Biden again defends U.S. pullout as world powers struggle with Afghanistan evacuations

KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -World powers struggled on Friday to hasten evacuations from Afghanistan after reports of Taliban reprisals, as U.S. President Joe Biden insisted that the chaos following the American troop withdrawal had not diminished Washington’s international credibility.

Facing a torrent of criticism at home and abroad for his handling of the withdrawal and the subsequent Taliban conquest of Afghanistan, Biden pledged that every American who wanted to would be evacuated, with about 13,000 flown out so far.

“I have seen no question of our credibility around the world from our allies,” Biden said in a speech from the White House.

“We are united with our closest partners to execute the mission at hand,” he said.

He said he could not promise what the final outcome would be in Afghanistan, where the United States has waged a 20-year war. But he promised to work with other countries to set “harsh conditions” for any cooperation or recognition of the Taliban, based on their human rights record.

“They’re looking to gain some legitimacy, they’re going to have to figure out how they’re going to retain that country,” he said. “And there’s going to be some harsh conditions, strong conditions we’re going to apply that will depend on … how well they treat women and girls, how they treat their citizens.”

Thousands of desperate Afghans clutching papers, children and some belongings thronged Kabul airport where gun-toting Taliban members urged those without travel documents to go home. In and around the airport, 12 people have been killed since Sunday, NATO and Taliban officials said.

Former government officials told harrowing tales of hiding from the group, as armed gunmen went from door to door. One family of 16 described running to the bathroom, lights off and children’s mouths covered, in fear for their lives with the militants at their door.

“Those who may be in danger have no clear way out,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said, urging neighboring countries to keep borders open.

The speed with which the Islamist group conquered Afghanistan, as foreign troops were withdrawing, surprised even their own leaders and left power vacuums.

Biden reiterated his contention that the U.S.-funded and -armed Afghan military had been expected to put up more of a fight.

“The overwhelming consensus was that they (the Afghan government forces) were not going to collapse … they were not going to put down their arms and take off,” Biden said.

The Taliban called for unity, asking imams at Friday prayers to persuade people not to leave. Residents in Kabul and four other cities said attendance was low, though prayers passed off without incident.

PROTESTS, ‘DESPITE A TALIBAN GUN’

A witness said several people were killed in the eastern city of Asadabad on Thursday when the Taliban fired on a protest. There were similar shows of defiance in two other eastern cities – Jalalabad and Khost – coinciding with celebrations of the nation’s 1919 independence from British control.

“The Taliban are facing the new reality of Afghanistan that Afghans are not the same Afghans of 20 years ago,” Barakat Rahmati, Afghanistan’s deputy ambassador to Qatar, told Reuters.

“Afghans, inclusive of men and women, held protests in Kabul despite a Taliban gun being pointed to them. They are holding protests against injustice. They are defending their identity and their flag.”

Washington has about 5,800 soldiers controlling the airport but acknowledged it does not have a grip on how many U.S. citizens were in Afghanistan.

In Britain, media said several senior officials were on holiday as the Afghan debacle erupted and that spy chiefs may face a grilling over intelligence failings. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab countered that the government had been working “tirelessly” on evacuations.

Germany said on Friday it was sending helicopters to help, amid reports that one of its citizens had been wounded.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said other countries should not impose their own values. Beijing, too, said the world should support, not pressure, Afghanistan.

The Taliban ruled with an iron fist from 1996-2001, enforcing a harsh version of Islamic law, before being toppled by U.S.-led forces for sheltering al Qaeda militants behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

This time they are seeking to present a more moderate face.

The group said it wants peace, will not take revenge against enemies and will respect women rights within Islamic law.

There are immediate fears for Afghan economy, with foreign grants and aid set to slow, funds and assets trapped abroad and GDP predicted to slump. Hundreds of bureaucrats are unpaid for two months, a Taliban official said.

As Western leaders insisted the Taliban would be judged on actions not words, a Norwegian intelligence group said fighters had begun rounding up Afghans on a list .

Amnesty International said the Taliban, whose members are Sunni Muslims, killed nine men of the mainly Shi’ite Hazara minority ethnic group after taking Ghazni province last month.

(Reporting by Kabul, Washington and Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Philippa Fletcher, Andrew Cawthorne and Nick Macfie; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Jon Boyle and Grant McCool)

UK lawmakers condemn PM Johnson and U.S. President Biden over Afghanistan

By William James and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) -British lawmakers vented their anger on Wednesday at Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Joe Biden over the collapse of Afghanistan into Taliban hands, calling it a failure of intelligence, leadership and moral duty.

Speaking at an emergency session of parliament, recalled from its summer break to discuss Afghanistan, Johnson said the Taliban would be judged on their actions, not their words, after they sought to convince the world they would not seek revenge.

But, barely a minute into his opening address, Johnson faced a critical interruption from a member of his own Conservative Party, setting the tone for what would be a skeptically-received speech about how Britain wanted to be at the heart of an international coalition holding the Taliban to account.

“We will judge this regime based on the choices it makes, and by its actions rather than by its words, on its attitude to terrorism, to crime and narcotics, as well as humanitarian access, and the rights of girls to receive an education,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who attempted to head for a holiday on Saturday only to return as the Taliban closed in on the Afghan capital, was accused of “careless leadership” by opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer.

“There’s been a major miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and staggering complacency from our government about the Taliban,” Starmer said.

Former Conservative prime minister Theresa May also asked how Britain could have so miscalculated the strength of the Taliban, which took Kabul on Sunday in a lightning offensive.

“Was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak? Was our knowledge of the position on the ground so inadequate?” she asked her successor. “Or did we just feel that we have to follow the United States and hope that, on a wing and a prayer, it would be all right on the night.”

ANGER AT BIDEN

The speed of the Taliban’s gains after U.S.-led forces withdrew the bulk of their troops from Afghanistan surprised the West, leaving many nations having to scramble to get their diplomats and Afghans who had helped them out of the country.

Several lawmakers on Wednesday focused on the U.S. decision to withdraw – a move which Johnson admitted left Britain with no choice but to pull out its own forces – and Biden’s subsequent criticism of Afghan forces’ surrender.

Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative lawmaker and chairman of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee who himself served in Afghanistan, told the hushed chamber that he, like other veterans, felt anger and grief.

“I’ve watched good men go into the earth, taking with them a part of me, and a part of all of us,” he said.

“To see (Biden) call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful. Those who have never fought for the colors they fly should be careful about criticizing those who have.”

Britain has said it will welcome up to 5,000 Afghans during the first year of a new resettlement program that targets a total of 20,000 and will prioritize women, girls and religious and other minorities.

Labor lawmaker Chris Bryant called for the program to be accelerated, asking: “What are the (other) 15,000 meant to do? Hang around and wait until they’ve been executed?”

(Reporting by William James, Writing by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Michael Holden, Alison Williams and Gareth Jones)

Russia says U.S. asked 24 of its diplomats to leave by Sept. 3

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s ambassador to the United States said Washington had asked 24 Russian diplomats to leave the country by Sept. 3 after their visas expired.

Anatoly Antonov did not say whether the U.S. request was prompted by any particular dispute, and there was no immediate comment from Washington.

“Almost all of them will leave without replacements because Washington has abruptly tightened visa issuing procedures,” Antonov said in an interview with the National Interest magazine published on Sunday.

Moscow and Washington have long differed over a range of issues, and ties slumped further after U.S. President Joe Biden said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was a killer.

Tensions somewhat eased after Biden met Putin for talks on June 16, which even led to the return of some foreign investors’ money into Russian government bonds.

“We hope that common sense will prevail and we will be able to normalize the life of Russian and American diplomats in the United States and Russia on the principle of reciprocity,” Antonov said.

Antonov also said he hoped that the recently started dialogue between the United States and Russia on cybersecurity issues will continue.

“As an option, we can debate on cyber threats to arms control systems, etc.”

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Howard Goller)

South, North Korea reopen hotlines as leaders seek to rebuild ties

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) -South and North Korea have restored hotlines that Pyongyang severed a year ago when ties deteriorated sharply, and the two countries’ leaders are renewing efforts to rebuild relations, Seoul’s presidential office said on Tuesday.

The decision on the hotlines was made by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who have exchanged multiple letters since April when they marked the third anniversary of their first summit, said Moon’s press secretary, Park Soo-hyun.

North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, also said all inter-Korean communication channels resumed operation at 10 a.m. Tuesday (0100 GMT) in line with an agreement between Moon and Kim.

The hotlines are a rare tool to bridge the two Koreas, but it was unclear whether their reconnection would expedite any meaningful restart of negotiations aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

“The two leaders have explored ways to recover relations by exchanging letters on several occasions, and agreed to restore severed hotlines as a first step for that process,” Park said in a statement. “They have also agreed to regain trust as soon as possible and foster progress on relations again.”

KCNA touted the reopening of the hotlines as “a big stride in recovering mutual trust and promoting reconciliation.”

A senior official of the U.S. administration, which has sought unsuccessfully to persuade North Korea to return to talks over its nuclear program, welcomed the announcement.

“The United States supports inter-Korean dialogue and engagement,” the official said. “Diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving complete denuclearization and to establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

NUCLEAR STALEMATE

North Korea cut the lines in June 2020 as cross-border ties soured after a failed second summit in February 2019 between Kim and then U.S. President Donald Trump, which Moon had offered to mediate.

Then the North blew up a joint liaison office, launched on its soil in 2018 to foster better ties with the South, plunging relations to their lowest ebb under Moon.

Seoul’s defense ministry confirmed that twice-daily regular communication was resumed via a military hotline on Tuesday.

The Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, also said telephone lines installed at the border truce village of Panmunjom were restored.

Moon had called for a revival of the hotlines and offered a video summit with Kim to avoid the coronavirus, but Pyongyang has previously responded with scathing criticism, saying it had no intention to talk to Seoul.

North Korea has not formally confirmed any COVID-19 outbreaks, but it closed its borders and took strict anti-virus measures, seeing the pandemic as a matter of national survival.

Park said Moon and Kim have agreed to work together to fight the pandemic but did not discuss any possible summit, in-person or virtual.

The exchange of letters came ahead of Moon’s summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in May, where the leaders displayed their willingness to engage the North.

But it still remains to be seen whether Pyongyang was ready to return to negotiations, with Biden’s administration seeking a “reliable, predictable and constructive” way to bring progress.

“It’s just a reconnection of the lines they’d cut unilaterally,” said Moon Seong-mook, a retired South Korean military general who previously led inter-Korean talks.

“North Korea would still wonder what’s the point in talking to the South, as the North wants substantive easing of sanctions, but there’s nothing we can do on that.”

James Kim of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul said Pyongyang might mean to show some willingness to respond to U.S. overtures, but warned against reading too much into the latest move.

“We need to see some seriousness on Pyongyang’s part to move towards denuclearization for us to say that there is genuine progress,” Kim said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Sangmi Cha and Jack Kim in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Gerry Doyle, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Giles Elgood)

Afghan civilians take up arms as U.S.-led forces leave

PARWAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Gun in hand, 55-year-old Dost Mohammad Salangi recites poetry as he leads a small group of men to a look-out post high in the rugged hills of Parwan province, north of the Afghan capital Kabul.

Heavily bearded and wearing a traditional circular pakol hat to keep off the sun, he has a warning for the Islamist militant Taliban movement, which has increased attacks on Afghan forces and claimed more territory as foreign troops withdraw.

“If they impose war on us, oppress us and encroach on women and people’s property, even our seven-year-old children will be armed and will stand against them,” he told Reuters.

Salangi is one of hundreds of former “mujahideen” fighters and civilians who have felt compelled to take up arms to help the army repel a growing Taliban insurgency.

The group’s ascendancy on the ground comes as the last U.S.-led international forces prepare to leave after two decades of fighting that ended with no clear victory for either side.

“We have to protect our country … now there is no choice as the foreign forces abandon us,” said Farid Mohammed, a young student who joined a local anti-Taliban leader from Parwan.

He was speaking as the German military concluded the withdrawal of the second largest contingent of foreign troops after the United States with around 150,000 soldiers deployed over the past two decades, many of them serving more than one tour in the country.

U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO said in mid-April they would pull out the roughly 10,000 foreign troops still in Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York that prompted the mission.

The United Nations envoy for Afghanistan said this week the Taliban had taken more than 50 of 370 districts and was positioned to control provincial capitals as the country looked increasingly unstable as foreign military support ended.

Armed mainly with old assault rifles, pistols and grenade launchers, men like Salangi and Mohammed have joined local shopkeepers and traders as part of a loosely-formed Public Uprising Force trying to reclaim some of those areas.

Ajmal Omar Shinwari, a spokesman for the Afghan defense and security forces, said Afghans keen to take up arms against the Taliban were being absorbed intro the structure of territorial army forces.

But some political analysts warn of the growing risk of a return to civil war as more groups took up arms.

Faced with rising violence, President Ashraf Ghani visited Washington in June to meet Biden, who pledged U.S. support to Afghanistan but said Afghans must decide their own future.

Talks to try and find a political settlement in Afghanistan have stalled, although the head of the Afghan peace council has said they should not be abandoned despite the surge in Taliban attacks.

(Reporting by Afghanistan bureau, Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Russian security chief says Moscow will work with U.S. to find hackers

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia will work with the United States to track down cyber criminals, the head of the FSB security service said on Wednesday, a week after U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to increase cooperation in certain areas.

“We will work together (on locating hackers) and hope for reciprocity,” the RIA news agency quoted FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov as saying at a security conference in Moscow.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told an investor conference that Russia had been “able to establish a very thorough and down-to-earth exchange with the U.S. side” on cyber security.

Another senior ministry official said Moscow was awaiting an answer from Washington on starting consultations, TASS news agency reported.

Biden told Putin at the summit that certain critical infrastructure should be “off-limits” to cyber-attacks after hackers seeking ransom money triggered the brief closure of a major U.S. oil pipeline network.

Washington has said those responsible for some cyber-attacks in the United States have been working either directly for the Russian government or from Russian territory. The Kremlin has denied any state involvement.

Putin and Biden also agreed to embark on negotiations to lay the groundwork for arms control agreements and risk-reduction measures.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Wednesday that Moscow had requested greater transparency about the deployment of missiles in Europe.

He said Putin had proposed measures such as a moratorium on the deployment of intermediate- and short-range missiles in Europe to build mutual trust. The Kremlin has accused NATO of dismissing the proposals.

“The overall situation in Europe is explosive, which requires concrete steps to de-escalate it,” Shoigu said. “We are ready to work towards this.”

Russia’s relations with the West are at post-Cold War lows, strained by issues ranging from Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine to allegations of Russian hacking of U.S. elections.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova and Tom Balmforth; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov/Gabrielle TĂ©trault-Farber; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Biden does not intend to meet with North Korea’s Kim

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden does not intend to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the White House said on Monday.

Asked if Biden’s diplomatic approach to North Korea would include “sitting with President Kim Jong Un” as former President Donald Trump had done, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “I think his approach would be quite different and that is not his intention,” she said.

North Korea launched a new type of tactical short-range ballistic missile last week, prompting Washington to request a gathering of the U.N. Security Council’s (UNSC) sanctions committee, which then criticized the test.

Biden on Thursday said the United States remained open to diplomacy with North Korea despite the tests, but warned there would be responses if North Korea escalates matters.

North Korea on Saturday said the Biden administration had taken a wrong first step and revealed “deep-seated hostility” by criticizing what it called a self-defensive missile test.

Trump had three high-profile meetings with Kim, and exchanged a series of letters, but relations later grew frosty, and the nuclear-armed state said it would not engage further unless the United States dropped its hostile policies.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; writing by Andrea Shalal; editing by Chris Reese and Marguerita Choy)

Washington says it’s ready to engage on WTO reform

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States is committed to “positive, constructive and active engagement” with all members of the World Trade Organization on reforming the body and is actively considering who to choose as its next chief, a U.S. official said on Friday.

The comments by David Bisbee, charge d’affaires at the U.S. mission to the WTO, are an early sign of how U.S. President Joe Biden plans to approach the global trade body.

“The United States stands ready to engage on all of these difficult issues,” Bisbee told a virtual informal WTO ministerial gathering in place of the annual Davos meeting.

The 164-member WTO has gone for months without a director-general after the Trump administration rejected a candidate from Nigeria, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Its top appeals body that arbitrates on global trade disputes is also inoperable because the former U.S. administration refused judge appointments, accusing the body of overstepping its mandate and making unjustified trade rules.

“We look forward to progress on this (the selection of a new director-general) and other key priorities in the near future,” said Bisbee.

Among the other issues he mentioned were ongoing talks on fisheries subsidies and the next ministerial conference.

One delegate described the U.S. speech as “positive news.”

Reform of the 25-year-old WTO, including its Appellate Body, is widely seen as a top priority, although countries have widely different views about how this should be done.

The European Union is due to submit a WTO reform proposal next month.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Gareth Jones)

TC Energy to cut 1,000 construction jobs, halt Keystone XL work

By Rod Nickel and Valerie Volcovici

WINNIPEG, Manitoba/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – TC Energy Corp will eliminate more than 1,000 construction jobs in coming weeks and halt work on the Keystone XL oil pipeline after  revoked the project’s presidential permit, the company said in an email to employees.

Calgary-based TC Energy confirmed the authenticity of the email, sent by KXL President Richard Prior on Wednesday and seen by Reuters.

Biden’s decision to cancel the permit is likely to be the project’s death knell, after more than a decade of legal battles and shifting fortunes based on who held office in the White House. Opponents of the line fought its construction for years, saying it was unnecessary and would hamper the U.S. transition to cleaner fuels.

Proponents of the line argued that it created several thousand good-paying jobs and that pipelines remain the safest ways to transport fuel, but many analysts thought the chances of its completion were slim.

“KXL never quite escaped the shadow of uncertainty in the eyes of many producers,” said Thomas Liles, vice president for North American shale at Rystad Energy, in an email.

The United States imports more crude from Canada than any other nation, receiving roughly 3.8 million bpd in 2019, according to U.S. Energy Department figures.

The line, which would have carried 830,000 barrels of oil per day through the United States to Nebraska, was already well under construction in Canada.

Prior, in his email, said they will start to shut down construction at U.S. pump station sites and the Canadian portion of the project in coming weeks.

“I believe this will send a concerning signal to infrastructure developers that resonates far beyond our project and will stifle innovation for a practical transition towards sustainable energy,” he said in the letter.

During the U.S. campaign, Biden had committed to canceling the project, which has been in development since 2008. Former President Donald Trump approved a permit for the line in 2017 shortly after taking office, but the line afterward faced numerous legal challenges that hampered construction.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici in Washington and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)