Afghan president renews calls for peace, demands ceasefire

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during an event with Afghan security forces in Kabul, Afghanistan September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Hamid Shalizi and Hameed Farzad

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made a renewed call for peace on Monday but insisted the Taliban must observe a ceasefire, as he sought to regain a hold on the peace process following the surprise collapse of talks between the United States and the militants.

Ghani’s comments, to a meeting of military leaders in Kabul, came amid uncertainty over the future of efforts to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan after U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt cancellation of talks with the Taliban at the weekend.

“We are ready for peace talks but if the Taliban think they can scare us, look at these warriors,” Ghani said, declaring that peace could not be unconditional as he repeated demands for a ceasefire that the Taliban have so far refused.

“Peace without a ceasefire is impossible.”

Trump’s refusal to meet the Taliban has left it unclear whether talks can be revived or whether the two sides, locked in a broad stalemate, will continue fighting.

The insurgents’ determination to step up both attacks on provincial centers and suicide bombings even as peace talks were taking place was a key factor in pushing Trump to cancel talks days after a U.S. soldier was killed in the capital Kabul.

The end of the talks has fueled fears of a further increase in violence across Afghanistan, with heightened security warnings in the Kabul and other centers ahead of a presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28.

The talks, which had been secret until Trump unexpectedly announced their cancellation on Saturday, would have brought the U.S. president face-to-face with senior Taliban leaders at the presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland.

WITHDRAWAL TIMETABLE

Ghani, who was sidelined from months of negotiations between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives, had been deeply suspicious of the talks, which sought to agree a timetable for a withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops.

A draft accord agreed last week would have seen some 5,000 U.S. troops withdrawn over coming months in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States or its allies.

Afghan officials had argued for months that it was a mistake for the United States to agree a deal on troop withdrawals separately from a broader peace accord.

The collapse of the talks appears to have strengthened Ghani’s position, in part by removing lingering doubts over whether the twice-delayed election – in which he is favorite to win a second five-year term – would go ahead.

Until Saturday’s surprise announcement by Trump, many politicians and Western diplomats had argued that peace talks should take priority over an election seen as a potential obstacle to a deal with the Taliban.

Now officials say there is no excuse for the vote not to be held, with election authorities promising that the problems that dogged parliamentary elections last year will not be repeated.

Ghani, a former World Bank official who came to power after a bitterly disputed election in 2014, has kept up campaigning even as the talks went on, adapting to the worsening security situation by holding “virtual rallies” that address supporters in various provinces through a video link-up.

“Afghanistan is now at a critical juncture because of the election and the peace process,” he said.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Trump says he canceled peace talks with Taliban over Kabul attack

U.S. President Donald Trump departs after presenting NBA Hall of Fame player Jerry West with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the Oval office of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Phil Stewart and Jason Lange

WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday said he canceled peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders after the insurgent group claimed responsibility last week for an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 other people.

Trump said he had planned a secret meeting with the Taliban’s “major leaders” on Sunday at a presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland. Trump said he also planned to meet with Afghanistan’s president.

But Trump said he immediately called the talks off when the insurgents said they were behind the attack.

“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Trump said on Twitter.

The surprise announcement left in doubt the future of the draft accord worked out last week by Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, for a drawdown of thousands of U.S. troops over the coming months.

There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban but the decision appeared to catch them by surprise.

Just hours before Trump’s tweet, a senior Taliban leader privy to talks in Doha with U.S. officials including Khalilzad and Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said an agreement to sign the deal appeared close.

Taliban fighters, who now control more territory than at any time since 2001, launched fresh assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri over the past week and carried out two major suicide bombings in the capital Kabul.

One of the blasts, a suicide attack in Kabul on Thursday, took the life of U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Puerto Rico, bringing the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 16.

A spike in attacks by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan has been “particularly unhelpful” to peace efforts there, a senior U.S. military commander said on Saturday as he visited neighboring Pakistan, where many Taliban militants are based.

FILE PHOTO: Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversees American troops in the region, declined to comment on the diplomatic negotiations themselves but criticized a wave of Taliban violence that has cast a long shadow over the deal.

“It is particularly unhelpful at this moment in Afghanistan’s history for the Taliban to ramp up violence,” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters traveling with him.

McKenzie said for the peace process to move forward, “all parties should be committed to an eventual political settlement” which, in turn, should result in reduced violence.

“If we can’t get that going in, then it is difficult to see the parties are going to be able to carry out the terms of the agreement, whatever they might or might not be,” McKenzie said.

Under the draft accord, some 5,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn over the coming months in exchange for guarantees Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

However, a full peace agreement to end more than 18 years of war would depend on subsequent “intra Afghan” talks involving officials and civil society leaders as well as further agreement on issues including the remainder of the roughly 14,000-strong U.S. forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops.

The Taliban have rejected calls for a ceasefire and instead stepped up operations across the country and it remains unclear whether they will accept direct negotiations with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate “puppet” regime.

NEW CIVIL WAR?

For Afghans, the Taliban’s recent escalation of attacks has underscored fears it may be impossible to reach a stable settlement following any complete U.S. withdrawal.

Ghani dismissed the talks as “meaningless” following Thursday’s suicide bombing and his spokesman said an official reaction to Trump’s announcement would come soon.

The Taliban’s strategy appears to be based on the assumption that battlefield success would strengthen their hand in future negotiations with Afghan officials. Some of their field commanders have also said they are determined not to surrender gains when they are close to victory, suggesting the leadership is under internal pressure not to concede a ceasefire.

But that has risked undermining acceptance of the deal by Washington and its NATO allies as well as by Kabul.

“The Taliban’s leaders will have to show they can stop the attacks, if not, then what is the point of holding long negotiations with Baradar?” said one Western diplomat in Kabul.

Even within the Taliban ranks, there appears to be doubt about how any agreement would take effect, given growing opposition to the deal from the government side.

“Don’t ask me how to implement the peace accord,” the Taliban official said.

Memories of the bloody 1990s conflict between the Taliban and rival militia groups are vivid. Former U.S. envoys who worked on Afghanistan warned last week that “total civil war” with “catastrophic” consequences for U.S. national security was possible.

Many have worried about a fracture along ethnic and regional lines, with Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazaras from the north and west against southern and eastern Pashtuns, the group that have supplied most of Afghanistan’s rulers and where the Taliban draw most support.

Some Taliban are based in neighboring Pakistan, where McKenzie held talks on Saturday with a top Pakistani general. More talks are scheduled for Sunday.

McKenzie said he did not know whether any of the planning for the recent wave of attacks in Afghanistan came from Pakistan-based militants.

But McKenzie commended Pakistan for supporting the peace efforts in Afghanistan, in the latest sign of an improvement in long-fraught relations between Washington and Islamabad.

“A lot of Pakistanis have been killed by militant attacks inside Pakistan. I think Pakistan sees the benefits of a stable Afghanistan,” McKenzie said.

(Additional by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Rupam Jain and James Mackenzie in Kabul; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Chris Reese and Michael Perry)

Son of Afghan resistance hero criticizes ‘secretive’ U.S. Taliban deal

Ahmad Massoud, son of the slain hero of the anti-Soviet resistance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, shakes hands with his supporters at his house in Bazarak, Panjshir province Afghanistan September 5, 2019. Picture taken September 5, 2019.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

By James Mackenzie

JANGALAK, Afghanistan (Reuters) – A “secretive” peace deal between United States and the Taliban could face wide resistance in Afghanistan if it opens the door to the insurgents’ hardline regime, said the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the slain hero of the anti-Soviet resistance.

Ahmad Massoud, who was 12 years old when his father was assassinated days before the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, is among several Afghan politicians critical of the accord reached with the Taliban this week.

While he is still relatively new to Afghan politics, the aura of his father’s name adds weight to his words in a country where the habits of dynastic politics remain deeply ingrained.

“It’s very secretive. It has happened behind closed doors,” Massoud told Reuters in an interview.

“We see the peace deal as a great opportunity but how it has been managed is unfortunately disappointing,” Massoud said. “We want to see clarity, we want to see people from all over the country involved in it.”

Speaking after some 10,000 supporters rallied at his father’s mausoleum in the Panjshir Valley on Thursday, Massoud’s comments reflect the deep suspicion many Afghans have of a deal reached without their involvement.

The accord would see thousands of U.S. troops withdrawn in exchange for Taliban promises not to let Afghanistan be used as a base for future attacks on the United States and its allies.

It is intended as a first step to a peace deal between the Taliban and wider Afghan society but it remains unclear what will happen next. The insurgents have refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate “puppet” regime and mistrust abounds.

President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman said this week the government had serious concerns and wanted further clarification from Washington.

Although details have not been made public, the fact that the accord appears to acknowledge the Taliban’s self-described status as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has aroused particular anger.

‘RED LINE’

Many Taliban officials have said the country’s constitutional status should revert to the Islamic Emirate, but opponents see the term as a direct challenge to the internationally recognized Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the state formed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

“For us, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is our red line,” Massoud said, adding that any change to the country’s status could only come through a referendum.

Opposition to the deal has been deepened by the Taliban’s recent escalation of attacks, heightening fears that it may be impossible to reach a stable settlement once U.S. forces leave.

Many have worried about a fracture along ethnic and regional lines, with Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazaras from the north and west against southern and eastern Pashtuns, the group that have supplied most of Afghanistan’s rulers and where the Taliban draw most support. Memories of the 1990s civil war are vivid.

“We do not want to see another war break out,” Massoud said. “This peace must end war all at once.”

The aggressive displays by supporters on the Sept. 9 anniversary of the death of Massoud’s father, when armed bands drive through the streets of Kabul firing into the air, have led many to suspect that the old Mujahideen Northern Alliance could reform to oppose the Taliban.

However, Massoud insists that only a political settlement will be effective and that only government forces should be armed.

“After the peace process, no political group … but the government should have guns,” he said.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Darren Schuettler)

Deadly Taliban attack in Afghan capital casts shadow on peace deal

Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Sayed Hassib

KABUL (Reuters) – A Taliban attack on a housing complex used by international organizations in the Afghan capital, Kabul, late on Monday killed at least 16 people and angered local residents who demanded the heavily fortified compound be moved.

The blast, which shook buildings several kilometers away, happened just as Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, was outlining details of a draft accord with the insurgents in a television interview.

Following major Taliban attacks on two northern cities over the weekend, the bombing of the Green Village compound in a mixed business and residential area added to questions around the peace deal reached between U.S. and Taliban negotiators in the Qatari capital, Doha.

Habib Jan, who was in his house nearby when the blast occurred, said the area has been attacked repeatedly and many residents wanted the compound, used by foreign staff of international groups including aid organizations, moved.

“This isn’t once or twice, it’s the fourth or fifth time, all by the Taliban. A lot of my friends, a lot of my family have been wounded or killed,” he said, as smoke spiraled into the sky from burning tires lit by protesters demanding that the complex be moved.

“Our young people have been killed, our children have been killed, our old men have been killed, our girls have been killed. What can we do?”

Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast was caused by a tractor packed with explosives but armed attackers, who planned to follow up the blast, were killed by security forces.

He said around 400 foreign nationals were evacuated from the heavily protected site, located off a major road in an area of houses and shops.

Like other compounds built to house the thousands of foreign contractors and agency staff who work in Kabul, Green Village is a fortified complex of concrete blast walls and steel gates protected by armed guards.

While such compounds have been attacked repeatedly over the years, the main victims are often Afghan civilians living in the surrounding area.

The timing of the attack, as Khalilzad’s interview was still being broadcast, appeared to be deliberate, with Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declaring the blast had destroyed rooms and offices and caused countless casualties among “invaders”.

“Enemy claims of civilian losses are false as no civilians were allowed close to the site of the attack,” he said in a tweet.

Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born diplomat who has been leading U.S. negotiations, said almost 5,000 U.S. troops would be pulled out and five bases closed in exchange for Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

But the deal did not include a formal ceasefire and Monday’s attacks, as well as major assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri, underlined doubts about whether it would lead to an end to violence.

On the other side, officials in the southern province of Helmand, one of the Taliban’s main strongholds, said 15 insurgents, including the commander and deputy commander of a special operations unit, were killed by U.S. air strikes.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Mohammad Stanekzai in Lashkar Gah; writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Darren Schuettler)

Taliban says near agreement on U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade sit at an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie/File Photo

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Sayed Hassib

KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban said on Wednesday it was close to an agreement with U.S. officials on a deal that would see U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for a Taliban promise that the country would not become a haven for international militants.

Negotiations over how to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan have been held in Doha, capital of Qatar, since late last year. The ninth round of talks began last week.

“We hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence-seeking nation,” said Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha.

U.S. officials engaged in talks with the Taliban in Doha were not immediately available for comment.

Two sources with knowledge of the negotiations said the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been leading the talks, is scheduled to be in Kabul to brief President Ashraf Ghani about the agreement.

A senior security official in Kabul said the Taliban and U.S. officials had agreed on a timeline of about 14 to 24 months for the withdrawal of the U.S. forces.

Details would be shared with the Afghan government before they were made public, the official said.

Ghani, who is seeking a second term in September, has repeatedly offered to hold direct talks with the Taliban, but the group demanded a complete withdrawal of foreign forces as a precondition to start negotiations.

The Taliban now controls more territory than it has since 2001, when the United States invaded following the 9/11 attacks, and the war has ground to a stalemate, with casualties rising among civilians as well as combatants.

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Ghani, said the government did not want U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan over the long term, but added that their “conditions-based” presence was needed at this stage.

“We want to end the bloodshed. We cannot accept the orders of the Taliban. They must accept our demands and we demand peace,” said Sediqqi.

Some 14,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, training and advising Afghan forces and conducting counter-insurgency operations. NATO also has a mission in the country totaling 17,000 to provide support to the Afghan forces.

(Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Gareth Jones)

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo visits Kabul, hopes for a peace deal before September 1

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks from a helicopter with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, as Pompeo returns to his plane after an unannounced visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, June 25, 2019. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERS

By Rupam Jain

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during an unannounced visit to Kabul on Tuesday to discuss ongoing peace talks with the Taliban and the security situation ahead of Afghan presidential polls in September.

Pompeo stopped over on his way to New Delhi for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other officials.

His visit to Afghanistan, which lasted about seven hours, comes ahead of a seventh round of peace talks between Taliban leaders and U.S. officials aimed at finding a political settlement to end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan. The next round of peace talks is scheduled to begin on June 29 in Doha.

“I hope we have a peace deal before September 1. That’s certainly our mission set,” Pompeo said.

The talks between the United States and the Taliban will focus on working out a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan and on a Taliban guarantee that militants will not plot attacks from Afghan soil.

“While we’ve made clear to the Taliban that were prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear, we’ve not yet agreed on a timeline to do so,” said Pompeo.

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

In return for the withdrawal of foreign forces, the United States is demanding the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant attacks.

“We agree that peace is our highest priority and that Afghanistan must never again serve as a platform for international terrorism.”

He said the two sides are nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban’s commitment to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for “terrorists”.

The hardline Islamist group now controls more Afghan territory than at any time since it was toppled from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

At least 3,804 civilians were killed in the war last year, according to the United Nations. Thousands of Afghan soldiers, police and Taliban were also killed.

Taliban leaders nevertheless vowed this month to sustain the fight until their objectives were reached.

But momentum for talks with the Taliban is steadily building, with a special U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, pushing the process and insurgent leaders showing serious interest in negotiating for the first time.

Ghani has also offered repeatedly to talk with the Taliban but the group insists it will not deal directly with the Ghani government.

“All sides agree that finalizing a U.S.-Taliban understanding on terrorism and foreign troop presence will open the door to intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiation,” Pompeo said, adding that next step is at the heart of the U.S. effort.

“We are not and will not negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of the government or people of Afghanistan.”

Pompeo’s meeting with Ghani came as members of the opposition party held a large public gathering in Kabul to protest against his overstaying in power after his five-year term ended in May.

Ghani has refused to step down and Afghanistan’s Supreme Court says he can stay in office until the delayed presidential election, now scheduled for September, in which he will seek a second term.

Political opponents of Ghani met Pompeo and U.S. officials.

Preparation for the polls and a crucial chance to end the war with the Taliban are running in parallel, with international diplomats and politicians based in Kabul trying to prevent them running into each other.

Many Afghans are concerned that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, in its haste to end the war, could push for concessions that might weaken the democratic gains of the post-Taliban era.

(Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Editing by Catherine Evans)

‘American Taliban’ Lindh released from U.S. prison -Washington Post

FILE PHOTO: U.S.-born John Walker Lindh (L) is led away by a Northern Alliance soldier after he was captured among al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners following an uprising at the Fort Qali-i-Janghi prison near Mazar-i-Sharif December 1, 2001 REUTERS/STR/File Photo

(Reuters) – John Walker Lindh, the American captured in Afghanistan in 2001 fighting for the Taliban, was released early from federal prison on Thursday, the Washington Post reported, citing Lindh’s lawyer.

Lindh, who was 20 years old when he was captured, left prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, on probation after serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence, the newspaper said.

Now 38, Lindh is among dozens of prisoners to be released over the next few years after being captured in Iraq and Afghanistan and convicted of terrorism-related crimes following the attacks on the United States by al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001.

FILE PHOTO: A picture of John Walker Lindh is shown on the attendance register of the madrassa (Islamic school) Arabia Hassani Kalan Surani Bannu, in Bannu in Pakistan, January 26, 2002. REUTERS/Haider Shah/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A picture of John Walker Lindh is shown on the attendance register of the madrassa (Islamic school) Arabia Hassani Kalan Surani Bannu, in Bannu in Pakistan, January 26, 2002. REUTERS/Haider Shah/File Photo

His release brought objections from elected officials who asked why Lindh was being freed early and what training parole officers had to spot radicalization and recidivism among former jihadists.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Lindh’s release “unexplainable and unconscionable.”

“There’s something deeply troubling and wrong about it,” he said on Fox News on Thursday morning.

Leaked U.S. government documents published by Foreign Policy magazine show the federal government as recently as 2016 described Lindh as holding “extremist views.”

“What is the current interagency policy, strategy, and process for ensuring that terrorist/extremist offenders successfully reintegrate into society?” asked U.S. Senators Richard Shelby and Margaret Hassan in a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Lindh’s parents, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, did not respond to requests for comment and Lindh’s lawyer, Bill Cummings, declined to comment.

Melissa Kimberley, a spokeswoman for the prison in Terre Haute, could not immediately be reached for confirmation of the Post’s report.

U.S.-born Lindh converted from Catholicism to Islam as a teenager. At his 2002 sentencing, he said he traveled to Yemen to learn Arabic and then to Pakistan to study Islam.

FILE PHOTO: Undated handout image of American Taliban John Walker Lindh, distributed February 5, 2002. American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, described by a prosecutor as a "committed terrorist" who abandoned his country, is to be released early from a federal prison while some U.S. lawmakers worry he still poses a security risk.. REUTERS/Handout/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Undated handout image of American Taliban John Walker Lindh, distributed February 5, 2002. American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, described by a prosecutor as a “committed terrorist” who abandoned his country, is to be released early from a federal prison while some U.S. lawmakers worry he still poses a security risk.. REUTERS/Handout/File Photo

He said he volunteered as a soldier with the Taliban, the radical Sunni Muslim group that ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, to help fellow Muslims in their struggle or “jihad.” He said he had no intention “to fight against America” and never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism.

Lindh told the court he condemned “terrorism on every level” and attacks by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden were “completely against Islam.”

But a January 2017 report by the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center, published by Foreign Policy, said that, as of May 2016, Lindh “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.”

NBC News reported that Lindh wrote a letter to its Los Angeles station KNBC in 2015 expressing support for Islamic State, saying the Islamic militant group was fulfilling “a religious obligation to establish a caliphate through armed struggle.”

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bill Trott)

Iran designates as terrorists all U.S. troops in Middle East

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a meeting with tribal leaders in Kerbala, Iraq, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-Deen/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signed a bill into law on Tuesday declaring all U.S. forces in the Middle East terrorists and calling the U.S. government a sponsor of terrorism.

The bill was passed by parliament last week in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s decision this month to designate Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization.

It was not clear what the impact of the new law might be on U.S. forces or their operations.

Rouhani instructed the ministry of intelligence, ministry of foreign affairs, the armed forces, and Iran’s supreme national security council to implement the law, state media reported.

The law specifically labels as a terrorist organization the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The United States has already blacklisted dozens of entities and people for affiliations with the Guards, but until Trump’s decision not the organization as a whole.

Comprising an estimated 125,000-strong military with army, navy and air units, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) also command the Basij, a religious volunteer paramilitary force, and control Iran’s ballistic missile programs. The Guards’ overseas Quds forces have fought Iran’s proxy wars in the region.

The long-tense relations between Tehran and Washington took a turn for the worse last May when Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, reached before he took office, and reimposed sanctions.

Revolutionary Guards commanders have repeatedly said that U.S. bases in the Middle East and U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf are within range of Iranian missiles.

Rouhani said on Tuesday that Iran will continue to export oil despite U.S. sanctions aimed at reducing the country’s crude shipments to zero.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Peter Graff and Frances Kerry)

Taliban team at Afghan peace talks in Qatar to include women: spokesman

FILE PHOTO: Afghan women line up at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Kabul, Afghanistan October 20, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Women will be included for the first time in the Taliban delegation to peace talks in Qatar this month, the movement’s main spokesman said on Monday, ahead of the latest round of meetings aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan.

For a group notorious for its strictly conservative attitude to women’s rights, the move represents a step towards addressing demands that women be included in the talks, intended to lay the foundations for a future peace settlement.

The April 19-21 meeting in Doha will be between the Taliban and a delegation comprising prominent Afghans, including opposition politicians and civil society activists. It follows similar talks between the two sides in Moscow in February.

The non-Taliban delegation that was in Moscow could be expanded next week to include some government officials, but acting in their private capacities as the insurgents have refused to hold formal talks with Kabul.

“There will be women among Taliban delegation members in the Doha, Qatar meeting,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s main spokesman, said by telephone.

He did not name the women, but added, “These women have no family relationship with the senior members of the Taliban, they are normal Afghans, from inside and outside the country, who have been supporters and part of the struggle of the Islamic Emirate”.

In a tweet, he specified that the women would only join the discussions with Afghan civil society and political representatives, not in the main negotiations with American officials, led by U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Khalilzad has not yet set dates for the next round of talks with the Taliban, a State Department spokesperson said.

“We do not have new U.S. talks with the Taliban to announce at this time. Before additional talks, we look forward to knowing the outcome of the intra-Afghan dialogue,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born U.S. diplomat, is working to secure an accord with the Taliban on a U.S. troop pullout, measures to prevent al Qaeda and other extremists from using Afghanistan as a springboard for attacks, a ceasefire and inter-Afghan talks that include the government on the country’s political future.

The Taliban have rejected formal talks with the government, which they dismiss as a “puppet” regime controlled by the United States.

While Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative country, especially in rural areas, there have been major advances in women’s rights since the U.S-led campaign of 2001 that toppled the Taliban government. Many women fear that if the group regains some power, many of these gains could be erased.

The movement gained worldwide notoriety when it came to power in the 1990s by forcing women to wear full facial covering and imposing severe restrictions including banning girls from school and forbidding women from working outside the home.

However, Taliban spokesmen say the group has changed and it encourages girls’ education and other women’s rights within an Islamic Sharia system.

Civil society groups, the Western-backed government and Afghanistan’s international partners have pressed for women to take part in the talks and news of the Taliban delegation was welcomed. Fawzia Koofi, a former member of parliament who took part in the meetings in Moscow, said the presence of women in the Taliban team was a “good step”.

“Only women can feel the pain and miseries that Afghan women have suffered. The presence of women among the Taliban negotiators shows that the Taliban’s ideology has changed.”

Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, who has been pressing for women to play a role in the peace talks said the process should be inclusive.

Future international support for Afghanistan could be affected by whether women’s rights were properly respected in any settlement, she said.

“There are certain levers that we have, that the Taliban are interested in,” she told reporters in Kabul, where she was visiting as part of a Congressional delegation. “There is going to be an interest in economic support after the conflict ends.”

“I think if the Taliban has any interest in getting international support … it would be in their interest to recognize the importance of including women and including human rights as part of any settlement that happens.”

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Frances Kerry, Toby Chopra and Neil Fullick)

U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Afghan contractor listed as killed in blast is alive

An Afghan military convoy drives past the site of a car bomb attack where U.S soldiers were killed near Bagram air base, Afghanistan April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An Afghan contractor who was believed to have been killed in a car bomb near Kabul is alive, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.

Colonel David Butler, a spokesman for U.S. Forces- Afghanistan, told Reuters the Afghan contractor was initially believed to have been killed along with three other U.S. service members in the blast near Bagram air base close to Kabul.

It was only later that they found out the contractor was alive.

The blast, which the Taliban claimed responsibility for, also wounded three U.S. service members.

Violence has been relentless in Afghanistan even though Taliban militants have held several rounds of talks with U.S. officials about a peace settlement. The talks began late last year, raising hopes for an end to the conflict.

Monday’s attack was one of the deadliest against U.S. personnel in recent months. In November, a roadside bomb blast killed three U.S. service members near the central Afghan city of Ghazni.

The war has taken a much larger toll on Afghan security forces and civilians.

President Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, said about 45,000 members of Afghanistan’s security forces have been killed since he took office in September 2014, which works out to an average of 849 per month.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)