Pentagon chief says removal of all contractors from Afghanistan under way

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday the process of removing all contractors from Afghanistan working with the United States was under way as part of President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of forces from the country.

The remarks are the clearest indication yet that Biden’s April order to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 extended to U.S.-funded contractors.

Asked whether the Pentagon had issued orders to withdraw not just American troops but also contractors, Austin said: “We’re going to responsibly retrograde all of our capabilities that we are responsible for and the contractors fall in that realm as well.”

Speaking with reporters, Austin said the contractors could, however, renegotiate their contracts in the future.

As of April, there were nearly 17,000 Pentagon contractors, including about 6,150 Americans, 4,300 Afghans and 6,400 from other countries.

The departure of thousands of contractors, especially those serving the Afghan security forces, has raised concerns among some U.S. officials about the ability of the Afghan government and military to sustain critical functions.

‘NOT A FOREGONE CONCLUSION’

Austin said the drawdown was going according to plan so far.

But Afghan security forces are locked in daily combat with the Taliban, which has waged war to overthrow the foreign-backed government since it was ousted from power in Kabul in 2001.

In just two days, the Taliban captured a second district in the northern province of Baghlan on Thursday.

The Afghan government says the Taliban have killed and wounded more than 50 troops in attacks in at least 26 provinces during the last 24 hours, while its forces killed dozens of Taliban over the same period.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said there had been sustained levels of violent attacks against Afghan security forces but none against U.S. and coalition forces since May 1.

Milley, in the same news conference, said it was too early to speculate on how Afghanistan would turn out after the withdrawal of U.S. forces given that Afghanistan had a significantly sized military and police force and the Afghan government was still cohesive.

“It is not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls or any of those dire predictions,” Milley said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in WashingtonEditing by Marguerita Choy and Matthew Lewis)

Harris to lead Biden task force promoting unions, labor organizing

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden will sign an executive order on Monday that will create a task force to promote labor organizing, the White House said, at a time when just over 6 percent of U.S. private-sector workers belong to unions.

The White House task force will be headed by Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will serve as vice chair of the group.

The task force will also include over 20 heads of agencies and cabinet officials, such as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the White House economic advisers Cecilia Rouse and Brian Deese, the White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen.

“The President and Vice President believe that the decline of union membership is contributing to serious societal and economic problems in our country,” the White House said in a fact sheet.

“Widespread and deep economic inequality, stagnant real wages, and the shrinking of America’s middle class are all associated with the declining percentage of workers represented by unions.”

The White House referred to the National Labor Relations Act, which was passed in 1935, to encourage worker organizing. “In the 86 years since the Act was passed, the federal government has never fully implemented this policy.”

Biden’s executive order specifically directs the task force to come up with a set of recommendations within 180 days to address two key issues: How existing policies can promote labor organizing in the federal government, and looking at new policies that are needed and the associated regulatory challenges.

The task force’s goals include facilitating worker organizing around the country, increasing union membership and addressing challenges to labor organizing in underserved communities.

Over 65 percent of Americans approve of unions, the most since 2003, according to a 2020 Gallup poll, despite the much lower membership rate.

Organized labor faced one of its biggest setbacks in recent history after an organizing drive at an Amazon.com facility failed earlier this month.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler)