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)

From Iraq to Yemen, drones raise U.S. alarm over Iranian plans

FILE PHOTO: A projectile and a drone launched at Saudi Arabia by Yemen'S Houthis are displayed at a Saudi military base, Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Kalin

By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Phil Stewart

GENEVA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The increased use of drones by Iran and its allies for surveillance and attacks across the Middle East is raising alarms in Washington.

The United States believes that Iran-linked militia in Iraq have recently increased their surveillance of American troops and bases in the country by using off-the-shelf, commercially available drones, U.S. officials say.

The disclosure comes at a time of heightened tensions with Iran and underscores the many ways in which Tehran and the forces it backs are increasingly relying on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in places like Yemen, Syria, the Strait of Hormuz and Iraq.

Beyond surveillance, Iranian drones can drop munitions and even carry out “a kamikaze flight where they load it up with explosives and fly it into something”, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis have significantly increased their UAV attacks in recent months, bombing airports and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, a main rival of Iran.

Last month, Iran came close to war with the United States after the Islamic Republic’s unprecedented shoot-down of a U.S. drone with a surface-to-air missile, a move that nearly triggered retaliatory strikes by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump withdrew from a major 2015 nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions to cut off Iran’s oil exports and pressure the Islamic Republic to negotiate over its ballistic missile program and regional policy.

The increased use of drones by Iran or its regional allies is a strategy aimed at pushing back and defending against pressure from the United States and foes like Saudi Arabia and Israel, current and former security officials and analysts say.

Iran now flies two or three drones over Gulf waters every day, the first U.S. official estimated, making it a core part of Tehran’s effort to monitor the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil consumption flow.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of carrying out attacks against six oil tankers near the Strait in the past two months, a claim Tehran has denied.

The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to quantify the extent to which surveillance near U.S. forces has increased in Iraq or to specify which militia were carrying it out.

“We have seen an uptick in drone activity in Iraq near our bases and facilities,” the first official said. “Certainly the drones that we have seen are more of the commercial off-the-shelf variant. So they’re obviously a deniable type UAV-activity in Iraq.”

A second official said the recent increase in surveillance was worrying but acknowledged Iran-linked militia in Iraq had a history of keeping tabs on Americans.

Reuters has previously reported that the United States has indirectly sent warnings to Iran, saying any attack against U.S. forces by proxy organizations in Iraq will be viewed by Washington as an attack by Iran itself.

In recent weeks, mortars and rockets have been fired at bases in Iraq where U.S. forces are located but no American troops have been injured. U.S. officials did not link those attacks to the increased surveillance.

Attempts to reach the Iranian ministry of foreign affairs and the Revolutionary Guards, who are most closely linked to militant groups in Iraq, for comment were unsuccessful.

Iraqi militia groups linked to Iran began using drones in 2014 and 2015 in battles to retake territory from Islamic State, according to militia members and Iraqi security officials.

These groups received training on the use of drones from members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah, two Iraqi security officials with knowledge of militia activities said.

“Key militia groups have the ability to launch aerial attacks using drones. Will they target American interests? That hasn’t happened yet,” said one Iraqi security official. “They used Katyusha [rockets] and mortars in very restricted attacks against American interests in Iraq to send a message rather than trying to inflict damage. Using explosive-laden drones is very possible once we have a worsening situation between Tehran and Washington.”

HOW SOPHISTICATED ARE IRAN’S DRONES?

In March, Iran boasted about a complex military exercise involving 50 drones. In a slickly edited video aired on state TV, waves of drones streak across a clear blue sky, bombing buildings on an island in the Gulf.

The show of force was intended to highlight Iran’s locally developed UAV program, which it has been building up for several years.

Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, however, cautioned that some of Iran’s claims were “best viewed through the prism of domestic messaging”. “That Iran has a growing capability in UAVs isn’t debatable. What is an open question is the actual levels of technology it often employs,” Barrie said, adding that Israel had the most advanced program in the region.

American technology may have been used to enhance the Iranian drone program: an advanced U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel reconnaissance drone went down in eastern Iran in 2011, and Revolutionary Guards commanders say they were able to reverse engineer it, a claim which some security officials and analysts dispute.

“They’ve really come up with some aircraft which are looking increasingly sophisticated in terms of their ability to carry guided weapons and carry out long-range surveillance missions,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor for Jane’s Defense Weekly.

U.S. forces have shot down Iranian-made drones in 2017 in Syria, after deeming them a threat to both U.S.-backed forces and their advisers.

EXPORTING DRONE TECHNOLOGY

Iran has passed on its drones and technical expertise to regional allies, current and former security officials and analysts say.

The Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah advise the Houthis on the use of drones and operate video uplinks from Tehran and Beirut to beam in technical expertise when needed, an official from the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said.

Iran has denied any role in the conflict in Yemen.

U.N. experts say the Houthis now have drones that can drop bigger bombs further away and more accurately than before. In May, drones hit two oil pumping stations hundreds of kilometers inside Saudi territory.

“Either the drones that attacked the pipelines were launched from inside Saudi territory or the Houthis just significantly upped their capability with satellite technology and were provided with the capability to extend the distance,” said Brett Velicovich, a drone expert and U.S. Army veteran, about the May attack.

A commander of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia closely linked to Iran, using the nickname Abu Abdullah, told Reuters in 2014 that Iran had provided training for operating drones, which were mostly used to target Islamic State positions.

He said at the time that they had also used the drones to carry out surveillance on American military positions in Iraq and in the conflict in Syria, where Kataib Hezbollah fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad. 

Iraqi militia groups have now acquired enough expertise to modify drones for attacks, two Iraqi security officials with knowledge of the militia activities said.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Tuqa Khalid in Dubai, Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; editing by Giles Elgood)

Trump will send 1,500 troops to Middle East

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he will send about 1,500 American troops to the Middle East, mostly as a protective measure, amid heightened tensions with Iran.

He said the deployment involved a relatively small number of troops.

The forces would help strengthen American defenses in the region, two sources told Reuters earlier on condition of anonymity. They said the forces included engineers.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Phil Stewart; Writing by Doina Chiacu; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

France’s Macron welcomes U.S. reversal on keeping troops in Syria

French President Emmanuel Macron waits for the arrival of a guest at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, February 25, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmmanuel Macron on Monday welcomed the United States’ decision to leave American troops in Syria, a reversal by U.S. President Donald Trump that came after an outcry from coalition allies such as France.

“On the U.S. decision, I can only but welcome this choice,” Macron told a news conference with his Iraqi counterpart Barham Salih. “The U.S. decision is a good thing. We will continue to operate in the region within the coalition.”

In December, Trump ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 troops in Syria after he said they had defeated Islamic State militants, an abrupt decision that sparked consternation among allies and was a factor in his defense secretary’s resignation.

Macron had personally sought to convince Trump to maintain troops in Syria, French diplomats said at the time, warning him about the risks of pulling out too early.

The United States will leave about 400 U.S. troops split between two different regions of Syria, a senior administration official said last Friday.

(Reporting by Michel Rose; Marine Pennetier and Jean-Baptiste Vey, Editing by Sarah White)

‘Get out of Syria,’ Iran tells U.S.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks during his visit to the shrine of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, south of Tehran, Iran, January 30, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – Senior Iranian figures said on Wednesday that Syria was a top foreign policy priority and American troops should withdraw, as planned by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Whether they want to or not, the Americans must leave Syria,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was reported as saying.

There are fears in the West that Trump’s plan to extricate about 2,000 soldiers from Syria will cede influence to Tehran, which has backed President Bashar al-Assad in the nearly eight-year war, and also allow Islamic State militants to regroup.

“Now 90 percent of Syrian soil is under the control of the government and the rest will soon be freed by the Syrian army,” Velayati added during a meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Tehran, according to the Tasnim news agency.

President Hassan Rouhani told Moualem that peace in Syria was a priority. “One of the important regional and foreign policy goals of the Islamic Republic is the stability and complete security of Syria,” Tasnim quoted him as saying.

“And establishing normal conditions in Syria and the return of the people of this country to their normal lives.”

Moualem was in Tehran for negotiations before the meeting of leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort town Sochi on Feb. 14 over Syria.

Separately, Rear-Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi, a deputy commander of the regular armed forces, said on Wednesday that Iran plans to extend the range of its land-to-sea missiles beyond 300 kilometers (186 miles), according to the Fars news agency.

Iran has expanded its missile program, particularly its ballistic missiles, in defiance of opposition from the United States and expressions of concern by European countries.

Tehran says the program is purely defensive.

The European Union said on Monday it was gravely concerned by Iran’s ballistic missile launches and tests and urged it to stop activity that deepens mistrust and destabilizes the region.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

In a first, Trump makes surprise visit to U.S. troops in Iraq

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet military personnel at the dining facility during an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Steve Holland

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (Reuters) – President Donald Trump made a surprise Christmas visit to U.S. troops in Iraq on Wednesday, his first trip to a conflict zone nearly two years into his presidency and days after announcing a pullout of American troops from Syria.

Air Force One touched down at the Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad after an overnight flight from Washington with first lady Melania Trump, a small group of aides and Secret Service agents, and a pool of reporters. He was expected to stay for around three hours.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Trump has drawn fire from some in the U.S. military for not having visited U.S. troops in conflict zones since taking office in January 2017, particularly after he canceled a trip to a World War One cemetery in France last month due to rain.

While there has been no full-scale violence in Iraq since Islamic State suffered a series of defeats last year, U.S. troops train and advise Iraqi forces still waging a campaign against the militant group.

On his way home from Iraq, he will also stop to visit troops at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Trump was looking for some positive headlines after days of turmoil over his decisions to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, pull out half of the 14,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan, and push out Defense Secretary James Mattis two months earlier than planned for criticizing his policies.

Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have heaped scorn on Trump for his sudden order last week to withdraw from Syria.

On his stop in Iraq, he defended his decision to pull out the 2,000 troops from Syria, which he has said was made possible by the defeat of Islamic State militants.

His critics have said that fight is far from over and the withdrawal leaves allies in the lurch.

One of those critics was Mattis, who said in a candid resignation letter last week that his views did not align with the president’s, particularly in regard to the treatment of U.S. allies. Mattis had planned to leave at the end of February but Trump forced him to go on Jan. 1 after his resignation letter.

Trump has also faced negative headlines for wanting to pull troops from Afghanistan where they have been since 2001. Trump has questioned how long troops there should have to remain in what has become America’s longest war.

Trump’s unannounced visit to Iraq followed in the footsteps of two of his predecessors, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama, who both made surprise trips to see troops.

The U.S. military says it has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, focused on training and advising Iraqi troops to ensure that Islamic State does not re-emerge.

NATO defense ministers agreed in February to a bigger “train-and-advise” mission in Iraq after a U.S. call for the alliance to help stabilize the country after three years of war against Islamic State.

Trump has had an uneven relationship with America’s military. He did not have to serve during the Vietnam War after being diagnosed with bone spurs in his heels.

As president-elect, Trump was drawn to the brawn of the armed forces and stacked his first Cabinet with generals, many of whom have since left his administration.

Trump has also wanted to end protracted U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts, and to force allies to pay more for the costs that he says fall disproportionately on American taxpayers.

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)

As talks with North near, South Korea sees familiar hurdles ahead

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – With the specter of two past summits that failed to blunt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, South Korean officials planning talks next month now face the thorny task of overcoming familiar sticking points with the threat of war looming over any failure.

A South Korean delegation returned home on Tuesday from a first-ever meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to announce the agreement on a North-South summit next month, the first since 2007.

Seoul officials see the talks as the starting point of President Moon Jae-in’s initiative to denuclearize and build lasting peace on the peninsula, beginning with a freeze in the North’s nuclear program and ending in its complete abolishment.

“While pursuing a fundamental resolution of the standoff, we need to take some initial denuclearization steps, putting a halt to further testing and returning to dialogue,” a senior South Korean government official said on condition of anonymity.

“One could argue we would be deceived by the North as we have been for the last 20 years, but that’s the past – we have different people and different programs now,” the official said.

Moon said on Wednesday he had suggested to the North a rough roadmap progressing from a nuclear freeze to denuclearization, an opposition party chair told reporters after meeting with him.

But Moon said there won’t be “many agreements” to come out of the summit, according to a ruling party lawmaker who took part in the meeting.

Moon also called a 2005 deal of six-nation nuclear talks, under which Pyogyang agreed to give up its nuclear program in return for economic and energy aid and an end to its diplomatic isolation, a “failed model”, the first politician said.

FAMILIAR PATTERN

Former officials in Washington and Tokyo reacted with scepticism to the North’s offer of talks on denuclearization, seeing a familiar pattern of threats followed by talks that fail to win significant concessions.

Chief among the disagreements that have scuttled past efforts to defuse the standoff is North Korea’s requests for security guarantees in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons.

During talks with Moon’s envoys this week, the North expressed its willingness to denuclearize if military threats against it are eliminated, and the security of its regime is guaranteed, without presenting precise conditions.

“(North Korea) has never said what they mean by the guarantee of regime security,” one former senior South Korean official told Reuters.

“That means it’s up to them to decide whether the security is guaranteed or not, and that means they have full control.”

Pyongyang has protested South Korea-U.S. joint military drills as a rehearsal of war.

It has also called the roughly 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea a potential invasion force that can only be countered by a robust nuclear deterrent.

The North’s official KCNA news agency said on Wednesday the United States is “getting frantic” with the deployment of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula and their drills to get “familiar with its terrain and arms buildup there”.

Moon’s special advisor Moon Chung-in has raised the possibility for a possible pullout of U.S. forces, saying the president has the right to “let them out”.

Moon declined to comment on the summit, saying: “We will see.”

SECURITY GUARANTEE?

Any discussion of a U.S. troop withdrawal will be fraught, however, as both Seoul and Washington see them as a bulwark against North Korean provocations.

“For the North, a peace treaty and denuclearization means the removal of U.S. forces from not only the peninsula but also Japan and other bases in the Pacific theater,” said Kim Young-mok, a former South Korean diplomat who was involved in the making of a 1994 freeze-for-aid framework deal between Pyongyang and Washington.

“We responded by pledging non-aggression, but I guess it wasn’t enough.”

South Korean officials expect the issue to arise again, but are hoping Pyongyang won’t make impossible demands.

Another senior official acknowledged the difficulty in making progress in any peace talks without addressing the issue of eliminating the military threat to North Korea and guaranteeing the security of its regime.

“The North bring up disarmament talks and the withdrawal of U.S. forces”, the official said.

“If they do, things could get ugly quickly despite the summit, and the South Korea-U.S. alliance would face serious problems. But if the North were to move things forward, they would hopefully present something more realistic.”

Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator, said there needs to be clearer mutual understanding of the definition of denuclearization to facilitate future talks.

“It’s unlikely to see any tangible outcome on the nuclear issue before the summit,” he said.

“The United States and North Korea could sit together at the negotiating table in the meantime, which would provide better optics for the summit but probably not in terms of substance.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Josh Smith and Lincoln Feast)