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)

Afghan women brave rockets for rights

By Rina Chandran

KABUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the decade since launching a radio station in northern Afghanistan, Sediqa Sherzai has braved mines and rocket attacks as the Taliban seeks to silence her. But she has kept going.

Fawzia Koofi, the country’s first female deputy of the lower house of parliament, has survived assassination and kidnap attempts. Last year, she was banned from running for re-election – so she set up her own party.

Women have made huge strides in the conservative country since a ban during Taliban rule of 1996 to 2001 from school, work, politics and going outside without a male relative.

While growing numbers of women now complete education and work in previously male bastions, they continue to face harassment and hurdles, human rights activists say.

“Women are half the population, and should have the same rights and opportunities as men in this country,” said Sheila Qayumi, a programme coordinator at Equality for Peace and Democracy, which advocates for more women in politics.

“But women are still denied education, forced to marry young, kept from working, and treated no better than animals in the provinces,” she said.

Four decades of war, from occupation to internal fighting, have destroyed the economy, rendering it among the poorest in the world, with few jobs for a mostly young population.

Women occupy a particularly precarious place, as they face cultural barriers and hostility – not just from conservative family members, but also hardline Islamist groups – for pursuing financial independence and greater equality, Qayumi said.

OPEN MINDS

Nearly half of Afghan women would rather leave their war-torn country permanently if they could, citing poverty and limited opportunities, according to a Gallup poll in September.

On her radio broadcasts in Kunduz, Sherzai discusses issues from education to independence, domestic violence, inheritance rights and women’s right to vote – and stand for elections.

Most women are not aware of their rights, or are too scared to exercise them, said Sherzai, whose staff are mostly women.

“My goal is to educate women on their rights, and open their minds,” she said, speaking through a translator.

“I want to convince families to let their daughters study, to not marry them off young, and to respect their choices.”

Funding for the station is uncertain, and her family fears for her safety, but she has never thought about quitting, she said, even when she had to broadcast from home after the station was attacked and her equipment stolen.

“My dream is that Afghan women can be safe and free to do what they wish to do, without men stopping them,” Sherzai said in an interview on a visit to the capital.

She asked that her picture not be taken for safety reasons.

Across the country, efforts are underway to make public spaces safer and more open to women.

While Afghan women lag on many measures, a quota that reserves 68 of 250 seats in the lower house of parliament gives them a higher representation than the global average of 24%.

The quota makes it easier for women to enter politics, but they lack money and run greater security risks, said Koofi.

“Being a female politician is hard everywhere – we are scrutinised for our looks and our clothing, and we are not taken seriously,” she said in an interview in her office.

“In Afghanistan, men don’t accept women in the public sphere, and our views are not respected even in parliament.”

MAYORS, DE-MINERS

An international aid effort that arrived with foreign forces in 2001 prioritised girls’ education and women’s empowerment.

From a female de-mining team in Bamiyan province to street singers in Kabul, women have since won more independence.

But there are fears that a final withdrawal of U.S. troops, the winding down of international engagement and the re-emergence of the Taliban may reverse gains.

Turnout of women voters in September’s presidential election was low amid security threats and concerns over facial recognition technology.

In the provinces, the challenges are still greater.

Zarifa Ghafari, 26, mayor of Maidan Shahr in restive Wardak province, has said she expects to be assassinated. She was recently named on BBC’s list of 100 women of 2019.

Khadija Ahmadi is the only other female mayor in the country, in the city of Nili in the remote Daykundi province.

It has taken her a while to assert authority locally and to get federal authorities in Kabul to allocate resources.

“The men would not listen to me at first. Many have come around after they realised I am persistent and can get the work done,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Yet women are constantly thwarted.

Last year, Koofi was one of several members of parliament disqualified from contesting the elections for allegedly running private armed militias and possessing illegal weapons – charges she denied and challenged.

Koofi recently set up a political party, Movement of Change for Afghanistan, becoming the first Afghan woman to do so.

The 44-year-old also took part in so-called intra-Afghan talks aimed at bringing together Taliban representatives and other Afghans to find a way to end the war.

Women were also included for the first time in the Taliban delegation at the peace talks, as the militant group projects a more moderate image.

“Women have been the worst victims of the war, so we must have a say in the future of this country,” Koofi said.

“It’s not enough to just fill a quota; we have to bring women to the forefront of politics, to leadership positions, and be a part of national decision making,” she said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

No phones, scripted tweets: How Trump’s Afghanistan trip was kept under wraps

No phones, scripted tweets: How Trump’s Afghanistan trip was kept under wraps
By Humeyra Pamuk

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Notorious for leaks and chastened by previous security lapses, the White House went to unusual lengths to keep President Donald Trump’s Thanksgiving trip to Afghanistan under wraps, devising a cover story for his movements that included posting scripted tweets while he was in the air, administration officials said.

On Thursday, Trump dropped in unannounced on troops at Afghanistan’s Bagram military air base in his first trip to the country and only his second to a war zone during his presidency. He served soldiers a turkey dinner and posed for selfies, before telling reporters that the United States and Taliban hoped to resume peace talks. [nL1N2880NT]

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the 33-hour roundtrip, which White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said had been weeks in the making, was the administration’s success in keeping it secret until shortly before the president left Afghanistan to return home.

Frequently wrong-footed by leaks and Trump’s freewheeling use of Twitter, the White House informed only a tight circle of officials about the trip.

On Tuesday, Trump travelled to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida as scheduled, accompanied by the regular caravan of reporters which follows the president on all trips.

When those journalists waited for him to emerge for a Thursday afternoon conference call with the troops, per his official schedule, they learnt that overnight he had flown the 13,400 km (8,331 miles) to Afghanistan to visit them in person.

“It is a dangerous area and he wants to support the troops,” Grisham told a small group of correspondents aboard Air Force One on Wednesday evening, explaining why the White House had concealed Trump’s true movements.

Only hours before, that second group of reporters had secretly gathered at a parking lot near the Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, a regular departure spot for Trump, from which they were driven in minivans into the complex.

They had been told ahead of time that Trump would be travelling incognito to an undisclosed location.

Once inside the base, all smart phones and any devices that could send a signal were confiscated and not returned until at least two hours after Trump’s arrival at Bagram, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan.

Throughout the 13-hour flight, nobody on board Air Force One had access to their phones, including White House staff, Grisham said. The cabin lights were mostly switched off and window blinds stayed shut.

Last Christmas, en route to a troop visit in Iraq, Air Force One was identified above England by a plane spotter who tweeted a photo of its distinctive turquoise livery, sparking a social media storm. Many speculated then that Trump was on his way to a war zone, pointing to his unusually quiet Twitter account, which had sent dozens of tweets the day before.

This time, Grisham said the White House made arrangements to ensure continuity in the president’s Twitter account, which posted happy Thanksgiving tweets as he was in the air, including one thanking the military.

“We just had a nice Thanksgiving dinner,” Trump said amid chants of “U-S-A” during his speech at the Bagram base.

“I thought I was going to be doing it someplace else.”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Michelle Price and Daniel Wallis)

Votes for women? Not without facial recognition technology in Afghanistan

Votes for women? Not without facial recognition technology in Afghanistan
By Rina Chandran

KABUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The first female founder of an Afghan political party has urged the country to rethink the use of facial recognition technology in elections amid concerns it stopped large numbers of women from voting this year.

Authorities photographed all voters in September’s presidential election and used facial recognition software, a measure designed to combat fraud that women’s rights activists say deterred female voters from participating.

“Women should be able to vote – it is their right. So anything that impedes that right is a problem,” the politician and women’s rights campaigner Fawzia Koofi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Kabul.

“Security and fraud are serious issues, but perhaps there are alternatives like iris scans that are more acceptable to women,” said Koofi, leader of the Movement of Change for Afghanistan party and a former deputy speaker of parliament.

“We have to find a way that is sensitive to their needs.”

A spokesman for Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) said biometric images of women were taken by female staff where possible and the pictures were stored securely in a digital database.

“This was part of the election reforms we have undertaken to curb fraud and for greater transparency. In the past, men were voting in the name of women without any checks,” said IEC spokesman Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi.

“Some women agreed to have their pictures taken, others did not. Perhaps our awareness campaign on the technology did not reach everyone, but that can be addressed in future.”

Only a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots in September’s election after threats of violence by the Taliban who considered it to be illegitimate and warned people not to take part.

The photo requirement is particularly difficult for women, especially in conservative areas, where most adult women and older girls cover their faces outside the home and do not show themselves to men who are not their relatives.

No official data for female voter turnout in the September elections is available, but Sheila Qayumi at the non-profit Equality for Peace and Democracy in Kabul said women made up only a fraction of voters.

“They were not comfortable showing their faces in public, or were not sure how their pictures would be used,” she said.

“These cultural sensitivities must be taken into account, and women informed properly. Or we risk losing their say in the affairs of the country,” said Qayumi, whose organisation works on raising women’s participation in politics.

The roll-out of facial recognition technology in airports, metro stations and other public places around the world poses a challenge to women who veil their face anywhere, said Areeq Chowdhury, founder of London-based think tank Future Advocacy.

He said governments must ensure this is done in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner so the rights and freedoms of minority groups are not impacted.

“If there is no suitable opt-out, and women are forced to show their face in public in order to exercise their democratic right, then this is hugely problematic,” he said.

“I would seriously question the need to have such stringent voter ID requirements for any election in any country.”

Women were already underrepresented in Afghanistan’s election process, accounting for a third of more than 9.6 million registered voters, according to the IEC.

During their strict Islamist rule from 1996-2001, the Afghan Taliban banned women from education, voting and most work. Women were not allowed to leave their homes without permission and a male escort.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Afghanistan suffers record 4,300 civilian casualties in three months: U.N.

An internally displaced Afghan girl stands outside her tent at a refugee camp in Herat province, Afghanistan October 14, 2018. Picture taken October 14, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail - RC1633CE5420

Afghanistan suffers record 4,300 civilian casualties in three months: U.N.
By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – A record 4,313 civilians were injured or killed in Afghanistan’s war against the Islamist Taliban between July and September, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The tally was up 42 percent from the same period last year – in a war that ebbs and flows with the seasonal weather – and included more than a thousand deaths, according to data from the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

That made it the bloodiest period in the world’s longest-running war since UNAMA began collecting like-for-like figures in 2009. It brought the total of casualties for the first nine months of 2019 to over 8,000.

“Civilian casualties at record-high levels clearly show the need for all parties concerned to pay much more attention to protecting the civilian population, including through a review of conduct during combat operations,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, one of the U.N.’s top officials in Afghanistan.

Taliban insurgents fighting the U.S.-backed Kabul government control more of Afghanistan than at any time since being ousted from power nearly two decades ago.

They have stepped up a campaign of suicide bombings in recent years as Washington tries to pull its forces out.

Around 62 percent of casualties were caused by what UNAMA called “anti-government elements”, though casualties caused by pro-government forces also rose 26 percent.

UNAMA said on Tuesday that 85 civilians had been killed and more than 370 wounded in violence linked to last month’s election.

The two presidential front-runners have both already claimed victory despite the count being delayed.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Taliban, U.S. envoy in Pakistan to review broken peace talks

By Asif Shahzad and Charlotte Greenfield

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Afghan Taliban officials were due in Islamabad on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of reviving talks for a political settlement in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s foreign ministry and the insurgent group said.

The high-profile Taliban delegation was arriving as the top U.S. diplomat involved in talks with the militants, Zalmay Khalilzad, also met government officials in Islamabad.

It was not clear if the Taliban would meet Khalilzad, though one senior Pakistani government official said that might happen.

The Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the group’s founders, was due to discuss “important issues” with Pakistani officials, spokesman Suhail Shaheen said.

The visit, the latest stop on a tour of regional powers including Russia, China and Iran by Taliban officials, comes after efforts by the militants and the United States to reach a deal allowing for the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces broke down last month.

“The visit would provide the opportunity to review the progress made under U.S.-Taliban peace talks so far, and discuss the possibilities of resuming the paused political settlement process in Afghanistan,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement. It said a meeting between the insurgents and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was being finalized.

Khalilzad, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, has been meeting Pakistani officials in Islamabad following discussions between Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the United States.

“These consultations follow discussions held between the United States and Pakistan during the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week,” said a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad via email.

The spokesman did not say if Khalilzad was still in Pakistan on Wednesday or if he planned to meet the Taliban officials. A top Pakistan government official told Reuters that the Taliban would likely meet Khan, and that, “we’re trying that we will convince the Taliban that the delegation also meets Zalmay Khalilzad”.

The official said the meetings would focus on attempting to convince the Taliban to include the Afghan government in the peace talks. The insurgents have previously refused to negotiate with what they call an illegitimate “puppet” regime in Kabul.

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said on Twitter that the Afghan government should be involved in any peace process.

“No progress will be imminent if a peace process is not owned and led by the Afghan government,” he said.

PROGRESS ON PEACE?

The United States has long considered Pakistani cooperation crucial to efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.

Trump last month halted the talks with the Taliban, aimed at striking a deal allowing U.S. and other foreign troops to withdraw in exchange for Taliban security guarantees, following the death of a U.S. solder and 11 others in a Taliban bomb attack in Kabul.

The Taliban delegation would inform Pakistan’s leadership of the factors that derailed the talks, said a Taliban official who declined to be identified. The Taliban also planned to follow up on Khan’s recent comment that he would try to convince Trump to resume the talks, the Taliban official said.

Baradar, the head of the delegation, was making his first known visit to Pakistan since he was released from a Pakistani jail a year ago.

Previously the coordinator of the group’s military operations in southern Afghanistan, he was arrested in 2010 by a team from Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies.

The U.S. and Taliban said last month, shortly before talks broke off, that they were close to reaching a deal, despite concerns among some U.S. security officials and within the Afghan government that a U.S. withdrawal could plunge the country into even more conflict and open the way for a resurgence of Islamist militant factions.

(Reporting by Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar, Pakistan and Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul and Charlotte Greenfield and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Writing by Rod Nickel in Kabul and Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

U.S. to withdraw and withhold funds from Afghanistan, blames corruption

WASHINGTON/KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday the United States would withdraw about $100 million earmarked for an energy infrastructure project in Afghanistan and withhold a further $60 million in planned assistance, blaming corruption and a lack of transparency in the country.

Pompeo said in a statement the United States would complete the infrastructure project but would do so using an “‘off-budget’ mechanism”, faulting Afghanistan for an “inability to transparently manage U.S. government resources”.

“Due to identified Afghan government corruption and financial mismanagement, the U.S. Government is returning approximately $100 million to the U.S. Treasury that was intended for a large energy infrastructure project,” he added.

The decision comes a day after the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, in a tweet called out the country’s National Procurement Authority (NPA) for not approving the purchase of fuel for thermal electricity.

Residents of Kabul have accused the NPA of ignoring people’s need for energy, as large parts of the city have been without power for more than seven hours every day this month.

Electricity outages have also inflicted losses for manufacturing companies and emergency health services.

“Hearing reports the National Procurement Authority won’t authorize fuel purchases for the power plant providing the only electricity in Kabul – even while the U.S. & Resolute Support help Afghan security forces enable repairs to power transmission lines. Could this be true?” Bass said in a tweet on Wednesday.

The power crisis intensified further this week after insurgents attack pylons in northern provinces. About a third of the country has been hit by blackouts.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington DC, Rupam Jain in Kabul; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alex Richardson)

Taliban attacks kill 48, Afghan leader unhurt as bomber targets rally

KABUL (Reuters) – Taliban suicide bombers killed 48 people in two separate attacks in Afghanistan on Tuesday, the deadliest taking place near an election rally by President Ashraf Ghani, though he was unhurt.

The attacks happened 11 days before Afghanistan’s presidential election, which Taliban commanders have vowed to violently disrupt, and follow collapsed peace talks between the United States and the insurgent group.

Ghani, who is seeking a second five-year term in voting on Sept. 28, was due to address a rally in Charikar, the capital of central Parwan province, when a suicide bomber attacked the gathering.

The blast killed 26 people and wounded 42, said Nasrat Rahimi, spokesman for the interior ministry.

“When the people were entering the police camp, an old man riding a motorcycle arrived on the highway and detonated his explosives, causing casualties,” said Parwan province’s police chief Mohammad Mahfooz Walizada.

In the wake of the attack, bodies littered the dusty ground as smoke rose from the site of the explosion, a giant blue billboard bearing the face of Ghani’s running mate Amrullah Saleh looming over the scene.

With sirens wailing, rescuers rushed to lift the wounded into the backs of pick-up trucks for evacuation.

“Women and children are among them and most of the victims seem to be the civilians,” said Abdul Qasim Sangin, head of Parwan’s provincial hospital.

The president was nearby but unharmed, and later took to Twitter to condemn the bombing at the rally.

“Taliban tried to break this unity by targeting innocent civilians,” he wrote. “They shamelessly accepted responsibility at a time when they’re cloaking acts of terror as efforts for peace.”

“PEOPLE WERE GIVEN WARNING”

In a separate incident, a man on foot blew himself up in the center of the capital Kabul, sending ambulances and Afghan forces rushing to the blast site.

“I was waiting at the entrance of the recruitment center,” said Mustafa Ghiasi, lying on a hospital bed after being wounded in the explosion. “I was behind two men in line when suddenly the blast struck.”

Twenty-two people were killed, and 38 were wounded, said Rahimi, the interior ministry spokesman. Most of the dead were civilians, including women and children, though six were security force members.

The Taliban said it carried out the two attacks, and a statement issued by a spokesman for the insurgents said they were aimed at security forces.

“People were given warning,” the statement said.

“Do not take part in the puppet administration’s election rallies, because all such gatherings are our military target,” said the statement. “If, despite the warning, someone get hurt, they themselves are to blame.”

Addressing the Kabul attack, Afghanistan’s president lashed out at the Taliban as the “coward enemy” for targeting civilians.

“I offer my heartfelt condolences to victims of today’s tragedies in Kabul and Parwan and pray for speedy recovery of those who were wounded,” Ghani wrote on his official Twitter account. “We stand united in this hour of grief.”

Pakistan, which denies accusations that it shelters the Taliban, also condemned the attack.

“We offer our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families,” it said in a statement.

Security at rallies across the country has been tight following threats by the Taliban to attack meetings and polling stations. The group has vowed to intensify clashes with Afghan and foreign forces to dissuade people from voting in the upcoming elections.

Last week, peace talks between the United States and the Taliban collapsed. The two sides had been seeking to reach an accord on the withdrawal of thousands of American troops from Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees from the insurgents.

The negotiations, which did not include the Afghan government, were intended as a prelude to wider peace negotiations to end more than more 40 years of war in Afghanistan.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Hameed Farzad, Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by William Maclean and Alex Richardson)

Trump fires Bolton, foreign policy hawk, citing strong disagreements

By Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly fired his national security adviser John Bolton amid disagreements with his hard-line aide over how to handle foreign policy challenges such as North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan and Russia.

“I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House. I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday, adding that he would name a replacement next week.

Bolton, a leading foreign policy hawk and Trump’s third national security adviser, was widely known to have pressed the president for a harder line on issues such as North Korea. Bolton, a chief architect of Trump’s strident stance against Iran, had also advocated a tougher approach on Russia and Afghanistan.

The 70-year-old Bolton, who took up the post in April 2018, replacing H.R. McMaster, had sometimes been at odds with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of Trump’s main loyalists.

Offering a different version of events than Trump, Bolton tweeted: “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”

Trump had sometimes joked about Bolton’s image as a warmonger, reportedly saying in one Oval Office meeting that “John has never seen a war he doesn’t like.”

A source familiar with Trump’s view said Bolton, an inveterate bureaucratic infighter with an abrasive personality, had ruffled a lot of feathers with other key players in the White House, particularly White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

“He doesn’t play by the rules,” the source said. “He’s a kind of a rogue operator.”

During his time at the State Department under the administration of Republican former President George W. Bush, Bolton kept a defused hand grenade on his desk. His 2007 memoir is titled: “Surrender Is Not An Option.”

Trump’s North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, is among the names floated as possible successors.

“Biegun much more like Pompeo understands that the president is the president, that he makes the decisions,” said a source close to the White House.

Also considered in the running is Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who had been expected to be named U.S. ambassador to Russia.

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said “many, many issues” led to Trump’s decision to ask for Bolton’s resignation. She would not elaborate.

“HE’LL BOMB YOU”

Trump would sometimes chide Bolton about his hawkish ways in meetings, introducing him to visiting foreign leaders by saying, “You all know the great John Bolton. He’ll bomb you. He’ll take out your whole country.”

Officials and a source close to Trump said the president had grown weary of his hawkish tendencies and the bureaucratic battles he got involved with.

Bolton traveled widely in the role and on his travels, for example, he warned Russia against interfering in U.S. elections and promoting strong ties with Israel.

Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Fox News television commentator, had opposed a recent State Department plan to sign an Afghan peace deal with the Taliban militia, believing the group’s leaders could not be trusted.

Sources familiar with his view said Bolton believed the United States could draw down to 8,600 troops in Afghanistan and maintain a counter-terrorism effort without signing a peace deal with the Taliban.

U.S. officials have said it was Bolton who was responsible for the collapse of a summit in February between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi by recommending the presentation a list of hard-line demands that Kim rejected.

North Korea media in May referred to Bolton as a “war maniac” who “fabricated various provocative policies such as designation of our country as ‘axis of evil’, preemptive strike and regime change.”

During an earlier period of U.S.-North Korea tensions in 2003, North Korea called Bolton “human scum.”

Bolton’s departure – the latest in a series from Trump’s national security team in recent months – comes a day after North Korea signaled a new willingness to resume stalled denuclearization talks with the United States, but then conducted the latest in a recent spate of missile launches.

U.S. oil prices fell more than 1 percent on the news of Bolton’s departure with investors believing it could lead to a softer U.S. policy on Iran.

Bolton had spearheaded Trump’s hard-line policy against Iran, including the U.S. abandonment of an international nuclear deal with Tehran and reimposition of U.S. sanctions.

Bolton was widely believed to have favored a planned U.S. airstrike on Iran earlier this year in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, an action Trump called off at the last minute. Trump has since expressed a willingness to talk to Iranian leaders under the right conditions.

Bolton was an ardent opponent of arms control treaties with Russia. He was instrumental in Trump’s decision to withdraw last month from a 1987 accord that banned intermediate-range missiles because of what Washington charged was Moscow’s deployment of prohibited nuclear-capable cruise missiles, an allegation Russia denied.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Arshad Mohammed, David Brunstromm, Jonathan Landay; Writing by Matt Spetalnick,; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)