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)

Taliban says near agreement on U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

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

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Sayed Hassib

KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban said on Wednesday it was close to an agreement with U.S. officials on a deal that would see U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for a Taliban promise that the country would not become a haven for international militants.

Negotiations over how to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan have been held in Doha, capital of Qatar, since late last year. The ninth round of talks began last week.

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

U.S. officials engaged in talks with the Taliban in Doha were not immediately available for comment.

Two sources with knowledge of the negotiations said the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been leading the talks, is scheduled to be in Kabul to brief President Ashraf Ghani about the agreement.

A senior security official in Kabul said the Taliban and U.S. officials had agreed on a timeline of about 14 to 24 months for the withdrawal of the U.S. forces.

Details would be shared with the Afghan government before they were made public, the official said.

Ghani, who is seeking a second term in September, has repeatedly offered to hold direct talks with the Taliban, but the group demanded a complete withdrawal of foreign forces as a precondition to start negotiations.

The Taliban now controls more territory than it has since 2001, when the United States invaded following the 9/11 attacks, and the war has ground to a stalemate, with casualties rising among civilians as well as combatants.

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Ghani, said the government did not want U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan over the long term, but added that their “conditions-based” presence was needed at this stage.

“We want to end the bloodshed. We cannot accept the orders of the Taliban. They must accept our demands and we demand peace,” said Sediqqi.

Some 14,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, training and advising Afghan forces and conducting counter-insurgency operations. NATO also has a mission in the country totaling 17,000 to provide support to the Afghan forces.

(Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Gareth Jones)

Pentagon approves additional 2,100 troops to U.S.-Mexico border

A member of the Texas National Guard watches the Mexico-U.S. border from an outpost along the Rio Grande in Roma, Texas, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon said on Wednesday it had approved a request to send an additional 1,000 Texas National Guard and 1,100 active-duty troops to the border with Mexico, the latest deployment in support of President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration crackdown.

Major Chris Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman, told Reuters that acting Defense Secretary Richard Spencer had approved the additional troops on Tuesday night, and they would be assisting with tasks like logistical support and aerial surveillance.

There are currently about 4,500 active duty and National Guard troops on the border with Mexico.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Trump says U.S. may send 2,000 troops from Germany to Poland

U.S. President Donald Trump greets Poland's President Andrzej Duda in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he is considering sending 2,000 U.S. troops from Germany to Poland, a step sought by Warsaw to deter potential aggression from Russia.

“We’re talking about it,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office as he met with visiting Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The United States already has troops in Poland as part of a 2016 agreement with the NATO military alliance in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Poland’s eastern neighbor Ukraine in 2014.

Trump said the United States has upwards of 50,000 troops in Germany and said 2,000 of them could be sent to Poland. He said Poland is going to be spending a lot of money on a military facility for the troops.

He also said he hopes Russia “will treat Poland with respect.”

“They get hurt unfortunately too often,” Trump said of the Poles. “They’re in the middle of everything. When bad things happen it seems like Poland is the first one…I hope that Russia and Poland and Germany are going to get along,” said Trump, who has often been criticized by Democrats for being too close to Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. president said he thought he would travel to Poland at some point, but no dates were set yet. Duda has said he would unveil a deal this week to bolster the U.S. security presence in Poland.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Trump rejects Mexican efforts in face of fresh migrant caravan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Marines help to build a concertina wire barricade at the U.S. Mexico border in preparation for the arrival of a caravan of migrants at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday called on Mexico to do more to block a new caravan of migrants and asylum-seekers traveling through the country toward the United States, reiterating his threat to close the border or send more troops.

“A very big Caravan of over 20,000 people started up through Mexico,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “It has been reduced in size by Mexico but is still coming. Mexico must apprehend the remainder or we will be forced to close that section of the Border & call up the Military.”

Trump said Mexico was not doing enough to apprehend and return migrants and, without offering evidence, said Mexican soldiers recently had “pulled guns” U.S. troops.

He said the incident probably was “a diversionary tactic for drug smugglers” and armed troops were being sent to the border.

Mexican officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Trump’s statement.

Trump has made cracking down on immigration a priority that fueled his 2016 presidential campaign and election victory. More than 100,000 people were apprehended or presented themselves to U.S. authorities in March, according to the White House, which said it was the highest number in a decade.

In response to what Trump has described as a crisis, his administration has sent thousands of active-duty and National Guard troops to the border and moved border agents to handle an influx of migrants. Last month, Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border if the Mexican government did not immediately stem illegal migration.

When Congress declined to designate money to build a border wall, Trump declared a national emergency earlier this year over the issue in a bid to redirect funding for the project, thrusting the immigration issue to the forefront of the 2020 presidential race.

The head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillen, on Tuesday pointed to an increase in deportations from the country, saying Mexico had returned 15,000 migrants in the past 30 days.

He did not specify where the people were deported to, but the majority of people traveling through Mexico to the United States are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where migrants say they are fleeing corruption, gang violence and entrenched poverty.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Susan Heavey and Bill Trott)

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

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

By Steve Holland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pentagon appears poised to extend Mexico border deployment

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Marines deploy concertina wire at the U.S. Mexico border in preparation for the arrival of a caravan of migrants at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego, California, U.S. November 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon received a request on Friday from the Trump administration to extend its deployment of troops to the U.S. border with Mexico beyond a Dec. 15 authorization date to the end of January, officials said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who is expected to sign off on the extension of the mission, strongly hinted earlier this week that such a request by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was in the works.

President Donald Trump ordered the deployment shortly before November congressional elections as a part of an effort to crack down on illegal immigration, as waves of thousands of migrants escaping violence in Central America trekked toward the United States.

Border security is a major issue among voters in Trump’s Republican Party.

Critics, including opposition Democrats in Congress but also some U.S. military veterans, have derided the troop deployment as a political stunt. Democrats have threatened to investigate the deployment once they take control in the House of Representatives next year.

The Department of Homeland Security, in a statement, cited the “the very real threat we face at the border from potential mass migration actions” when it confirmed the extension of the mission, which had been reported earlier on Friday by Reuters.

“The president has made it clear that border security is a top administration priority,” DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman said in a statement.

This request refines support to ensure it remains aligned with the current situation, the nature of the mission, and Customs and Border Patrol operational requirements.

About 5,600 troops have been deployed to the border, but many of them have been involved in efforts to improve security around border crossings, including stringing up concertina wire. Many of those troops could be sent home. Remaining troops could focus on other missions, including helping fly U.S. border personnel to new positions along the border.

Still, officials caution that it’s unclear how far troop levels will decline. One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said troop levels were not expected to decline dramatically.

Neither the Pentagon nor the DHS speculated about troop levels on Friday.

The Trump administration has justified the high-profile border mission on a perceived threat to the border, as thousands of migrants, mostly migrants from Honduras, flooded into the city of Tijuana across the border from San Diego, California, over the past several weeks.

U.S. customs and border control officers fired tear gas canisters into Mexico at dozens of migrants who tried to rush border fencing on Sunday.

Under the harsh immigration policies introduced by the Trump administration, U.S. border officials say the migrants may have to stay put in Mexico for months before they can petition authorities for asylum.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati, editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump again threatens to shut government over wall funding

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before he boards the Marine One helicopter to begin his travel to Mississippi from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said he would “totally be willing” to shut down the federal government unless Congress authorized $5 billion to fund his long-promised wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, according to a Politico interview published on Wednesday.

Trump also told the news outlet, in the interview conducted on Tuesday, that the $5 billion request would pay for physical barrier alone, and that additional funding would be needed for other border security measures.

In a separate interview with the Washington Post on Tuesday, the Republican president said that if Congress does not fund the wall he might try to get it done another way. He referred to his ordering of U.S. troops to the border in October to install “barbed wire and fencing and various other things.”

U.S. lawmakers must act to pass a spending bill by Dec. 7 to fund some government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security that oversees the border and immigration.

Trump has not followed through on previous threats to shut down the U.S. government over the border wall funding. But with his fellow Republicans set to lose control of the House of Representatives in January following Democrats’ gains in elections this month, Trump’s comments have raised concern that this time he may not back down.

Republicans will maintain their control of the Senate next year but still, need some Democratic support to pass spending legislation.

Democrats have refused to support Trump’s border wall, which was a major part of his 2016 election platform, but have backed other border security measures.

Trump told Politico on Tuesday that he saw little need to work with Congress over immigration reforms to address the roughly 700,000 so-called Dreamers, young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children.

Instead, he said he wants to see first how court challenges play out over an Obama-era program that allowed Dreamers to stay in the country.

If the courts ultimately rule against the program, then he would be willing to negotiate over “border security and everything else,” he told Politico.

Legislation to protect the Dreamers has so far failed to pass Congress.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Chizu Nomiyama and Frances Kerry)

Trump likely to give U.S. troops authority to protect immigration agents

A migrant, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, poses for a photo after climbing up the border fence between Mexico and United States while moving to a new shelter in Mexicali, Mexico November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Idrees Ali and Lizbeth Diaz

WASHINGTON/TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – President Donald Trump is likely to give U.S. troops authority to protect immigration agents stationed along the U.S. border with Mexico if they come under threat from migrants seeking to cross into the United States, a U.S. official said on Monday.

Ahead of U.S. congressional elections earlier this month, Trump denounced the approach of a caravan of migrants as an “invasion” that threatened American national security, and he sent thousands of U.S. troops to the border to help secure it.

Currently, the troops do not have authority to protect U.S. Customs and Border Patrol personnel. The new authority could be announced on Tuesday, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials briefly closed the busiest border crossing from Mexico early on Monday to add concrete barricades and razor wire amid concerns some of the thousands of Central American migrants at the border could try to rush the crossing.

Northbound lanes at the San Ysidro crossing from Tijuana to San Diego, California, were temporarily closed “to position additional port hardening materials,” a U.S. CBP spokesperson said.

A Department of Homeland Security official, who requested anonymity, told reporters on a conference call that U.S. officials had heard reports some migrants were intending to run through border crossings into California.

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, move to a new shelter in Mexicali, Mexico November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, move to a new shelter in Mexicali, Mexico November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The closing was rare for the station, which is one of the busiest border crossings in the world with tens of thousands of Mexicans heading every day into the United States to work or study.

“Today was a lost day of work. I already called my boss to tell her that everything was closed and I did not know what time I would be able to get in,” said Maria Gomez, a Mexican woman who crosses the border every day for work. “I cannot believe this is happening.”

Trump had remained mostly silent about the caravan since the Nov. 6 vote, but on Monday he posted a photo on Twitter showing a fence that runs from the beach in Tijuana into the ocean now covered with razor wire.

Critics charged that his talk of a migrant “invasion” was an effort to rouse his political base ahead of the elections.

Officials have stressed that the 5,900 active-duty U.S. troops on the border are not there in a law enforcement capacity and that there are no plans for them to interact with migrants.

Instead, their mission is to lend support to the CBP, and they have been stringing up concertina wire and erecting temporary housing.

The commander of the mission told Reuters last week that the number of troops may have peaked, and he would soon look at whether to begin sending forces home or shifting some to new border positions.

About 6,000 Central Americans have reached the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, according to local officials. More bands of migrants are making their way toward Tijuana, with around 10,000 expected.

Hundreds of local residents on Sunday massed at a monument in a wealthy neighborhood of Tijuana to protest the arrival of the migrants, with some carrying signs that said “Mexico first” and “No more migrants.”

Last month, thousands of Central American migrants began a long journey from Honduras through Mexico toward the United States to seek asylum.

Other bands of mostly Salvadorans followed, with a small group setting off on Sunday from San Salvador.

(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler and Cynthia Osterman)

Exclusive: U.S. troop levels at Mexico border likely at peak – commander

FILE PHOTO: Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, commander of U.S. Army North 5th Army, visits the San Ysidro border crossing with Mexico in San Diego, California, U.S. November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Phil Stewart

BASE CAMP DONNA, Texas (Reuters) – The number of U.S. troops at the border with Mexico may have peaked at about 5,800, the U.S. commander of the mission told Reuters, noting he would start looking next week at whether to begin sending forces home or perhaps shifting some to new border positions.

The outlook by Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan, while not definitive, suggests that the high-profile military mission could soon achieve its goal of helping harden the border ahead of the expected arrival of caravans of Central American migrants in the coming weeks.

The deployment, which critics have called a pre-election political stunt by President Donald Trump, was initially expected to reach more than 7,000 forces, acting in support of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authorized the mission through Dec. 15 and while Buchanan did not rule out an extension, he did not think one appeared likely at this point, based on the current set of tasks assigned to the military.

“It is a hard date. And we have no indications that CBP is going to need us to do our work for longer than that,” Buchanan said on Wednesday at Base Camp Donna in Texas, as Mattis toured the site near the Mexico border.

He acknowledged that there could be new requests, saying: “If we get an extension, we get an extension. But I’ve got no indications of that so far.”

Asked whether he thought the troop levels had peaked, Buchanan said: “I do. We might increase by a hundred here or there, but probably not.”

Trump’s politically charged decision to send U.S. troops to the border with Mexico came ahead of U.S. congressional elections last week, as Trump sought to strengthen border security as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Trump’s supporters, including Republicans in Congress, have embraced the deployment.

But critics have said it was designed to drive Republican voters to the polls. They have scoffed at Trump’s comparison of caravans of Central American migrants, including women and children, fleeing poverty and violence, to an “invasion.”

Mattis defended the deployment on Wednesday, saying the mission was “absolutely legal,” justified and was improving military readiness.

‘RIGHTSIZING’

Buchanan also said his mission guidelines were clear – to support CBP personnel. He said his work was apolitical.

“I’m not being directed to do anything unnatural from above me,” said Buchanan, who is commander of U.S. Army North.

The Pentagon says there are no plans for U.S. forces to interact with migrants and instead have been carrying out support tasks for CBP, like stringing up concertina wire and building temporary housing for themselves and CBP personnel.

In recent days, up to 1,000 migrants linked to the caravans have arrived in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, with a similar number expected to arrive in the next day or so. Thousands more could arrive in border towns over the coming days as the bulk of the caravans arrive.

Buchanan estimated that about 5,800 troops were deployed in total, with about 1,500 in California, 1,500 in Arizona and 2,800 in Texas. Buchanan acknowledged he might shift forces east or west along the border if needed.

Mattis told reporters earlier on Wednesday that U.S. soldiers were making rapid progress erecting barriers along the border and estimated the first, construction phase of the U.S. military effort could be completed within 10 days.

Buchanan suggested troops would go home once they had fulfilled requests by CBP.

“At some point in time, I’m not going to keep troops here just to keep them here. When the work is done, we’re going to start downsizing some capability,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan would need to make any recommendations on redeployment of troops to General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the head of U.S. Northern Command. O’Shaughnessy would then report to Mattis.

He suggested a recommendation could be made in the near future.

“I’m looking as early as next week to start thinking through rightsizing if we need to change. Or do I need to shift (troops elsewhere on the border),” Buchanan said, without predicting when changes might occur.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)