the daily torture,” Hikmatullah, who goes by only one name, said.

“Whenever I get into a clash with the Taliban, I feel that my brother is standing in front of me and I am firing at him.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, denied it coerced people to join.

“We sometime force those families not to serve in the front line with the Afghan police or army, because we don’t want them to lose their precious lives,” he said. “Joining us is their personal choice.”

The former Taliban fighter was deeply affected by his brother’s death in the raid. In October, after an Afghan airstrike killed five of his comrades in the Taliban, he fled.

He now lives away from the family’s land with his father and brother’s family.

“Whenever I look to the three children of my late brother, I feel guilty as if I am the killer,” he said. “I don’t forgive myself.”

(Additional reporting by Sardar Razmal in Kunduz and Ahmad Sultan in Nangarhar; Writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)