Tajikistan quake shakes north India, Pakistan, no major damage

By Neha Arora

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – A strong earthquake struck Tajikistan on Friday and the tremors were felt as far away as north India and Pakistan, witnesses said. Many residents ran out of their homes, but no major damage was reported.

The U.S Geological Survey put the quake’s magnitude at 5.9 and centered 35 km (55 miles) west of Murghob in Tajikistan, central Asia.

The Tajikistan Emergency Situations Ministry said the epicenter was 420 km (260 miles) east of the Tajik capital Dushanbe near the border with China.

The seismic service of the country’s Academy of Sciences told Russia’s RIA Novosti that the quake’s intensity was measured at 6.1. The news agency said there were no casualties or damage, citing the Committee on Emergency Situations.

Monitoring agencies in the region pegged the quake as being a bit more severe. India’s National Center for Seismology said its magnitude was 6.3, while the National Seismic Monitoring Center in Pakistan measured it at 6.4.

Tremors were felt in Dushanbe but the epicenter was in a sparsely populated area.

Cracks were reported in some homes in northern Kashmir, the Indian Meteorological Department said. A witness also reported a wall collapse near the northern Indian city of Amritsar, but there were no reports of casualties.

A resident in Indian Kashmir’s Baramulla district said it felt like a strong wind had lashed his house. “My whole house shook and cracks appeared in a corner of one of the rooms,” Firdous Ahmad Khan said.

Tremors were felt across Pakistan including the capital, Islamabad, and northwestern Peshawar, and even as far as the eastern city of Lahore, which borders India.

In Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, where a 2005 earthquake wreaked serious destruction, there was panic, according to witnesses, and many people rushed out of their homes in fear.

“I thought it’s the same like what had hit us in 2005. My children started crying,” said Asif Maqbool, a resident in Madina Market, a neighborhood of Muzaffarabad that was almost flattened in the 2005 quake.

Saima Khalid, a resident of the Khawaja Muhalla district of Muzaffarabad, said everyone in the neighborhood came out onto the streets.

The quake was also felt in northern Afghanistan but there were no reports of casualties or damage.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Nazarali Pirnazarov in Tajikistan Fayaz Bukari in Srinagar, Rupam Jain, Charlotte Greenfield and Umar Farooq in Islamabad, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Abu Arqam Naqash in Muzaffarabad, Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore ; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Giles Elgood)

No decisions made about U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – No decisions have been made on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, the State Department said on Wednesday after a bipartisan report to Congress called on Washington to delay a Trump administration plan to pull all U.S. forces out by May 1.

“At this time, no decisions about our force posture have been made,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, saying the Biden administration was reviewing the U.S.-Taliban troop withdrawal pact negotiated by the Trump administration.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Leslie Adler)

U.S. troops in Afghanistan now down to 2,500, lowest since 2001: Pentagon

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of U.S troops in Afghanistan has been reduced to 2,500, the lowest level of American forces there since 2001, the Pentagon said on Friday.

In November, President Donald Trump’s administration said it would sharply cut the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January, stopping short of a threatened full withdrawal from America’s longest war after fierce opposition from allies at home and abroad.

“Moving forward, while the Department continues with planning capable of further reducing U.S. troop levels to zero by May of 2021, any such future drawdowns remain conditions-based,” acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller said in a statement on reaching 2,500 troops.

On Monday, Reuters reported the U.S. military had not halted an American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite a new law prohibiting further reductions without the Pentagon sending Congress an assessment of the risks.

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Major Rob Lodewick, on Friday said Trump had signed a waiver allowing for the troop reduction, though it appears to have happened when the move was already complete.

“Convention dictates that reducing troop levels, associated equipment and adjusting associated force protection requirements across a country-wide combat zone is not something that can be paused overnight without increasing risk to the force and core mission goals,” Lodewick said.

U.S. forces invaded the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by the Islamist al Qaeda group based in Afghanistan. At its peak in 2011, the United States had more than 100,000 troops there.

President-elect Joe Biden has given few clues on what his plans are for Afghanistan. However, one option could be to leave a small counterterrorism force in the country, where its former Taliban rulers, al Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group still have a presence.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Afghan government, Taliban announce breakthrough deal to pursue peace talks

By Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan government and Taliban representatives said on Wednesday they had reached a preliminary deal to press on with peace talks, their first written agreement in 19 years of war and welcomed by the United Nations and Washington.

The agreement lays out the way forward for further discussion but is considered a breakthrough because it will allow negotiators to move on to more substantive issues, including talks on a ceasefire.

“The procedure including its preamble of the negotiation has been finalized and from now on, the negotiation will begin on the agenda,” Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan government’s negotiating team, told Reuters.

The Taliban spokesman confirmed the same on Twitter.

The agreement comes after months of talks in Doha, the capital of Qatar, encouraged by the United States, while the two sides are still at war, with Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces continuing unabated.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said that the two sides had agreed on a “three-page agreement codifying rules and procedures for their negotiations on a political roadmap and a comprehensive ceasefire”.

Taliban insurgents refused to agree to a ceasefire during the preliminary stages of talks, despite calls from Western capitals and global bodies, saying that that would be taken up only when the way forward for talks was agreed upon.

“This agreement demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues,” Khalilzad said on Twitter.

The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. A U.S.-backed government has held power in Afghanistan since then, although the Taliban have control over wide areas of the country.

Under a February deal, foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counter-terrorism guarantees from the Taliban.

U.S. President Donald Trump has looked to hasten the withdrawal, despite criticism, saying he wanted to see all American soldiers home by Christmas to end America’s longest war.

The Trump administration has since announced that there would be a sharp drawdown by January, but at least 2,500 troops would remain beyond then.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday warned NATO against withdrawing troops prematurely and said it should “ensure that we tie further troop reductions in Afghanistan to clear conditions”.

UN envoy for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons welcomed the “positive development” on Twitter, adding that “this breakthrough should be a springboard to reach the peace wanted by all Afghans”.

Last month, an agreement reached between Taliban and government negotiators was held up at the last minute after the insurgents balked at the document’s preamble because it mentioned the Afghan government by name.

A European Union diplomat familiar with the process said that both sides had kept some contentious issues on the side to deal with separately.

“Both sides also know that Western powers are losing patience and aid has been conditional… so both sides know they have to move forward to show some progress,” said the diplomat, requesting anonymity.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul, and Rupam Jain in Mumbai; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)

Twin blasts in Afghan province of Bamiyan kill 14 people, injure 45

(Reuters) – Twin explosions in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan killed at least 14 people and wounded 45 more, provincial officials said on Tuesday, as the international community pledged assistance for Afghanistan at a conference in Switzerland.

The two bombs, hidden at the side of a road in a main bazaar in Bamiyan city, killed 12 civilians and two traffic policemen, said Zabardast Safai, the police chief of the province.

The other 45 people injured were mostly from a nearby restaurant and shops, Safai added.

Dozens of nations began pledging billions of dollars in aid for Afghanistan at the conference in Geneva on Tuesday, hoping that peace negotiations recently begun between the government and the Taliban will end nearly two decades of war.

Bamiyan has been seen as the country’s safest province due to its remote location in the central mountains. The dominant local tribe, the Hazara, opposed the Taliban, mostly ethnic Pashtuns who massacred thousands of Hazara during their rule.

The Taliban, which has been waging an insurgency against the foreign-backed Kabul administration since being toppled in late 2001, denied involvement in the bombings.

Hazaras are mostly Shi’ite Muslims. Minority Shi’ites have been repeatedly attacked by Sunni militants, especially Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of this year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban insurgents rages on despite efforts to find peace, according to the United Nations.

(Reporting by Kabul Bureau, Writing by Hamid Shalizi, Editing by Catherine Evans

Trump could withdraw troops from Somalia as part of global pullback

By Phil Stewart and Katharine Houreld

WASHINGTON/NAIROBI (Reuters) – President Donald Trump may withdraw nearly all U.S. troops from Somalia as part of a global pullback that could see major reductions in Afghanistan and a slight drawdown in Iraq, U.S. officials told Reuters on Tuesday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that nothing had been finalized and that no orders have been received by the U.S. military. However, there appeared to be a growing expectation on Tuesday that drawdown orders would be coming soon.

The Pentagon declined comment on future decisions on troop deployments. Reuters reported on Monday that Trump was expected to settle for a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite promising to pull out all troops by Christmas.

He is also expected to order a small drawdown in Iraq, from 3,000 to 2,500, U.S. officials say, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The United States has about 700 troops in Somalia focused on helping local forces defeat the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgency, in a mission that receives little attention in the United States but is considered a cornerstone of the Pentagon’s global efforts to combat al Qaeda.

Trump’s newly-installed acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, a former Green Beret and counter-terrorism official, is taking a hard look at Somalia and could opt for keeping a minimal presence there and stop relying on large deployments to combat the group.

Critics say such a radical change in approach carries significant risk.

Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, who served for three years as the commander of the Danab special forces until 2019, said any such decision to pull back would not be based on the counter-terrorism threat in Somalia and could undermine trust in the United States.

“This is being dictated by politics,” he said.

The United States already pulled out of Bossaso and Galkayo around three weeks ago. They remain in the southern port city of Kismayo, a special forces airbase in Baledogle and in the capital Mogadishu, but a rapid pullout risks ceding ground to al Shabaab, Sheikh said.

“It would create a vacuum. The Somali security forces have good morale because of the U.S. troops … there’s the possibility of air support if they are attacked, they can have medevacs,” Sheikh said.

Somalia has been riven by civil war since 1991, but over the past decade the African Union-backed peacekeeping force has clawed back control of the capital and large swathes of the country from al Shabaab.

(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Editing by William Maclean)

Trump may settle for partial Afghan withdrawal, despite Pentagon shakeup: sources

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s new Pentagon leadership team has not yet signaled an imminent, total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, raising expectations among allies that Trump might settle for only a partial reduction this year, sources said.

Trump fired his defense secretary, Mark Esper, and appointed other top Pentagon officials last week after longstanding concerns that his priorities were not being dealt with urgently enough at the Defense Department.

They included ending the 19-year-old Afghan engagement by Christmas, an ambitious target that opponents of the country’s longest war welcomed but which Trump’s critics warned could be reckless given ongoing militant violence plaguing Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has featured in a flurry of introductory calls by acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, Esper’s replacement, to U.S. allies’ defense ministers and chiefs of defense, a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters.

“It was a part of many of them because it is of great importance to our NATO allies, our allies in the region and also just global security and protecting the American homeland,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But the official, speaking after the calls with allies, suggested that Trump would not push a withdrawal faster than conditions on the ground allow.

U.S. and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, which al Qaeda carried out. Thousands of American and allied troops have died in fighting in Afghanistan since then.

Some U.S. military officials, citing U.S. counter-terrorism priorities in Afghanistan, have privately urged Trump against going to zero at this point and want to keep U.S. troop levels at around 4,500 for now.

“The president has acted appropriately in this, has never said: ‘Hey, we’re going to zero. Let’s go tomorrow.’ It has always been a conditions-based effort and that effort continues,” the senior U.S. defense official said, without explicitly detailing future drawdown plans.

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘SEE FIGHT TO THE FINISH’

Over the past four years, predicting Trump’s policy pronouncements has not always been easy.

On Oct. 7, Trump said on Twitter: “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”

But U.S. officials say he has yet to issue orders to carry that withdrawal out. Doing so now would be difficult for the U.S. military to execute, especially given the reliance of NATO allies on the United States for logistical support, they add.

One NATO official, who asked not to be named, said the belief was the United States could soon announce a drawdown to 2,500 to 3,000 troops by Christmas.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien already raised such a possibility, saying last month the United States would go down to 2,500 by early 2021, in comments overshadowed by Trump’s Christmas timeline.

A NATO diplomat said Miller, in his introductory call with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, did not suggest a complete withdrawal but instead a reduction of troops.

The senior U.S. defense official said U.S. withdrawals from Afghanistan had been carried out in an “educated way so as not to revisit the Iraq withdrawal that failed in 2011.”

Then-President Barack Obama withdrew troops against military advice, only to return them to Iraq three years later.

Regardless of what Trump might do, Taliban militants, fighting against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, have called on the United States to stick to a February agreement with the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. troops by May, subject to certain security guarantees.

Violence has been rising throughout Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking provincial capitals, in some case prompting U.S. airstrikes.

In Kabul, there is growing fear of a precipitous withdrawal that could further embolden the Taliban and undercut already sputtering peace talks, sources say. Miller, in a message to the U.S. armed forces released over the weekend, echoed Trump’s desire to end America’s overseas engagements by saying “it’s time to come home.” But he did not offer a timetable and stressed the need to finish the fight against al Qaeda.

The Taliban harbored al Qaeda’s leaders and the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan said the Taliban had not fulfilled their February accord commitment to break ties with al Qaeda.

“We are on the verge of defeating al Qaeda and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish,” wrote Miller, a former Green Beret and counter-terrorism official.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, Robin Emmott in Brussels and John Irish in Paris; Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Afghan woman shot, blinded, for getting a job

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – The last thing 33-year-old Khatera saw were the three men on a motorcycle who attacked her just after she left her job at a police station in Afghanistan’s central Ghazni province, shooting at her and stabbing her with a knife in the eyes.

Waking up in hospital, everything was dark.

“I asked the doctors, why I can’t see anything? They told me that my eyes are still bandaged because of the wounds. But at that moment, I knew my eyes had been taken from me,” she said.

She and local authorities blame the attack on Taliban militants – who deny involvement – and say the assailants acted on a tip-off from her father who vehemently opposed her working outside the home.

For Khatera, the attack caused not just the loss of her sight but the loss of a dream she had battled to achieve – to have an independent career. She joined the Ghazni police as an officer in its crime branch a few months ago.

“I wish I had served in police at least a year. If this had happened to me after that, it would have been less painful. It happened too soon … I only got to work and live my dream for three months,” she told Reuters.

The attack on Khatera, who only uses one name, is indicative of a growing trend, human rights activists say, of an intense and often violent backlash against women taking jobs, especially in public roles. In Khatera’s case, being a police officer could have also angered the Taliban.

The rights activists believe a mix of Afghanistan’s conservative social norms and an emboldened Taliban gaining influence while the United States withdraws its troops from the country is driving the escalation.

The Taliban are currently negotiating in Doha, Qatar, with the Afghan government to broker a peace deal in which many expect them to formally return to power, but progress is slow and there has been an uptick in fighting and attacks on officials and prominent women around the country.

In recent months, the Taliban have said they will respect women’s rights under Sharia law but many educated women say they have doubts. The insurgent group has opposed a reform to add mother’s names to identity cards, one of the first concrete stances they have revealed on women’s rights as they engage in the peace process.

“Though the situation for Afghan women in public roles has always been perilous, the recent spike in violence across the country has made matters even worse,” said Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan campaigner. “The great strides made on women’s rights in Afghanistan over more than a decade must not become a casualty of any peace deal with the Taliban.”

CHILDHOOD DREAM DASHED

Khatera’s dream as a child was to work outside the home and after years of trying to convince her father, to no avail, she was able to find support from her husband.

But her father, she said, did not give up on his opposition.

“Many times, as I went to duty, I saw my father following me … he started contacting the Taliban in the nearby area and asked them to prevent me from going to my job,” she said.

She said that he provided the Taliban with a copy of her ID card to prove she worked for police and that he had called her throughout the day she was attacked, asking for her location.

Ghazni’s police spokesman confirmed they believed the Taliban were behind the attack and that Khatera’s father had been taken into custody. Reuters was unable to reach him directly for comment.

A Taliban spokesman said the group was aware of the case, but that it was a family matter and they were not involved.

Khatera and her family, including five children, are now hiding out in Kabul, where she is recovering and mourning the career she lost.

She struggles to sleep, jumps when she hears a motorbike and has had to cut off contact with her extended family, including her mother, who blame her for her father’s arrest. She hopes desperately that a doctor overseas might somehow be able to partially restore her sight.

“If it is possible, I get back my eyesight, I will resume my job and serve in the police again,” she said, adding in part she needed an income to avoid destitution. “But the main reason is my passion to do a job outside the home.”

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Additional reporting by Orooj Hakimi and Charlotte Greenfield; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

COVID-19 can wipe out health care progress in short order: WHO

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 90% of countries have seen ordinary health services disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with major gains in medical care attained over decades vulnerable to being wiped out in a short period, a World Health Organization survey showed.

The Geneva-based body has frequently warned about other life-saving programs being impacted by the pandemic and has sent countries mitigation advice, but the survey yielded the first WHO data so far on the scale of disruptions.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on essential health services is a source of great concern,” said a report on the study released on Monday. “Major health gains achieved over the past two decades can be wiped out in a short period of time…”

The survey includes responses from between May and July from more than 100 countries. Among the most affected services were routine immunizations (70%), family planning (68%) and cancer diagnosis and treatment (55%), while emergency services were disturbed in almost a quarter of responding countries.

The Eastern Mediterranean Region, which includes Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, was most affected followed by the African and Southeast Asian regions, it showed. The Americas was not part of the survey.

Since COVID-19 cases were first identified in December last year, the virus is thought to have killed nearly 850,000 people, the latest Reuters tally showed.

Researchers think that non-COVID deaths have also increased in some places due partly to health service disruptions, although these may be harder to calculate.

The WHO survey said it was “reasonable to anticipate that even a modest disruption in essential health services could lead to an increase in morbidity and mortality from causes other than COVID-19 in the short to medium and long-term.” Further research was needed.

It also warned that the disruptions could be felt even after the pandemic ends. “The impact may be felt beyond the immediate pandemic as, in trying to catch up on services, countries may find that resources are overwhelmed.”

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Blast kills at least 23 at cattle market in southern Afghanistan

Smoke rises from police headquarters while Afghan security forces keep watch after a suicide car bomber and gunmen attacked the provincial police headquarters in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, Afghanistan October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

KABUL (Reuters) – At least 23 civilians were killed in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province and dozens were wounded when rockets hit a cattle market on Monday, Afghan government and Taliban officials said.

The warring sides blamed each other for the attack on the open-air weekly cattle market in Sangin district, where hundreds of villagers from neighboring districts had gathered to trade sheep and goats.

A spokesman for Helmand’s governor said several rockets fired by Taliban insurgents landed close to the cattle market, killing 23 civilians, including children.

Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman said the Afghan army fired several rounds of mortar bombs on civilian houses and the cattle market, killing dozens of villagers.

Khushakyar, who goes by a single name, said he was trying to sell a calf when the rockets hit the market. He said his two nephews were killed and his son was wounded.

“I saw around 20 bodies on the ground,” he said, adding that dozens were wounded and “livestock lay dead next to men.”

Some residents of Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, said the shelling occurred during fierce clashes between Taliban militants and government security forces in residential areas surrounding the market.

There has been an uptick in violence by the Taliban against the Afghan government, even though the insurgents, fighting to reintroduce strict Islamic law after being ousted from power in 2001, signed a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States in February designed to lead to peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

More than 500 civilians were killed and 760 others wounded because of fighting in Afghanistan in the first three months of 2020, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in late April.

(Reporting by Zainullah Stanekzai in Helmand, Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Toby Chopra and Timothy Heritage)