Bombers aim for buses in new tactic to spread death and fear in Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) – Militants in Afghanistan are adopting a new tactic to spread fear in the capital, Kabul, especially among the the ethnic Hazara minority, planting bombs on crowded buses that have until now largely been spared such bloodshed.

Two blasts on buses in an area dominated by Shi’ite Muslim Hazras killed at least 12 people and wounded 10 on Tuesday, raising new fears in the community and alarming security officials who say such attacks are nearly impossible to stop.

Four people were killed and four wounded in the same neighborhood on Thursday when a bomb blew up a passenger van, police said.

“Our schools, worship sites, education centers, wedding halls have been attacked by Daesh in the past and now it’s the buses,” said shopkeeper Ahmad Ehsan, referring to the Islamic State militant group, which claimed responsibility for the Tuesday attacks.

“Nowhere is safe for us. We’re the soft, easy targets everywhere,” he said.

Hazaras have long been targeted by Sunni militant groups such as the Taliban and Islamic State.

On May 8, bombs outside a school in the same part of Kabul killed 80 people, most of them schoolgirls.

University student Sarah Nawandesh, who lives in the western part of Kabul where the bombings took place, said she now took the bus to university in “great fear”.

Police issued a statement on Wednesday urging residents to be vigilant while using public transport.

A senior security official said the bombing of public transport was a worrying new threat in the city of seven million people.

“Our enemies change tactics … this is a new threat, a new trend,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Nearly 1,800 civilians were killed or wounded in the first three months of 2021 during fighting between government forces and Taliban insurgents despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations said last month.

The United States has announced a plan to withdraw all of its troops by Sept. 11, exactly two decades since the al Qaeda attacks on the United States that led to a new round of war in Afghanistan.

(Reporting by Kabul bureau; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Days after bombing, Afghans despair at three-day limit to ceasefire

KABUL (Reuters) – An announcement by the Taliban that they would cease fire for three days for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr has been met by many Afghans with little but despair, just days after a bombing that killed at least 80 people, most of them schoolgirls.

The insurgents said late on Sunday they were offering the pause in fighting so Afghans could celebrate Eid in peace. The truce is meant to come into force on Thursday morning, at a critical moment with U.S. forces in the process of withdrawing after 20 years.

But many Afghans described the short holiday pause in fighting as a fruitless gesture. The Taliban observed a similar truce last year.

“If a ceasefire had been declared some days ago, perhaps these schoolgirls would have been alive and celebrating Eid with their families,” said Shah Wali, a Kabul shopkeeper, referring to Saturday’s bomb attack on a girls school mainly attended by Shi’ite Muslim members of the Hazara ethnic minority.

“It is a good and appropriate action, but not only on the three days of Eid… we want a permanent ceasefire,” he told Reuters.

The Taliban have condemned Saturday’s bombing, which U.S. officials suspect may have been the work of a rival militant group, such as Islamic State.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment about Afghans calling for a longer ceasefire in the wake of the bombing.

University student Shugufa Azaryoon, 22, said she did not welcome the ceasefire at all. Previous ceasefires had been used by Taliban fighters only to regroup and launch attacks after Eid, she said.

PERMANENT CEASEFIRE HASHTAG

The Afghan government wants the Taliban to agree to a more comprehensive ceasefire to promote political talks. The Taliban say they want to lay down their arms, but cannot do so permanently until a political settlement is reached.

Meanwhile, the hashtag “AfghansWantPermanentCeasefire” trended in Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter in the lead up to Eid, which marks the end of the Ramadan holy fasting month.

Facebook user Sadaf Jamali wrote: “I kill people in Ramadan, I don’t kill people in Eid, but after Eid I will (kill) them again…This is Taliban’s logic #AfghansWantPermanentCeasefire”.

A day before the ceasefire was to begin, Taliban insurgents launched an offensive and took control of a key district located an hour’s drive from the capital Kabul.

Washington, which is pulling its remaining troops out of Afghanistan over the next four months, had long said its withdrawal was conditional on the Taliban reducing violence, but now says it is leaving no matter what.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad welcomed the announcement of the three-day ceasefire, but said on Twitter that “Afghans deserve much more: a political settlement & a permanent ceasefire.”

Government employee Saifullah Khan said the three-day ceasefire did not leave enough time to travel to spend the holiday with his family, who live in a village two-days’ journey away.

“I wish they had announced a longer ceasefire,” he said. “Like hundreds of thousands of other Afghans I have to wait for a real and permanent ceasefire…only a miracle can make this possible.”

(Reporting by Kabul newsroom; Editing by Peter Graff)

Exclusive-As U.S. prepared exit, Taliban protected foreign bases, but killed Afghans

By Rupam Jain, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL (Reuters) – Taliban fighters have protected western military bases in Afghanistan from attacks by rival, or rogue Islamist groups for over a year under a secret annex to a pact for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by May 1, three Western officials with knowledge of the agreement told Reuters.

The U.S. State Department gave no immediate response to Reuters over the existence of any such document. Nor did it have any immediate comment on what the three officials described as a “Taliban ring of protection”.

Since United States struck a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, paving the way for America to end its longest war, there have been no U.S. combat deaths, and there have been only isolated attacks on U.S. bases.

Instead, the Taliban intensified attacks on Afghan government forces, and civilian casualties have spiraled.

Peace talks between the militants and the government, begun in September, have made no significant progress, and a U.N. report said civilian casualties were up 45% in the last three months of 2020 from a year earlier.

Testing Taliban patience, U.S. President Joe Biden served notice that the U.S. withdrawal would overshoot the May 1 deadline agreed by the previous U.S. administration, while giving an assurance that it would be completed by Sept. 11 – the 20th anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

When the deadline passes on Saturday, around 2,000 U.S. troops will still be in Afghanistan, according to a western security official in Kabul. The commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General Scott Miller earlier this week said an orderly withdrawal and the handing over of military bases and equipment to Afghan forces had begun.

Afghan soldiers left manning those bases could need plenty of firepower to resist any offensive by Taliban fighters who have been occupying strategic positions in surrounding areas.

In the past two weeks alone, the militants have killed more than 100 Afghan security personnel in a surge of attacks that followed Biden’s announcement that a U.S. withdrawal would take a few months more.

Two of the Western officials said Washington had accepted the Taliban’s offer to shield the western military bases from attacks by the likes of Islamic State.

The officials said the Taliban had wanted to demonstrate good faith by meeting a commitment to ensure Afghan soil was not used for attacks on U.S. interests – a key U.S. demand in the February agreement.

“They provided a layer of cover, almost like a buffer and ordered their fighters to not injure or kill any foreign soldier in this period,” said one western diplomat involved in the process.

The western officials said it was also important for the Taliban to show its ability to control the more recalcitrant factions in its movement, like the Haqqani network, which has often followed its own agenda, though its leader Sirajuddin Haqqani is the second-highest ranking commander in the Taliban.

A Kabul-based western security official said that militants had kept their side of the bargain.

“The Taliban swiftly responded to even minor attacks conducted by the Haqqani network and Islamic State fighters around the bases,” he said.

DEADLINE SATURDAY

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declined to comment on the so-called “ring of protection” agreement.

More broadly, he said no security guarantee has been given to the United States beyond Saturday’s deadline, but talks were underway among the group’s leadership and with the U.S. side.

“So far our commitment of not attacking the foreign forces is until May 1, after that whether we will attack or not is an issue under discussion,” said Mujahid.

Mullah Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy political chief, held talks with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to discuss the peace process on Thursday, another militant spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said in a Twitter post.

Clearly having the militants holding positions around Western bases presents a danger if no understanding is reached.

“They’ve definitely moved ever closer to a lot of Afghan and foreign bases,” said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think-tank.

“Encircling U.S., NATO, and Afghan bases seems like the Taliban strategy to poise themselves to take over when foreign forces leave.”

Afghan defense ministry spokesman Fawad Aman said the Taliban had ramped up violence against the Afghan people and their government, while holding fire against foreign forces.

More than 3,000 Afghan civilians were killed and almost 5,800 were wounded in 2020, according to a United Nation report.

“By not attacking the foreign forces but continuously targeting the Afghan security forces and civilians, the Taliban have shown that they are fighting against the people of Afghanistan,” Aman said.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, sympathized with that view, saying: “they have every right to lambaste a U.S.-Taliban agreement for failing to bring a semblance of relief to Afghans themselves.”

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad and Rupam Jain in Panjim, India; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘SEE FIGHT TO THE FINISH’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Death coming for me’: Gunmen cut young lives short in Kabul campus slaughter

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Orooj Hakimi and Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) – As Mohammad clambered out of a second-floor window at Kabul University on Monday to escape gunmen rampaging across the campus, he was sure death was close.

Minutes earlier, the 20-year-old had been sitting in his classroom in the Afghan university’s National Legal Training Center building, waiting for a lecturer at the start of what should have been a regular Monday morning.

Then three gunmen began shooting, killing at least 35 in an attack on unarmed young people that has shocked a country where insurgent violence is common despite peace talks between Taliban militants and the U.S.-backed government.

“Sounds of screaming, gunshots and hand grenade explosions reverberated inside the building,” Mohammad, who asked to go by his first name, told Reuters by ‘phone. “Many lives and dreams were shattered.”

The brazen attack has been claimed by Islamic State, a jihadist group that is an enemy of the Taliban and not part of Afghanistan’s halting peace process.

The Taliban, which wants a share of power as U.S. troops withdraw after nearly 20 years of shoring up the government in Kabul, has denied involvement in Monday’s massacre.

That has done little to reassure a nation where trust in the Taliban – responsible for killing thousands of civilians and government troops in recent years – is at a low ebb.

The fact that young people were specifically targeted just over a week after a suicide bomber killed 24 people – most aged between 15 and 26 – at a Kabul education centre, has only heightened the sense of anger and loss.

About a hundred students gathered near Kabul University campus on Tuesday to protest against the peace talks, which are being held in Doha.

“We want to raise our voices to the world and say we shall never give up,” said M. Younus, one of the demonstrators. “No matter how many they kill, we will continue our studies.”

MORNING CALM SHATTERED

The gunmen entered the building Mohammad was in – located beside an entrance to the campus – at around 11 a.m. (0630 GMT).

Officials say they are still piecing together the sequence of events. They have yet to establish whether the attackers entered the campus by force or if arms had been stored on site to be accessed after they entered the grounds.

“With the start of gunshots I looked outside and saw well-equipped men in police force uniforms running toward our building,” said Mohammad, a third year student in the law and political science faculty.

It was not clear whether he was referring to the insurgents or security forces who engaged them in battle. In some previous militant attacks in Afghanistan, perpetrators have disguised themselves as members of the police or army.

Along with his classmates, Mohammad rushed to wedge chairs and tables in front of their classroom door to stop the attackers from entering. As the explosions and gunshots neared, the students desperately looked for a way to escape.

“Our class had windows facing the rear of the building where there are many trees; using the trees we managed to climb down,” said Mohammad, who heard screams behind him from the building he had fled.

“I saw death coming for me, I don’t know whose prayers saved me.”

FROZEN IN FEAR

A short distance away on the sprawling campus, Somaya Mohammadi, 20, had been taking notes in her Islamic Culture lecture when she looked out of the window and saw a large number of students running frantically toward the exit gate.

“One of the students shouted that suicide attackers had entered the university,” Mohammadi, a student at the Faculty of Engineering, recalled.

There was shock and panic as she and her classmates grabbed their belongings and rushed out of the building.

Mohammadi said she froze in fear.

“I was shivering and could not walk at all … I got out of the building with the help of my friends.”

Outside, there was chaos.

“Everyone was running … the university was very crowded,” said 21-year-old Niloufar Alamyar.

A third year student, Alamyar had been training to be a journalist – a difficult and dangerous job in Afghanistan. But she was not prepared for what she saw.

“I did not think I would ever see such a scene in life,” she said, adding that students were directed to flee via the south gate of the campus, away from where the attackers had entered and were exchanging heavy fire with security forces.

The battle continued for some six hours, according to officials.

LUCKY TO BE ALIVE

Mohammad, Mohammadi and Alamyar made it out alive, unharmed. Others were less fortunate.

Mustafa Jan witnessed classmates being killed.

“I saw an attacker pass by the classroom. When he returned, he fired into the classroom. He killed and wounded a number of my classmates and then went to other classes.”

Outside, as Mohammadi fled, she desperately tried to call her best friend Marzia, who did not respond. She was to meet Marzia after class to return a book she had borrowed.

“Bring it tomorrow after the class,” Marzia, who was in the final year of a public policy course, had texted the night before. The two had been friends for nine years and graduated school together.

When Marzia did not answer, Mohammadi called one of her classmates, who informed her that Marzia was dead.

“I just could not believe it,” said Mohammadi, who stumbled across a picture of Marzia on social media laying lifeless on the floor, covered in blood.

“Marzia was very talented student, and she was top of her class,” said Mohammadi, weeping. “I’ll miss her loud laugh and jokes. I still can’t believe she is no more.”

(Additional reporting by Hameed Farzad; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Euan Rocha and Mike Collett-White)

Taliban prisoner issue almost resolved, peace talks expected ‘soon’: sources, officials

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Peace talks between warring Afghan factions are expected to start as soon as they iron out their main differences over the release of the “most dangerous” Taliban prisoners, officials and sources from both sides said.

Despite a major push by the United States, there has been a delay in the intra-Afghan talks as the Afghan government and some key NATO members are uncomfortable about the release of Taliban commanders accused of conducting large-scale attacks that killed civilians in recent years.

An Afghan government source said the prisoner issue had largely been resolved and they would release an alternative set of prisoners with talks expected to start mid-July.

“The Taliban agreed because it was delaying the talks,” he said, adding the government had also demanded a guarantee from the Taliban that it was no longer holding any Afghan security force prisoners.

A source close to the Taliban said the group was willing to move forward so long as most of the 5,000 prisoners demanded were released.

“I don’t think releasing or not releasing 200 or 300 prisoners will matter in the process, the Taliban can agree for (those) prisoners to remain in Afghan government custody,” the source said.

Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen could not be reached for comment but has reiterated in recent weeks that the group expects the full terms of their February agreement with the United States, including the release of 5,000 prisoners, to be implemented before talks can start.

Pakistan, seen as a key regional player in getting the Taliban to peace talks, said it expected negotiations to begin very soon and was optimistic that sticking points, including the prisoner issue, would be resolved.

“I think we are almost there,” Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told Reuters in an interview on Thursday. “The impediments have been addressed one by one and now there is a general agreement that this is the way forward…I’m expecting things to be begin quickly.”

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Hamid Shalizi and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Islamic State attacks Kabul gathering, killing at least 32

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi

KABUL (Reuters) – Islamic State gunmen opened fire at a ceremony in Kabul on Friday, killing at least 32 people in the first major attack in the city since the United States reached an agreement with the Afghan Taliban on a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.

A top Afghan political leader, Abdullah Abdullah, was present along with other key political figures and escaped unharmed.

Some 81 people were wounded, a government spokesman said, adding that the death toll could rise.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, the group’s Amaq news agency reported on its telegram channel.

The Taliban, who were ousted from power by U.S.-led troops in 2001, denied involvement almost immediately.

The gathering marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Abdul Ali Mazari, an ethnic Hazara leader who was killed in 1995 after being taken prisoner by the Taliban.

Several people were killed in a similar attack on the same commemoration last year, which Islamic State had also said was carried out by its militants.

“The attack started with a boom, apparently a rocket landed in the area, Abdullah and some other politicians … escaped the attack unhurt,” Abdullah’s spokesman, Fraidoon Kwazoon, who was also present, told Reuters by telephone.

Broadcaster Tolo News showed live footage of people running for cover as gunfire was heard.

Afghan defense forces continued to fight gunmen throughout the day, finally securing the area by killing about three gunmen in the late afternoon, according to ministry of interior spokesman Nasrat Rahimi.

President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that the attack was “a crime against humanity and against the national unity of Afghanistan”.

Abdullah was runner-up in the last three Afghan presidential elections, each of which he disputed. He has served as chief executive of a coalition government since 2014 and is also a former foreign minister.

Ghani said he had telephoned Abdullah, his longtime political rival. Abdullah is contesting an Electoral Commission announcement last month declaring Ghani the winner of September’s presidential election.

Dozens of relatives gathered at the morgue of a hospital not far from the blast, with many breaking down in tears as they waited to identify their loved ones.

Ambulances and stretchers bustled back and forth at the hospital to deliver the wounded for treatment.

“I was at the ceremony when gunshots started. I rushed toward the door to get out of the area but suddenly my foot was hit by a bullet,” Mukhtar Jan told Reuters from a stretcher at the hospital.

Ali Attayee, at the hospital to support his wounded brother, said: “Those who committed this crime want to destroy our people… We’re sorry for those committing such crimes.”

Representatives of the United States, European Union and NATO condemned the attack.

“We strongly condemn today’s vicious attack…We stand with Afghanistan for peace,” the U.S. charge d’affaires in Kabul, Ross Wilson, wrote on Twitter.

The attack was one of the largest on civilians in Afghanistan in a year.

“Horrific attack in Kabul today…heartbreaking and unacceptable. We are tired of war and violence,” said Shahrzad Akbar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Hazaras are mostly Shi’ite Muslims. Minority Shi’ites have been repeatedly attacked by Sunni militants in Afghanistan.

The United States has sought to spearhead efforts toward a lasting peace arrangement. Violence decreased during a seven-day hold-down accord with the Taliban before last Saturday’s deal, though the Taliban have since resumed attacks on Afghan forces.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Orooj Hakimi, Rupam Jain, Samargul Zwak, Sayed Hassib and Hesham Abdul Khalek; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield and Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Robert Birsel, Kevin Liffey, Peter Graff and Nick Macfie)

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)

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)

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)