Taliban attack on U.S. military base kills one, injures scores

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Suicide bombers struck the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing at least one person and injuring scores in a major attack that could scupper plans to revive peace talks between the United States and the Taliban.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which struck the Bagram air base north of Kabul.

“First, a heavy-duty Mazda vehicle struck the wall of the American base,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman. “Later several mujahideen equipped with light and heavy weapons were able to attack the American occupiers.”

The Taliban spokesman claimed the attack was still ongoing. The U.S.-led military coalition said the attack was “quickly contained and repelled”.

Abdul Shukoor Qudosi, the district governor of Bagram district, said 87 people were injured and one woman was killed, and that a clearance operation was still ongoing.

Five servicemen from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition, were among those injured, the country’s defense ministry said in a statement. The majority of casualties were Afghan.

“A 30-minute clash also happened between the attackers, who obviously wanted to enter the base, and foreign forces,” said Wahida Shahkar, a spokeswoman for the governor of Parwan province, which includes the Bagram district.

Two attackers detonated vehicles laden with explosives at the southern entrance to the base, while five more opened fire. It was not immediately clear how many of the five gunmen were killed, Shahkar said.

A medical base being built for locals was badly damaged, the coalition of foreign forces in Afghanistan said in a statement. The Taliban denied this.

U.S. President Donald Trump called off talks with the Taliban in September after an attack by the group killed an American soldier. The Taliban controls more territory than at any point since being ousted from power by Afghan foes with U.S. air support in 2001.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Writing by Alasdair Pal)

Afghan women brave rockets for rights

By Rina Chandran

KABUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the decade since launching a radio station in northern Afghanistan, Sediqa Sherzai has braved mines and rocket attacks as the Taliban seeks to silence her. But she has kept going.

Fawzia Koofi, the country’s first female deputy of the lower house of parliament, has survived assassination and kidnap attempts. Last year, she was banned from running for re-election – so she set up her own party.

Women have made huge strides in the conservative country since a ban during Taliban rule of 1996 to 2001 from school, work, politics and going outside without a male relative.

While growing numbers of women now complete education and work in previously male bastions, they continue to face harassment and hurdles, human rights activists say.

“Women are half the population, and should have the same rights and opportunities as men in this country,” said Sheila Qayumi, a programme coordinator at Equality for Peace and Democracy, which advocates for more women in politics.

“But women are still denied education, forced to marry young, kept from working, and treated no better than animals in the provinces,” she said.

Four decades of war, from occupation to internal fighting, have destroyed the economy, rendering it among the poorest in the world, with few jobs for a mostly young population.

Women occupy a particularly precarious place, as they face cultural barriers and hostility – not just from conservative family members, but also hardline Islamist groups – for pursuing financial independence and greater equality, Qayumi said.

OPEN MINDS

Nearly half of Afghan women would rather leave their war-torn country permanently if they could, citing poverty and limited opportunities, according to a Gallup poll in September.

On her radio broadcasts in Kunduz, Sherzai discusses issues from education to independence, domestic violence, inheritance rights and women’s right to vote – and stand for elections.

Most women are not aware of their rights, or are too scared to exercise them, said Sherzai, whose staff are mostly women.

“My goal is to educate women on their rights, and open their minds,” she said, speaking through a translator.

“I want to convince families to let their daughters study, to not marry them off young, and to respect their choices.”

Funding for the station is uncertain, and her family fears for her safety, but she has never thought about quitting, she said, even when she had to broadcast from home after the station was attacked and her equipment stolen.

“My dream is that Afghan women can be safe and free to do what they wish to do, without men stopping them,” Sherzai said in an interview on a visit to the capital.

She asked that her picture not be taken for safety reasons.

Across the country, efforts are underway to make public spaces safer and more open to women.

While Afghan women lag on many measures, a quota that reserves 68 of 250 seats in the lower house of parliament gives them a higher representation than the global average of 24%.

The quota makes it easier for women to enter politics, but they lack money and run greater security risks, said Koofi.

“Being a female politician is hard everywhere – we are scrutinised for our looks and our clothing, and we are not taken seriously,” she said in an interview in her office.

“In Afghanistan, men don’t accept women in the public sphere, and our views are not respected even in parliament.”

MAYORS, DE-MINERS

An international aid effort that arrived with foreign forces in 2001 prioritised girls’ education and women’s empowerment.

From a female de-mining team in Bamiyan province to street singers in Kabul, women have since won more independence.

But there are fears that a final withdrawal of U.S. troops, the winding down of international engagement and the re-emergence of the Taliban may reverse gains.

Turnout of women voters in September’s presidential election was low amid security threats and concerns over facial recognition technology.

In the provinces, the challenges are still greater.

Zarifa Ghafari, 26, mayor of Maidan Shahr in restive Wardak province, has said she expects to be assassinated. She was recently named on BBC’s list of 100 women of 2019.

Khadija Ahmadi is the only other female mayor in the country, in the city of Nili in the remote Daykundi province.

It has taken her a while to assert authority locally and to get federal authorities in Kabul to allocate resources.

“The men would not listen to me at first. Many have come around after they realised I am persistent and can get the work done,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Yet women are constantly thwarted.

Last year, Koofi was one of several members of parliament disqualified from contesting the elections for allegedly running private armed militias and possessing illegal weapons – charges she denied and challenged.

Koofi recently set up a political party, Movement of Change for Afghanistan, becoming the first Afghan woman to do so.

The 44-year-old also took part in so-called intra-Afghan talks aimed at bringing together Taliban representatives and other Afghans to find a way to end the war.

Women were also included for the first time in the Taliban delegation at the peace talks, as the militant group projects a more moderate image.

“Women have been the worst victims of the war, so we must have a say in the future of this country,” Koofi said.

“It’s not enough to just fill a quota; we have to bring women to the forefront of politics, to leadership positions, and be a part of national decision making,” she said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Taliban, U.S. envoy in Pakistan to review broken peace talks

By Asif Shahzad and Charlotte Greenfield

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Afghan Taliban officials were due in Islamabad on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of reviving talks for a political settlement in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s foreign ministry and the insurgent group said.

The high-profile Taliban delegation was arriving as the top U.S. diplomat involved in talks with the militants, Zalmay Khalilzad, also met government officials in Islamabad.

It was not clear if the Taliban would meet Khalilzad, though one senior Pakistani government official said that might happen.

The Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the group’s founders, was due to discuss “important issues” with Pakistani officials, spokesman Suhail Shaheen said.

The visit, the latest stop on a tour of regional powers including Russia, China and Iran by Taliban officials, comes after efforts by the militants and the United States to reach a deal allowing for the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces broke down last month.

“The visit would provide the opportunity to review the progress made under U.S.-Taliban peace talks so far, and discuss the possibilities of resuming the paused political settlement process in Afghanistan,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement. It said a meeting between the insurgents and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was being finalized.

Khalilzad, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, has been meeting Pakistani officials in Islamabad following discussions between Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the United States.

“These consultations follow discussions held between the United States and Pakistan during the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week,” said a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad via email.

The spokesman did not say if Khalilzad was still in Pakistan on Wednesday or if he planned to meet the Taliban officials. A top Pakistan government official told Reuters that the Taliban would likely meet Khan, and that, “we’re trying that we will convince the Taliban that the delegation also meets Zalmay Khalilzad”.

The official said the meetings would focus on attempting to convince the Taliban to include the Afghan government in the peace talks. The insurgents have previously refused to negotiate with what they call an illegitimate “puppet” regime in Kabul.

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said on Twitter that the Afghan government should be involved in any peace process.

“No progress will be imminent if a peace process is not owned and led by the Afghan government,” he said.

PROGRESS ON PEACE?

The United States has long considered Pakistani cooperation crucial to efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.

Trump last month halted the talks with the Taliban, aimed at striking a deal allowing U.S. and other foreign troops to withdraw in exchange for Taliban security guarantees, following the death of a U.S. solder and 11 others in a Taliban bomb attack in Kabul.

The Taliban delegation would inform Pakistan’s leadership of the factors that derailed the talks, said a Taliban official who declined to be identified. The Taliban also planned to follow up on Khan’s recent comment that he would try to convince Trump to resume the talks, the Taliban official said.

Baradar, the head of the delegation, was making his first known visit to Pakistan since he was released from a Pakistani jail a year ago.

Previously the coordinator of the group’s military operations in southern Afghanistan, he was arrested in 2010 by a team from Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies.

The U.S. and Taliban said last month, shortly before talks broke off, that they were close to reaching a deal, despite concerns among some U.S. security officials and within the Afghan government that a U.S. withdrawal could plunge the country into even more conflict and open the way for a resurgence of Islamist militant factions.

(Reporting by Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar, Pakistan and Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul and Charlotte Greenfield and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Writing by Rod Nickel in Kabul and Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

Taliban attacks kill 48, Afghan leader unhurt as bomber targets rally

KABUL (Reuters) – Taliban suicide bombers killed 48 people in two separate attacks in Afghanistan on Tuesday, the deadliest taking place near an election rally by President Ashraf Ghani, though he was unhurt.

The attacks happened 11 days before Afghanistan’s presidential election, which Taliban commanders have vowed to violently disrupt, and follow collapsed peace talks between the United States and the insurgent group.

Ghani, who is seeking a second five-year term in voting on Sept. 28, was due to address a rally in Charikar, the capital of central Parwan province, when a suicide bomber attacked the gathering.

The blast killed 26 people and wounded 42, said Nasrat Rahimi, spokesman for the interior ministry.

“When the people were entering the police camp, an old man riding a motorcycle arrived on the highway and detonated his explosives, causing casualties,” said Parwan province’s police chief Mohammad Mahfooz Walizada.

In the wake of the attack, bodies littered the dusty ground as smoke rose from the site of the explosion, a giant blue billboard bearing the face of Ghani’s running mate Amrullah Saleh looming over the scene.

With sirens wailing, rescuers rushed to lift the wounded into the backs of pick-up trucks for evacuation.

“Women and children are among them and most of the victims seem to be the civilians,” said Abdul Qasim Sangin, head of Parwan’s provincial hospital.

The president was nearby but unharmed, and later took to Twitter to condemn the bombing at the rally.

“Taliban tried to break this unity by targeting innocent civilians,” he wrote. “They shamelessly accepted responsibility at a time when they’re cloaking acts of terror as efforts for peace.”

“PEOPLE WERE GIVEN WARNING”

In a separate incident, a man on foot blew himself up in the center of the capital Kabul, sending ambulances and Afghan forces rushing to the blast site.

“I was waiting at the entrance of the recruitment center,” said Mustafa Ghiasi, lying on a hospital bed after being wounded in the explosion. “I was behind two men in line when suddenly the blast struck.”

Twenty-two people were killed, and 38 were wounded, said Rahimi, the interior ministry spokesman. Most of the dead were civilians, including women and children, though six were security force members.

The Taliban said it carried out the two attacks, and a statement issued by a spokesman for the insurgents said they were aimed at security forces.

“People were given warning,” the statement said.

“Do not take part in the puppet administration’s election rallies, because all such gatherings are our military target,” said the statement. “If, despite the warning, someone get hurt, they themselves are to blame.”

Addressing the Kabul attack, Afghanistan’s president lashed out at the Taliban as the “coward enemy” for targeting civilians.

“I offer my heartfelt condolences to victims of today’s tragedies in Kabul and Parwan and pray for speedy recovery of those who were wounded,” Ghani wrote on his official Twitter account. “We stand united in this hour of grief.”

Pakistan, which denies accusations that it shelters the Taliban, also condemned the attack.

“We offer our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families,” it said in a statement.

Security at rallies across the country has been tight following threats by the Taliban to attack meetings and polling stations. The group has vowed to intensify clashes with Afghan and foreign forces to dissuade people from voting in the upcoming elections.

Last week, peace talks between the United States and the Taliban collapsed. The two sides had been seeking to reach an accord on the withdrawal of thousands of American troops from Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees from the insurgents.

The negotiations, which did not include the Afghan government, were intended as a prelude to wider peace negotiations to end more than more 40 years of war in Afghanistan.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Hameed Farzad, Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by William Maclean and Alex Richardson)

Afghan president renews calls for peace, demands ceasefire

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

By Hamid Shalizi and Hameed Farzad

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

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

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

“Peace without a ceasefire is impossible.”

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

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

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

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

WITHDRAWAL TIMETABLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Trump says he canceled peace talks with Taliban over Kabul attack

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

By Phil Stewart and Jason Lange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEW CIVIL WAR?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By James Mackenzie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘RED LINE’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Darren Schuettler)

Full U.S. pullout from Afghanistan could ignite ‘total civil war’: ex-U.S. envoys

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

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Nine former U.S. ambassadors on Tuesday warned that Afghanistan could collapse in a “total civil war” if President Donald Trump withdraws all U.S. forces before the Kabul government and the Taliban conclude a peace settlement.

“A major troop withdrawal must be contingent on a final peace,” the nine wrote on the website of the Atlantic Council, a think tank. “The initial U.S. drawdown should not go so far or so fast that the Taliban believe they can achieve military victory.”

The nine, including five former ambassadors to Kabul, a former special envoy to Afghanistan and a former deputy secretary of State, issued their warning a day after U.S. chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad announced a draft accord with the Taliban for an initial drawdown of nearly 5,000 U.S. troops.

Khalilzad, speaking on Monday to Tolo News television in Kabul, declined to say how long the rest of the roughly 14,000 U.S. troops would stay. But U.S. officials repeatedly have said the pullout would be “conditions-based.”

In exchange, the Taliban would commit to preventing their decades-long ally, al Qaeda, or other extremists from using the country as a springboard for new attacks.

Trump has made clear his impatience to withdraw all U.S. forces and end America’s longest war, which began with a U.S. invasion triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that al Qaeda launched from then Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Khalilzad said Trump must approve the draft before it can be signed.

Khalilzad excluded Kabul from the nine rounds of U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar. But he has said it would be part of negotiations on a political settlement with the Taliban, which has so far refused to meet directly with Afghan officials.

Maintaining a major U.S. troop presence would have “a critical influence on the chances for successful peace negotiations,” the former diplomats wrote.

“It is not clear whether peace is possible. The Taliban have made no clear statements about the conditions they would accept for a peaceful settlement with their fellow Afghans, nor do they have a track record of working with other political forces,” they said.

“There is an outcome far worse than the status quo, namely a return to the total civil war that consumed Afghanistan as badly as the war with the Russians and something that could follow a breakdown in negotiations if we remove too much support from the Afghan state, they wrote.

A new civil war “could prove catastrophic for U.S. national security” as it likely would see the Taliban maintain their alliance with al Qaeda and allow Islamic State’s growing local affiliate” to further expand, they said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Tom Brown)

U.S. to withdraw 5,000 troops from Afghanistan, close bases: U.S. negotiator

U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad (L), meets with Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Afghanistan September 2, 2019. Afghan Chief Executive office/Handout via REUTERS

By Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – The United States would withdraw almost 5,000 troops from Afghanistan and close five bases within 135 days under a draft peace accord agreed with the Taliban, the chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad said on Monday.

The deal, reached after months of negotiations with representatives from the insurgent movement, must still be approved by U.S. President Donald Trump before it can be signed, Khalilzad said in an interview with Tolo News television.

“In principle, we have got there,” he said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been briefed on a draft of the accord and will look at details of the deal before giving an opinion, his spokesman said on Monday.

In exchange for the phased withdrawal, the Taliban would commit not to allow Afghanistan to be used by militants to plot attacks on the United States and its allies.

It includes provision for so-called “intra-Afghan” talks to reach a broader political settlement and end the fighting between the Taliban and the Western-backed government in Kabul.

However details of any future negotiations remain unclear, with the Taliban so far refusing to deal directly with the government, which it considers an illegitimate “puppet” regime.

Ghani met Khalilzad and will “study and assess” details of the draft, spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told reporters earlier on Monday.

“But for us, a meaningful peace or a path to a meaningful peace is the end of violence and direct negotiation with the Taliban,” he said.

Many Afghan government officials have resented the exclusion of the government from the U.S.-Taliban talks. There was some uncertainty about whether Ghani had been given a copy of the agreement, or simply shown it.

Khalilzad, who has completed nine rounds of talks with Taliban representatives, is scheduled to hold meetings with a number of Afghan leaders in Kabul this week to build a consensus before the deal is signed.

The peace talks have taken place against a backdrop of relentless violence, with the Taliban mounting two large-scale attacks on the major northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri over the weekend.

Afghan security forces pushed back Taliban fighters from both cities but a suicide bomber detonated his explosives on Monday in Kunduz, killing at least six policemen and wounding 15, officials and the Taliban said.

Trump has made little secret of his desire to bring the roughly 14,000 troops home from Afghanistan, where American troops have been deployed since a U.S.-led campaign overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

But there are concerns among Afghan officials and U.S. national security aides about a U.S. withdrawal, with fears Afghanistan could be plunged into a new civil war that could herald a return of Taliban rule and allow international militants, including Islamic State, to find a refuge.

(Additional reporting by Rupam Jain in Kabul, Ahmad Sultan in Nangarhar, Mustafa Andalib in Ghazni,; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Robert Birsel and Alison Williams)

Trump: U.S. will maintain presence in Afghanistan even if deal reached with Taliban

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

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Thursday that U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan were being reduced to 8,600 but that American forces would remain in the country even if Washington reaches an agreement with the Taliban to end the 18-year war.

“Oh yeah, you have to keep a presence,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News radio. “We’re going to keep a presence there. We’re reducing that presence very substantially and we’re going to always have a presence. We’re going to have high intelligence.”

Trump said the U.S. force level in Afghanistan was being reduced to 8,600 “and then we make a determination from there as to what happens.” Some 14,000 U.S. service members are currently in Afghanistan, among whom about 5,000 are dedicated to counterinsurgency operations.

The Taliban said on Wednesday it was close to a “final agreement” with U.S. officials on a deal that would see U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for a pledge that the country would not become a haven for other Islamist militant groups.

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

Both U.S. and Taliban negotiators have reported progress in their talks in recent weeks, raising the prospect of an end to the conflict. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for peace in Afghanistan, was due to travel from Doha to Kabul this week for a meeting with Afghan leaders.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and ousted its Taliban leaders after they refused to hand over members of the al Qaeda militant group behind the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Trump has long called for an end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, writing on Twitter seven years ago that the war was “a complete waste” and six years ago that “we should leave Afghanistan immediately.”

Since becoming president in January 2017, he has repeatedly said he could end the Afghanistan war quickly if he didn’t mind killing millions of people, a claim he repeated in the interview with Fox News radio.

“We could win that war so fast if I wanted to kill 10 million people … which I don’t. I’m not looking to kill a big portion of that country,” Trump said.

He denied the United States was acting too quickly by reducing troop levels, something he criticized his predecessor, Barack Obama, for doing in Iraq.

“We have to watch Afghanistan, but we’re bringing it down,” he said.

Trump warned that any attack on the United States again from Afghan territory would bring a massive response.

“We will come back with a force like they’ve never seen before,” Trump told Fox News radio.

On Wednesday, the top U.S. military officer, Marine General Joseph Dunford, told reporters that it was too early to talk about the future of U.S. counterterrorism troops in Afghanistan.

“I honestly think it’s premature to talk about what our counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan may or may not be without a better appreciation for what will the conditions (be),” said Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He said that in the current security environment, local Afghan security forces needed U.S. support to deal with the violence.

“If an agreement happens in the future, if the security environment changes, then obviously our posture may adjust,” Dunford said.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)