Israel signs defense pact with Morocco, as cooperation with new Arab partners builds

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Israel signed a defense pact with Morocco on Wednesday, its latest public display of readiness to advance national security interests in tandem with Arab countries that have drawn closer to it amid shared concern over Iran and Islamist militancy.

The memorandum of understanding could herald intelligence cooperation, arms deals and joint military training, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in Rabat.

His two-day visit came within weeks of an Israeli-hosted air force drill that was attended by an Emirati general, and naval maneuvers by Israel, UAE and Bahrain. The two Gulf states, along with Morocco and Sudan, forged relations with Israel last year.

After the signing ceremony with Abdellatif Loudiyi, Morocco’s defense administration minister, a senior Gantz aide said he saw a Moroccan market for Israeli counter-insurgency know-how.

“This is a deal that will enable us to help them with what they need from us, of course subject to our interests in the region,” the aide, Zohar Palti, told Israel’s Kan broadcaster.

“Morocco has for years been battling terror on several fronts, and is a country that is struggling against al Qaeda and global jihadi groups.”

Rabat had no immediate comment on Wednesday’s agreement. Its Royal Armed Forces said the countries previously signed an memorandum on cyber cooperation and data security – the latter a possible preamble to purchases of high-end Israeli military technologies.

Israeli media have speculated about possible sales to Morocco of pilotless aircraft or missile defense systems.

The chief of Israel’s air force, Major-General Amikam Norkin, declined to discuss any such specific prospects at a conference on Tuesday, saying only that he favored “airpower diplomacy” with Arab partners to help offset Iran’s clout.

“I think that this (Gantz visit to Rabat) is an opportunity,” Norkin said, recalling how, at this month’s Dubai Airshow, his Moroccan counterpart had come to introduce himself and “added a few sentences in Hebrew” when they conversed.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid travelled to Morocco in August for the first visit by Israel’s top diplomat to that country since 2003.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Alex Richardson and Alistair Bell)

U.S. says worried about increase in attacks by ISIS-K in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States is worried about an uptick in attacks by Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan and remains deeply concerned about al Qaeda’s ongoing presence there, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West said on Monday.

He spoke to reporters by telephone from Brussels, where he briefed NATO allies on U.S. talks with the Taliban and held consultations on stabilizing Afghanistan following the Islamist militants’ takeover in August and the U.S. troop withdrawal.

West, who is due to travel on to Pakistan, India and Russia for more consultations, said the United States is preparing for the next round of talks with the Taliban in Doha, but he did not give a date.

With winter approaching, impoverished Afghanistan has emerged from all-out war into a humanitarian crisis as millions face growing hunger amid soaring food prices, a drought and an economy in freefall, fueled by a shortage of hard cash.

The Taliban also are confronting increasing attacks by its ideological foe, Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, the regional Islamic State affiliate.

West said Washington is “worried about the uptick in ISIS-K attacks, and we want the Taliban to be successful against them. When it comes to other (militant) groups, look, al Qaeda continues to have a presence there that we’re very concerned about.”

Al Qaeda’s presence “is an issue of ongoing concern for us in our dialogue with the Taliban,” he continued.

U.S. officials believe that ISIS-K could develop the ability to stage attacks outside of Afghanistan within six to 12 months and that al Qaeda could do the same within one to two years.

On other issues, West said that Washington is not seriously considering reopening its Kabul embassy for now, and wants to see the Taliban “establish a record of responsible conduct” before assessing that option.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Islamic State uses Taliban’s own tactics to attack Afghanistan’s new rulers

By Alasdair Pal and Jibran Ahmed

(Reuters) – A little more than a month after toppling the Western-backed government in Kabul, Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers are facing internal enemies who have adopted many of the tactics of urban warfare that marked their own successful guerrilla campaign.

A deadly attack on Kabul airport last month and a series of bomb blasts in the eastern city of Jalalabad, all claimed by the local affiliate of Islamic State, have underlined the threat to stability from violent militant groups who remain unreconciled to the Taliban.

While the movement’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has downplayed the threat, saying this week that Islamic State had no effective presence in Afghanistan, commanders on the ground do not dismiss the threat so lightly.

Two members of the movement’s intelligence services who investigated some of the recent attacks in Jalalabad said the tactics showed the group remained a danger, even if it did not have enough fighters and resources to seize territory.

Using sticky bombs – magnetic bombs usually stuck to the underside of cars – the attacks targeted Taliban members in exactly the same way the Taliban itself used to hit officials and civil society figures to destabilize the former government.

“We are worried about these sticky bombs that once we used to apply to target our enemies in Kabul. We are concerned about our leadership as they could target them if not controlled them successfully,” said one of the Taliban intelligence officials.

Islamic State in Khorasan, the name taken from the ancient name for the region that includes modern Afghanistan, first emerged in late 2014 but has declined from its peak around 2018 following a series of heavy losses inflicted by both the Taliban and U.S. forces.

Taliban security forces in Nangarhar said they had killed three members of the movement on Wednesday night and the intelligence officials said the movement still retains the ability to cause trouble through small-scale attacks.

“Their main structure is broken and they are now divided in small groups to carry out attacks,” one of them said.

FUNDING DRIED UP

The Taliban have said repeatedly that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacks on other countries. But some Western analysts believe the return of the Islamist group to power has invigorated groups like ISIS-K and al Qaeda, which had made Afghanistan their base when the Taliban last ruled the country.

“In Afghanistan, the return of Taliban is a huge victory for the Islamists,” said Rohan Gunaratna, professor of security studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “They have celebrated the return of the Taliban, so I think that Afghanistan is the new theatre.”

ISIS-K is believed to draw many of its fighters from the ranks of the Taliban or the Pakistani version of the Taliban, known as the TTP, but much of the way it operates remains little understood.

It has fought the Taliban over smuggling routes and other economic interests but it also supports a global Caliphate under Islamic law, in contrast with the Taliban which insists it has no interest in anywhere outside Afghanistan.

Most analysts, as well as the United Nations, peg ISIS-K’s strength at under 2,000 fighters, compared to as many as 100,000 at the Taliban’s disposal. The ranks of ISIS-K were swollen with prisoners released when Afghanistan’s jails were opened by the Taliban as they swept through the country.

According to a June report by the UN security council, ISIS-K’s financial and logistic ties to its parent organization in Syria have weakened, though it does retain some channels of communication.

“Funding support to the Khorasan branch from the core is believed to have effectively dried up,” the report said.

However, the report said signs of divisions within the Taliban, which have already started to emerge, could encourage more fighters to defect as the wartime insurgency tries to reshape itself into a peacetime administration.

“It remains active and dangerous, particularly if it is able, by positioning itself as the sole pure rejectionist group in Afghanistan, to recruit disaffected Taliban and other militants to swell its ranks,” the UN said.

(Reporting by Jibran Ahmed, Alasdair Pal and James Mackenzie; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

U.S. on alert for more attacks, death toll rises from Kabul airport carnage

(Reuters) – U.S. forces helping to evacuate Afghans desperate to flee new Taliban rule were on alert for more attacks on Friday after an Islamic State attack killed at least 92 people, including 13 U.S. service members, just outside Kabul airport.

Some U.S. media said the death toll was far higher in Thursday’s attack, which took place near the airport gates where thousands of people have gathered to try to get inside the airport and onto evacuation flights since the Taliban took control of the country on Aug. 15.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said hthe United States believed there are still “specific, credible” threats against the airport.

“We certainly are prepared and would expect future attempts,” Kirby told reporters in Washington. “We’re monitoring these threats, very, very specifically, virtually in real time.”.

U.S. and allied forces are racing to complete evacuations of their citizens and vulnerable Afghans and to withdraw from Afghanistan by an Aug. 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden.

Islamic State (ISIS), an enemy of the Islamist Taliban as well as the West, said one of its suicide bombers had targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army”.

The Pentagon said Friday that the attack was carried out by one suicide bomber, not two as earlier thought.

The number of Afghans killed has risen to 79, a hospital official told Reuters on Friday, adding that more than 120 were wounded. A Taliban official said the dead included 28 Taliban members, although a spokesman later denied any of their fighters guarding the airport perimeter had been killed.

Some U.S. media including the New York Times cited local health officials as saying as many as 170 people, not including the U.S. troops, had died in the attack.

The attack marked the first U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan since February 2020 and represented the deadliest incident for American troops there in a decade.

Biden was already facing strong criticism at home and abroad for the chaos surrounding the troop withdrawal that led to the Taliban’s lightning advance to Kabul.

The attack also underlined the realpolitikfacing Western powers in Afghanistan: Engaging with the Taliban who they have long sought to fend off may be their best chance to prevent the country sliding into a breeding ground for Islamist militancy.

Medical staff in the operating theatres of Kabul’s Emergency Hospital worked through the night treating casualties.

“Everybody is concerned at this moment in Kabul, nobody knows what to expect in the coming hours,” said Rossella Miccio, president of the Italian aid group that runs the hospital.

‘HUNT YOU DOWN’

Biden said on Thursday evening he had ordered the Pentagon to plan how to strike ISIS-K, the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility. The group has killed dozens of people in attacks in Afghanistan in the past 12 months.

“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said in televised comments from the White House.

Biden has defended the troop withdrawal, saying the United States long ago achieved its original rationale for invading the country in 2001. The U.S.-led invasion toppled the then-ruling Taliban, punishing them for harboring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks that year.

General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said on Thursday that the United States will press on with evacuations despite the threat of further attacks. He said some intelligence was being shared with the Taliban and he believed “some attacks have been thwarted by them”.

The United States said it would continue airlifting people right up to next Tuesday but will prioritize the removal of U.S. troops and military equipment on the last couple of days.

Most of the more than 20 allied countries involved in airlifting Afghans and their own citizens out of Kabul said they had completed evacuations by Friday.

Taliban guards blocked access to the airport on Friday, witnesses said. “We had a flight but the situation is very tough and the roads are blocked,” said one man on an airport approach road.

The pace of flights accelerated on Friday and American passport holders had been allowed to enter the airport compound, according to a Western security official inside the airport.

Another 12,500 people were evacuated from Afghanistan on Thursday, raising the total airlifted abroad by the forces of Western countries since Aug. 14 to about 105,000, the White House said on Friday.

France has held talks with Taliban representatives in recent days in Kabul and in Doha to ease its ongoing evacuations, the foreign ministry said on Friday.

Pakistani officials told Reuters that at the Torkham border crossing, Pakistani security forces had opened fire on a group of people trying to illegally enter Pakistan, adding that two Afghans were killed and two others wounded.

LEFT BEHIND

Those killed on Thursday included two British nationals and the child of a third British national, British foreign minister Dominic Raab said on Friday. The country’s defense minister, Ben Wallace, said the threat of attacks would increase as Western troops got closer to completing the huge airlift.

ISIS-K was initially confined to areas on the border with Pakistan but has established a second front in the north of the country. The Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point says ISIS-K includes Pakistanis from other militant groups and Uzbek extremists in addition to Afghans.

Russia called on Friday for rapid efforts to help form an inclusive interim government in Afghanistan after Thursday’s attack, saying ISIS was trying to capitalize on chaos in the country and endangering everyone.

Up to half a million Afghans could flee their homeland by year-end, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday, appealing to all neighboring countries to keep their borders open for those seeking safety.

There are also growing worries Afghans will face a humanitarian emergency with the coronavirus spreading and shortages of food and medical supplies looming.

Medical supplies will run out within days in Afghanistan, the World Health Organization said on Friday, adding that it hopes to establish an air bridge into the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the help of Pakistan.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Stephen Coates, Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Frances Kerry)

After Taliban takeover, concerns mount over U.S. counterterrorism ability

By Idrees Ali, Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With no U.S. troops or reliable partners left, jails emptied of militants and the Taliban in control, doubts are mounting within President Joe Biden’s administration over Washington’s ability to stem a resurgence of al Qaeda and other extremists in Afghanistan, six current and former U.S. officials told Reuters.

Afghan security forces whom the United States helped train crumbled as Taliban militants made their way through Afghanistan in less than two weeks, leaving the United States with few partners on the ground.

“We’re not in a good place,” said a U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue.

Weeks before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al Qaeda, the lack of visibility regarding potential extremist threats is a chilling prospect for officials.

U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 for sheltering al Qaeda militants, leading to America’s longest war.

The U.S. troop departure ordered for Aug. 31 by Biden and the subsequent collapse of Afghan security forces have stripped the CIA and other spy agencies of protection, forcing them to close bases and withdraw personnel as well.

The Biden administration cannot rely on neighboring countries because it has so far been unable to strike accords on bases for U.S. counterterrorism forces and drones, officials said.

That has left Washington dependent on staging counterterrorism operations from U.S. bases in the Gulf and counting on the Taliban to adhere to the 2020 U.S. pullout deal to stop militant attacks on the United States and allies.

But it is a costly endeavor. Flying military aircraft out of the Middle East, the nearest military hub Washington has in the region, may ultimately cost more than the 2,500 troops that had been in Afghanistan until earlier this year, the officials added.

Even deploying scarce U.S. resources to monitor militants in Afghanistan will effectively have to compete with the administration’s key priority in Asia of countering China.

The Group of Seven industrialized nations made it a priority that Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers break all ties with terrorist organizations and that the Taliban must engage in the fight against terrorism, an official at the French presidency said on Tuesday after a meeting of G7 leaders.

‘SEVERE DISADVANTAGE’

U.S. military leaders estimated in June that groups like al Qaeda could pose a threat from Afghanistan to the U.S. homeland in two years.

But the Taliban takeover rendered that estimate obsolete, officials said.

Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism until January, estimated it would now take al Qaeda six months to reconstitute the ability to conduct external operations.

The Taliban freed hundreds of detainees from prisons, stirring fears that some may include leading extremists.

While the Taliban vowed to uphold their commitment to prevent al Qaeda from plotting international attacks from Afghanistan, experts questioned that pledge.

Daniel Hoffman, a former chief of CIA covert Middle East operations, expressed doubt that the Taliban would constrain al Qaeda, noting their decades-old ties and shared ideologies.

“The country is a petri dish of threats: ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban. They all have us in their crosshairs,” he said.

Biden has said the United States will closely monitor militant groups in Afghanistan and has the ability to track and neutralize rising threats.

But he wrongly said last week that al Qaeda was “gone” from the country, confusing U.S. officials.

His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Monday that Biden was referring to al Qaeda’s capability to attack the United States from Afghanistan.

A series of United Nations reports say that hundreds of al Qaeda fighters and senior leaders remain in Afghanistan under Taliban protection.

U.S. military planners say some intelligence can be gathered by satellites and aircraft flying from bases in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. But they acknowledge such operations are expensive.

“Our intelligence community and our military operators are going to be at a severe disadvantage in trying to identify where these al Qaeda cells are located, what they’re planning, and it’s going to be incredibly difficult for us to take them off the battlefield,” said Sales.

In 2015, U.S. military officials were surprised to learn that al Qaeda was operating a massive training camp in the southern Kandahar province. That was with thousands of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

“Even when we had forces on the ground and a very robust air coverage, we would often be surprised by what al Qaeda was able to do,” said Kathryn Wheelbarger, a former senior Pentagon official.

Pakistan has said it will not host U.S. troops and countries in central Asia are reluctant to accept American requests because of concerns that it may anger Russia.

“I just do not believe over-the horizon can work, particularly in Afghanistan,” Wheelbarger said, referring to counterterrorism efforts from outside Afghanistan.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

Taliban risk military strikes if they host terrorists again, NATO warns

By Sabine Siebold

(Reuters) -The Taliban must not let Afghanistan become a breeding ground for terrorism again, NATO said on Tuesday, warning that the alliance after its withdrawal still has the military power to strike any terrorist group from a distance.

“Those now taking power have the responsibility to ensure that international terrorists do not regain a foothold,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in his first news conference since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

“We have the capabilities to strike terrorist groups from a distance if we see that terrorist groups again try to establish themselves and plan, organize attacks against NATO allies and their countries,” he added.

The fight against al Qaeda, the militant organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks whose leadership was hosted by the Taliban, was the main reason for the West’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 in what was to become NATO’s first major operation beyond Europe.

But as the alliance wrapped up military operations this summer after almost two decades, the Taliban rapidly advanced, capturing the biggest cities in days.

The sudden takeover of the capital, Kabul, caused thousands of people to flee to the city’s airport, which is still being held by the U.S. military, desperate to get on evacuation flights.

In Brussels, a female Afghan journalist on the verge of tears asked Stoltenberg what the West would do for all those vulnerable back in her country, leaving the NATO chief visibly moved.

Stoltenberg called on the Taliban to facilitate the departure of all those who want to leave the country, and said that Western defense allies had agreed to send more evacuation planes to Kabul.

At the same time, he expressed frustration with the Afghan leadership, blaming it for the Taliban’s easy success.

“Part of the Afghan security forces fought bravely,” Stoltenberg said. “But they were unable to secure the country, because ultimately the Afghan political leadership failed to stand up to the Taliban and to achieve the peaceful solution that Afghans desperately wanted.”

(Additional reporting by John Chalmers, Marine Strauss, Foo Yun Chee, Francesco Guarascio; Editing by John Chalmers and Jonathan Oatis)

Taliban take strategic Afghan city of Ghazni on road to Kabul

KABUL (Reuters) -Taliban fighters captured the strategic Afghan city of Ghazni on Thursday, taking them to within 150 km (95 miles) of Kabul following days of fierce clashes as the Islamist group ruled out sharing power with the government.

The speed and violence of the Taliban advance, including heavy fighting in their heartland and the second-biggest city of Kandahar, have sparked recriminations among many Afghans over U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and leave the Afghan government to fight alone.

The gateways to the capital have been choked with people fleeing violence elsewhere in the country this week, a Western security source said. It was hard to tell whether Taliban fighters were also getting through, the source added.

With the last of the U.S.-led international forces set to leave by the end of the month and end the United States’ longest war, the Taliban now control about two-thirds of the country. On Wednesday, a U.S. defense official cited U.S. intelligence as saying the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90.

Al Jazeera reported a government source saying it had offered the Taliban a share in power, as long as the violence comes to a halt.

Afghan government spokespeople were not immediately available for comment and it was not clear to what extent the reported offer differed from terms already discussed at stalled talks in Qatar.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said he was unaware of any such offer but ruled out sharing power.

“We won’t accept any offer like this because we don’t want to be partner with the Kabul administration. We neither stay nor work for a single day with it,” he said.

Under a deal struck between the United States and the Taliban last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack U.S.-led foreign forces as they withdraw, in exchange for a promise not to let Afghanistan be used for international terrorism.

The Taliban also made a commitment to discuss peace. But intermittent talks with representatives of the U.S.-backed government have made no progress, with the insurgents apparently intent on a military victory.

ROUTE TO KABUL

Ghazni, southwest of Kabul on the ancient route between the capital and Kandahar, was the ninth provincial capital the Taliban have seized in a week.

The militants on Thursday occupied Ghazni’s government agency headquarters after heavy clashes, a security official said.

“All local government officials, including the provincial governor, have been evacuated towards Kabul,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Kandahar and other southern and eastern provinces bordering Pakistan have long been Taliban heartlands but they have made their biggest gains in recent weeks in the north. Even when the group ruled the country from 1996-2001, it never controlled all of the north.

There were heavy clashes in Kandahar. A Taliban commander told Reuters most parts of the city were in their control but fighting was still going on. In western Herat, a Taliban spokesman said their fighters had captured police headquarters.

RALLYING OLD WARLORDS

The Taliban said they had seized airports outside the cities of Kunduz and Sheberghan in the north and Farah in the west, making it even more difficult to supply government forces.

They said they had also captured the provincial headquarters in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern province of Helmand, a hotbed of militant activity.

Government officials there were not immediately available for comment. Fighting had also flared in the northwestern province of Badghis, its governor said.

President Ashraf Ghani flew to northern Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally old warlords he had previously tried to sideline, now needing their support as the enemy closes in.

The Taliban risk isolating the country if they do seize overall control.

“Attempts to monopolize power through violence, fear, and war will only lead to international isolation,” the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy, Ross Wilson, said on Twitter.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin would not provide financial support to Afghanistan if the Taliban take over and introduce sharia religious law.

The violence has also raised concerns in Europe of more refugees arriving there.

The Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan before they were ousted in 2001 for harboring al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

A generation of Afghans who have come of age since 2001 worry that the progress made in areas such as women’s rights and media freedom over the past two decades will be lost.

The United Nations said more than 1,000 civilians had been killed in the past month, and the International Committee of the Red Cross said some 4,042 wounded people had been treated at 15 health facilities since Aug. 1.

On Wednesday, the Taliban denied targeting or killing civilians and called for an investigation.

(Reporting by Kabul bureauWriting by Robert Birsel and Nick MacfieEditing by Nick Macfie, John Stonestreet and Frances Kerry)

U.N. Security Council asked to authorize more troops for Mali mission

By Paul Lorgerie

BAMAKO (Reuters) – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has asked the Security Council to authorize additional troops for the peacekeeping mission in Mali in response to rising violence by Islamist militants, according to a report seen by Reuters.

The proposed increase of 2,069 soldiers and police officers would take the authorized size of the mission, known as MINUSMA, to 17,278 uniformed personnel, the largest since it was established in 2013.

Guterres made the proposal in a report to Security Council members that is dated July 15 but has not yet been released publicly.

He said additional personnel were needed to respond to Islamist militants, many tied to al Qaeda and Islamic State, who have expanded their operations from their strongholds in the desert north into Mali’s center and neighboring countries.

“Scaling up MINUSMA’s uniformed personnel capacity would enhance the ability of the Mission to protect civilians in central Mali and create further space for the peace process in the North,” Guterres said.

The additional 2,069 personnel would include 1,730 soldiers and 339 police officers. Three quick reaction force companies, comprising 750 personnel in total, and two helicopter units with 260 members would be created.

In central Mali, the epicenter of the conflict in recent years, additional troops would be used to create forward operating bases “to expand the reach and mobility of the Mission”, the report said.

Guterres said the plan could only work in concert with stepped-up efforts by Malian authorities to bolster security and enhance governance.

But the proposal comes as Malian forces increasingly pull back from the hotspots in the countryside where they have suffered steep losses, effectively ceding control to the militants.

Former colonial power France has also announced plans to begin drawing down its 5,100-strong taskforce that targets the militants across West Africa’s Sahel region.

Meanwhile, Mali is mired in political uncertainty after military officers in May conducted their second coup in nine months.

(Additional reporting and writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Sandra Maler)

In symbolic end to war, U.S. general steps down from Afghanistan command

By Phil Stewart

KABUL (Reuters) -The U.S. general leading the war in Afghanistan, Austin Miller, relinquished command on Monday at a ceremony in Kabul, in what was a symbolic end to America’s longest conflict even as Taliban insurgents gain momentum across the country.

Miller, America’s last four-star commander to serve on the ground in Afghanistan, stepped down ahead of a formal end to the U.S. military mission there on Aug. 31, a date set by President Joe Biden as he looks to extricate the country from the two-decade-old war.

Addressing a small gathering outside his military headquarters in Kabul, Miller vowed to remember the lives lost in the fighting and called on the Taliban to halt a wave of violent attacks that have given them control of more territory than at any time since the conflict began.

“What I tell the Taliban is they’re responsible too. The violence that’s going on is against the will of the Afghan people, and it needs to stop,” Miller said. While the ceremony may offer some sense of closure for U.S. veterans who served in Afghanistan, it’s unclear whether it will succeed in reassuring the Western-backed Afghan government as the Taliban press ground offensives.

U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, whose Florida-based Central Command oversees U.S. forces in hot-spots including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, flew into Kabul to underscore America’s future assistance to Afghan security forces.

“You can count on our support in the dangerous and difficult days ahead. We will be with you,” McKenzie said in his address.

Speaking separately to a small group of reporters, McKenzie cautioned that the Taliban, in his view, were seeking “a military solution” to a war that the United States has unsuccessfully tried to end with a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

He said provincial capitals were at risk but noted that the U.S.-backed Afghan security forces “are determined to fight very hard for those provincial capitals.”

McKenzie will be able to authorize U.S. air strikes against the Taliban through Aug. 31 in support of Ghani’s Western-backed government.

But after that, the Marine general said when it came to U.S. strikes in Afghanistan, his focus will shift squarely to counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda and Islamic State.

INTELLIGENCE NETWORK

Gathering enough intelligence on the ground to prevent another Sept. 11-style attack could become increasingly challenging, as America’s intelligence network weakens with the U.S. withdrawal and as Afghan troops lose territory.

U.S. Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat and former senior Pentagon official, said many lawmakers were still looking for answers from the Biden administration about how the U.S. will be able to detect a future al Qaeda plot against the United States.

“I don’t need them to tell the entire world what our day-after plan is. But I think it’s important that they let us know some of the details on a private basis,” Slotkin said.

U.S. officials do not believe the Taliban could be relied upon to prevent al Qaeda from again plotting attacks against the United States from Afghan soil.

The United Nations said in a report in January there were as many as 500 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and that the Taliban maintained a close relationship with the Islamist extremist group.

LONGEST-SERVING GENERAL

As he steps down, Miller, 60, has spent longer on the ground than any of the previous generals to command the war.

He had a close call in 2018 when a rogue Afghan bodyguard in Kandahar province opened fire and killed a powerful Afghan police chief standing near Miller. A U.S. brigadier general was wounded, as were other Americans, but Miller emerged unscathed.

After Miller leaves the post, the Pentagon has engineered a transition that will allow a series of generals to carry on with supporting Afghan security forces, mostly from overseas.

Beyond McKenzie’s over watch from Florida, a Qatar-based brigadier general, Curtis Buzzard, will focus on administering funding support for the Afghan security forces – including aircraft maintenance support.

In Kabul, Navy Rear Admiral Peter Vasely will lead a newly created U.S. Forces Afghanistan-Forward, focusing on protecting the U.S. embassy and the airport.

Vasely, as a two-star admiral, is higher ranked than usual for a U.S. embassy-based post. But a U.S. defense official added that Afghanistan was a “very unique situation.”

“There’s no comparable diplomatic security situation in the world with what we’re going to establish,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Still, what happens next in Afghanistan appears to be increasingly out of America’s control.

Biden acknowledged on Thursday that Afghanistan’s future was far from certain but said the Afghan people must decide their own fate.

“I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome,” he said.

About 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed in America’s longest war – and many thousands wounded.

(Reporting by Phil StewartEditing by Robert Birsel and Paul Simao)

Taliban say they control 85% of Afghanistan, humanitarian concerns mount

KABUL/ MOSCOW (Reuters) -Taliban officials said on Friday the Sunni Muslim insurgent group had taken control of 85% of territory in Afghanistan, and international concern mounted over problems getting medicines and supplies into the country.

Afghan government officials dismissed the assertion that the Taliban controlled most of the country as part of a propaganda campaign launched as foreign forces, including the United States, withdraw after almost 20 years of fighting.

But local Afghan officials said Taliban fighters, emboldened by the withdrawal, had captured an important district in Herat province, home to tens of thousands of minority Shi’ite Hazaras.

Torghundi, a northern town on the border with Turkmenistan, had also been captured by the Taliban overnight, Afghan and Taliban officials said.

Hundreds of Afghan security personnel and refugees continued to flee across the border into neighboring Iran and Tajikistan, causing concern in Moscow and other foreign capitals that radical Islamists could infiltrate Central Asia.

Three visiting Taliban officials sought to address those concerns during a visit to Moscow.

“We will take all measures so that Islamic State will not operate on Afghan territory… and our territory will never be used against our neighbors,” one of the Taliban officials, Shahabuddin Delawar, told a news conference.

He said “you and the entire world community have probably recently learned that 85% of the territory of Afghanistan has come under the control” of the Taliban.

The same delegation said a day earlier that the group would not attack the Tajik-Afghan border, the fate of which is in focus in Russia and Central Asia.

Asked about how much territory the Taliban held, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined direct comment.

“Claiming territory or claiming ground doesn’t mean you can sustain that or keep it over time” he said in an interview with CNN. “And so I think it’s really time for the Afghan forces to get into the field – and they are in the field – and to defend their country, their people.”

“They’ve got the capacity, they’ve got the capability. Now it’s time to have that will,” he said.

HUMANITARIAN CONCERNS

As fighting continued, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said health workers were struggling to get medicines and supplies into Afghanistan, and that some staff had fled after facilities came under attack.

The WHO’s regional emergencies director, Rick Brennan, said at least 18.4 million people require humanitarian assistance, including 3.1 million children at risk of acute malnutrition.

“We are concerned about our lack of access to be able to provide essential medicines and supplies and we are concerned about attacks on health care,” Brennan, speaking via video link from Cairo, told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

Some aid will arrive by next week including 3.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and oxygen concentrators, he said. They included doses of Johnson & Johnson’s shot donated by the United States and AstraZeneca doses through the COVAX facility.

A U.S. donation of more than 1.4 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine arrived on Friday, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said.

In Afghanistan, a prominent anti-Taliban commander said he would support efforts by Afghan forces to claw back control of parts of western Afghanistan, including a border crossing with Iran.

Mohammad Ismail Khan, widely known as the Lion of Herat, urged civilians to join the fight. He said hundreds of armed civilians from Ghor, Badghis, Nimroz, Farah, Helmand and Kandahar provinces had come to his house and were ready to fill the security void created by foreign force withdrawal.

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday the Afghan people must decide their own future and that he would not consign another generation of Americans to the two-decade-old war.

Biden set a target date of Aug. 31 for the final withdrawal of U.S. forces, minus about 650 troops to provide security for the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

Biden said Washington had long ago achieved its original rationale for invading the country in 2001: to root out al-Qaeda militants and prevent another attack on the United States like the one launched on Sept. 11, 2001.

The mastermind of that attack, Osama bin Laden, was killed by a U.S. military team in neighboring Pakistan in 2011.

(Reporting by Kabul, Moscow, Geneva and Washignton bureau, Editing by Timothy Heritage)