Afghan army collapse ‘took us all by surprise,’ U.S. defense secretary

By Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress on Tuesday that the Afghan army’s sudden collapse caught the Pentagon off-guard as he acknowledged miscalculations in America’s longest war including corruption and damaged morale in Afghan ranks.

“The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away – in many cases without firing a shot – took us all by surprise,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“It would be dishonest to claim otherwise.”

Austin was speaking at the start of two days of what are expected to be some of the most contentious hearings in memory over the chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan, which cost the lives of U.S. troops and civilians and left the Taliban back in power.

The Senate and House committees overseeing the U.S. military are holding hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, where Republicans are hoping to zero in on what they see as mistakes that President Joe Biden’s administration made toward the end of the two-decade-old war.

It follows similar questioning two weeks ago that saw U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken staunchly defending the administration, even as he faced calls for his resignation.

Austin praised American personnel who helped airlift 124,000 Afghans out of the country, an operation that also cost the lives of 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghans in a suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport.

“Was it perfect? Of course not,” Austin said, noting the desperate Afghans who killed trying to climb the side of a U.S. military aircraft or the civilians killed in the last U.S. drone strike of the war.

Senator James Inhofe, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, squarely blamed the Biden administration for what critics say was a shameful end to a 20-year endeavor. Inhofe said Biden ignored the recommendations of his military leaders and left many Americans behind after the U.S. withdrawal.

“We all witnessed the horror of the president’s own making,” Inhofe said of Afghanistan.

Many of the hardest questions may fall to the two senior U.S. military commanders testifying: Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Taliban hail victory with gunfire after last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan

(Reuters) – Celebratory gunfire resounded across the Afghan capital on Tuesday as the Taliban took control of the airport following the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops, marking the end of a 20-year war that left the Islamist group stronger than it was in 2001.

Shaky video footage distributed by the Taliban showed fighters entering the airport after the last U.S. troops flew out on a C-17 aircraft a minute before midnight, ending a hasty and humiliating exit for Washington and its NATO allies.

“It is a historical day and a historical moment,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference at the airport after the departure. “We are proud of these moments, that we liberated our country from a great power.”

An image from the Pentagon taken with night-vision optics showed the last U.S. soldier to step aboard the final evacuation flight out of Kabul – Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

America’s longest war took the lives of nearly 2,500 U.S. troops and an estimated 240,000 Afghans, and cost some $2 trillion.

Although it succeeded in driving the Taliban from power and stopped Afghanistan being used by al Qaeda as a base to attack the United States, it ended with the hardline militants controlling more territory than when they last ruled.

The Taliban brutally enforced their strict interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001, not least by oppressing women, and the world is watching now to see if the movement will form a more moderate and inclusive government in the months ahead.

Long lines formed in Kabul on Tuesday outside banks shuttered since the fall of the capital as people tried to get money to pay for increasingly expensive food.

There was a mixture of triumph and elation on the one side as the Taliban celebrated their victory, and fear on the other.

“I had to go to the bank with my mother but when I went, the Taliban (were) beating women with sticks,” said a 22-year-old woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety.

She said the attack occurred among a crowd outside a branch of the Azizi Bank next to the Kabul Star Hotel in the center of the capital.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen something like that and it really frightened me.”

Thousands of Afghans have already fled the country, fearing Taliban reprisals.

More than 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in a massive but chaotic airlift by the United States and its allies over the past two weeks, but many of those who helped Western nations during the war were left behind.

A contingent of Americans, estimated by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at fewer than 200, and possibly closer to 100, wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab put the number of UK nationals in Afghanistan in the low hundreds, following the evacuation of some 5,000.

‘LOT OF HEARTBREAK’

General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told a Pentagon briefing that the chief U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, was on the last C-17 flight out.

“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,” McKenzie told reporters. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out.”

The departing U.S. troops destroyed more than 70 aircraft and dozens of armored vehicles. They also disabled air defenses that had thwarted an attempted Islamic State rocket attack on the eve of their departure.

As the Taliban watched U.S. troops leave Kabul on Monday night, at least seven of their fighters were killed in clashes in the Panjshir valley north of the capital, two members of the main anti-Taliban opposition group said.

Several thousand anti-Taliban fighters, from local militias as well as remnants of army and special forces units, have gathered in the valley under the command of regional leader Ahmad Massoud.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. military was not concerned with images of Taliban members walking through Kabul airport holding weapons and sizing up U.S. helicopters.

“They can inspect all they want,” he told CNN. “They can look at them. They can walk around. They can’t fly. They can’t operate them…”

But he said that “the threat environment” remains high.

“We’re obviously concerned about the potential for Taliban retribution going forward and we certainly, we saw it ourselves, are mindful of the threat that ISIS-K continues to pose inside Afghanistan.”

ISIS-K is the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside Kabul airport on Thursday that killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghan civilians.

U.S. President Joe Biden defended his decision to stick to Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline. He said the world would hold the Taliban to their commitment to allow safe passage for those wanting to leave Afghanistan.

Biden has said the United States long ago achieved the objectives it set in 2001, when it ousted the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks.

But he has drawn heavy criticism from Republicans and some fellow Democrats for his actions since the Taliban took over Kabul this month after a lightning advance and the collapse of the U.S.-backed government.

Blinken said the United States was prepared to work with the new Taliban government if it did not carry out reprisals against opponents.

Taliban spokesman Mujahid said the group wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the United States, despite the two decades of hostility. “The Islamic Emirate wants to have good diplomatic relations with the whole world,” he said.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Steven Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie; Editing by Kevin Liffey/Mark Heinrich)

U.S. to prioritize troop evacuation in last two days of Kabul operation

By Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. military will continue evacuating people from Kabul airport until an Aug. 31 deadline if needed, but will prioritize the removal of U.S. troops and military equipment on the last couple of days, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.

There are about 5,400 troops at the airport, a number that President Joe Biden says is set to go down to zero by the end of the month, depending on cooperation from the Taliban.

Army Major General William Taylor, with the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, told a news briefing more than 10,000 people were at Kabul airport waiting to be evacuated from Afghanistan.

He said that in the previous 24 hours, 90 U.S. military and other international flights had evacuated 19,000 more people, bringing the total evacuation number so far to about 88,000. He said one plane had departed every 39 minutes.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that a total of 4,400 American nationals had so far been evacuated from Kabul, but that he did not know how many were still there. Over the weekend, the number stood at about 2,500.

“If you’re an evacuee that we can get out, we’re going to continue to get you out right up until the end… But in the last couple of days … we will begin to prioritize military capabilities and military resources to move out,” Kirby said.

In addition to American citizens, both at-risk Afghans and people from such other countries as Canada and Germany have been evacuated over the past 11 days.

Representatives Seth Moulton, a Democrat, and Peter Meijer, a Republican, both of whom served in the Iraq war before running for Congress, said in a statement on Tuesday that they went to Kabul to gather information as part of Congress’ oversight role.

Kirby said the two members of the U.S. House of Representatives who traveled to Afghanistan on Tuesday had taken up scarce resources.

“They certainly took time away from what we had been planning to do that day,” he added.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom; Edited by Howard Goller)

Western nations race to complete Afghan evacuation as deadline looms

(Reuters) – Western nations rushed to evacuate people from Afghanistan on Wednesday as the Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops drew closer and fears grew that many could be left behind to an uncertain fate under the country’s new Taliban rulers.

In one of the biggest such airlifts ever, the United States and its allies have evacuated more than 70,000 people, including their citizens, NATO personnel and Afghans at risk, since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban swept into the capital Kabul to bring to an end the 20-year foreign military presence.

U.S. President Joe Biden said U.S. troops in Afghanistan faced mounting danger, while aid agencies warned of an impending humanitarian crisis for those left behind.

Biden has spurned calls from allies to extend the deadline, set under an agreement struck by the previous administration of Donald Trump with the hardline Islamist group last year. But he said on Tuesday the deadline could be met.

“The sooner we can finish, the better,” Biden said. “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was growing concern about the risk of suicide bombings by Islamic State at the airport.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab said the deadline for evacuating people was up to the last minute of the month.

France said it would push on with evacuations as long as possible but it was likely to end these operations in the coming hours or days.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would try to help Afghans who worked with its soldiers and aid organizations and wished to leave Afghanistan after the deadline expires.

“The end of the air bridge in a few days must not mean the end of efforts to protect Afghan helpers and help those Afghans who have been left in a bigger emergency with the takeover of the Taliban,” she told the German parliament.

Tens of thousands of Afghans fearing persecution have thronged Kabul’s airport since the Taliban takeover, the lucky ones securing seats on flights.

On Wednesday, many people milled about outside the airport – where soldiers from the United States, Britain and other nations were trying to maintain order amid the dust and heat – hoping to get out.

They carried bags and suitcases stuffed with possessions, and waved documents at soldiers in the hope of gaining entry. One man, standing knee-deep in a flooded ditch, passed a child to a man above.

“I learned from an email from London that the Americans are taking people out, that’s why I’ve come so I can go abroad,” said one man, Aizaz Ullah.

While the focus is now on those trying to flee, the risk of starvation, disease and persecution is rising for the rest of the population, aid agencies say.

“There’s a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by COVID,” David Beasley, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, told Reuters in Doha, saying that about 14 million people were threatened with starvation.

The U.N. human rights chief said she had received credible reports of serious violations by the Taliban, including “summary executions” of civilians and Afghan security forces who had surrendered. The Taliban have said they will investigate reports of atrocities.

The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by harsh sharia law, with many political rights and basic freedoms curtailed and women severely oppressed. Afghanistan was also a hub for anti-Western militants, and Washington, London and others fear it might become so again.

LAND ROUTES

The Taliban said all foreign evacuations must be completed by Aug. 31. It has asked the United States to stop urging talented Afghans to leave while also trying to persuade people at the airport to go home, saying they had nothing to fear.

“Foreign troops should withdraw by the deadline. It will pave the way for resumption of civilian flights,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter.

“People with legal documents can travel through commercial flights after Aug. 31.”

The Dutch government said it was all but certain that many people eligible for asylum would not be taken out in time.

Dutch troops had managed to get more than 100 people to Kabul airport, Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag said, but hundreds of others risked being left behind.

The U.S.-backed government collapsed as the United States and its allies withdrew troops two decades after they ousted the Taliban in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al Qaeda, whose leaders had found safe haven in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

The Taliban were also switching focus from their military victory to how to run a country in crisis. They have appointed veteran figures to the posts of finance minister and defense minister since wresting control of all government offices, the presidential palace and parliament, two Taliban members said.

Afghanistan’s Pajhwok news agency said Gul Agha had been named as finance minister and Sadr Ibrahim acting interior minister. Former Guantanamo detainee Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir was named acting defense minister, Al Jazeera news channel reported, citing a Taliban source.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Lincoln Feast, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Angus MacSwan, Giles Elgood and Nick Macfie)

Taliban vows to provide safe passage to Kabul airport, U.S. official says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Taliban has told the United States it will provide safe passage for civilians to reach the airport in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday.

Sullivan also told a White House news briefing that the United States believes the Kabul evacuation can go until Aug. 31 and it is talking to the Taliban about the exact timetable.

Thousands of U.S. troops have been flown into Kabul to assist in evacuation efforts after the collapse of Afghanistan’s military and government after swift advances by Taliban forces.

“The Taliban have informed us that they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment,” Sullivan said.

“We believe that this can go till the 31st. We are talking to them about what the exact timetable is for how this will all play out, and I don’t want to negotiate in public on working out the best modality to get the most people out in the most efficient way,” Sullivan added.

Sullivan said it is premature to say whether the United States recognizes the Taliban as the legitimate governing power in Afghanistan.

“Right now there is a chaotic situation in Kabul where we don’t even have the establishment of a governing authority,” Sullivan said. “Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the Taliban to show the rest of the world who they are and how they intend to proceed. The track record has not been good but it’s premature to address that question at this point.”

Sullivan said most people seeking to leave Afghanistan have been able to reach the airport, but the United States is addressing with the Taliban some reports of people being turned away.

“This is an hour-by-hour issue, and it’s something we’re very clear-eyed about, and very focused on holding the Taliban accountable to follow through on its execution,” he said.

Army Major General William Taylor, with the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, told a news briefing earlier on Tuesday that 4,000 U.S. troops would be at the airport by the end of the day – an increase of 1,000 – and the aim is to have one flight taking off per hour.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Lisa Lambert, Tim Ahmann, David Brunnstrom, adnrea Shala and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chris Reese and Will Dunham)

Evacuation flights restart from Kabul after Afghans desperate to flee cleared from airfield

KABUL (Reuters) -U.S. military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians from Afghanistan restarted on Tuesday after the runway at Kabul airport was cleared of thousands desperate to flee following the Taliban’s sudden takeover of the capital.

The number of civilians had thinned out, a Western security official at the airport told Reuters, a day after chaotic scenes in which U.S. troops fired to disperse crowds and people clung to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied for take-off.

“Runway in Kabul international airport is open. I see airplanes landing and taking off,” Stefano Pontecorvo, NATO’s civilian representative, said on Twitter.

At least 12 military flights had taken off, a diplomat at the airport said. Planes were due to arrive from countries including Australia and Poland to pick up their nationals and Afghan colleagues.

As they rush to evacuate civilians, foreign powers are also assessing how to respond to the new rulers in Kabul and also how to deal with refugees trying to flee the country.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush, who launched a “war on terror” in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said the United States must move quickly to help Afghan refugees.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the country was in talks with all parties in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, and was positive on their statements since they took control.

Under a U.S. troops withdrawal pact struck last year, the Taliban agreed not to attack foreign forces as they leave.

U.S. forces took charge of the airport – their only way to fly out of Afghanistan – on Sunday, as the militants wound up a week of rapid advances by taking over Kabul without a fight, 20 years after they were ousted by a U.S.-led invasion.

Flights were suspended for much of Monday, when at least five people were killed, witnesses said. Media reported two people fell to their deaths from the underside of a U.S. military aircraft after it took off.

U.S. troops killed two gunmen who appeared to have fired into the crowd at the airport, a U.S. official said.

U.S. President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces after 20 years of war – the nation’s longest – which he described as costing more than $1 trillion.

But a video of hundreds of desperate Afghans trying to clamber on to a U.S. military plane as it was about to take off could haunt the United States, just as a photograph in 1975 of people trying to get on a helicopter on a roof in Saigon became emblematic of the humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam.

Biden said he had to decide between asking U.S. forces to fight endlessly or follow through on a withdrawal agreement negotiated by his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said. “After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we’re still there.”

Facing criticism from even his own diplomats, he blamed the Taliban’s takeover on Afghan political leaders who fled and its army’s unwillingness to fight.

The Taliban captured Afghanistan’s biggest cities in days rather than the months predicted by U.S. intelligence. In many cases, demoralised government forces surrendered despite years of training and equipping by the United States and others.

40,000 WOUNDED

The Taliban began their push in the spring with attacks on government positions in the countryside and targeted killings in cities. The International Committee of the Red Cross said more than 40,000 people with wounds caused by weapons had been treated at facilities it supports in June, July and August, 7,600 of them since Aug. 1.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the hasty pullout of U.S. troops had a “serious negative impact”, China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported, adding that Wang pledged to work with Washington to promote stability.

U.S. forces are due to complete their withdrawal by the end of this month under the deal with the Taliban that hinged on their promise not to let Afghanistan be used for international terrorism.

President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

That day, some 640 Afghans crammed into a U.S. C-17 transport aircraft to fly to Qatar, a photo taken inside the plane showed.

The U.N. Security Council called for talks to create a new government in Afghanistan after Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of “chilling curbs” on human rights and violations against women and girls.

During the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

The Taliban have said there will be no retribution against opponents and promised to respect the rights of women, minorities and foreigners, but many Afghans are skeptical and fear old enemies and activists will be rounded up.

The top U.N. human rights official voiced concern about the safety of thousands of Afghans who have worked on human rights. The U.N. refugee agency called for a halt to forced returns of Afghans including asylum seekers whose requests had been rejected.

(Reporting by Kabul and other bureaus; Writing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Timothy Heritage and Nick Macfie)

Taliban take strategic Afghan city of Ghazni on road to Kabul

KABUL (Reuters) -Taliban fighters captured the strategic Afghan city of Ghazni on Thursday, taking them to within 150 km (95 miles) of Kabul following days of fierce clashes as the Islamist group ruled out sharing power with the government.

The speed and violence of the Taliban advance, including heavy fighting in their heartland and the second-biggest city of Kandahar, have sparked recriminations among many Afghans over U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and leave the Afghan government to fight alone.

The gateways to the capital have been choked with people fleeing violence elsewhere in the country this week, a Western security source said. It was hard to tell whether Taliban fighters were also getting through, the source added.

With the last of the U.S.-led international forces set to leave by the end of the month and end the United States’ longest war, the Taliban now control about two-thirds of the country. On Wednesday, a U.S. defense official cited U.S. intelligence as saying the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90.

Al Jazeera reported a government source saying it had offered the Taliban a share in power, as long as the violence comes to a halt.

Afghan government spokespeople were not immediately available for comment and it was not clear to what extent the reported offer differed from terms already discussed at stalled talks in Qatar.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said he was unaware of any such offer but ruled out sharing power.

“We won’t accept any offer like this because we don’t want to be partner with the Kabul administration. We neither stay nor work for a single day with it,” he said.

Under a deal struck between the United States and the Taliban last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack U.S.-led foreign forces as they withdraw, in exchange for a promise not to let Afghanistan be used for international terrorism.

The Taliban also made a commitment to discuss peace. But intermittent talks with representatives of the U.S.-backed government have made no progress, with the insurgents apparently intent on a military victory.

ROUTE TO KABUL

Ghazni, southwest of Kabul on the ancient route between the capital and Kandahar, was the ninth provincial capital the Taliban have seized in a week.

The militants on Thursday occupied Ghazni’s government agency headquarters after heavy clashes, a security official said.

“All local government officials, including the provincial governor, have been evacuated towards Kabul,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Kandahar and other southern and eastern provinces bordering Pakistan have long been Taliban heartlands but they have made their biggest gains in recent weeks in the north. Even when the group ruled the country from 1996-2001, it never controlled all of the north.

There were heavy clashes in Kandahar. A Taliban commander told Reuters most parts of the city were in their control but fighting was still going on. In western Herat, a Taliban spokesman said their fighters had captured police headquarters.

RALLYING OLD WARLORDS

The Taliban said they had seized airports outside the cities of Kunduz and Sheberghan in the north and Farah in the west, making it even more difficult to supply government forces.

They said they had also captured the provincial headquarters in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern province of Helmand, a hotbed of militant activity.

Government officials there were not immediately available for comment. Fighting had also flared in the northwestern province of Badghis, its governor said.

President Ashraf Ghani flew to northern Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally old warlords he had previously tried to sideline, now needing their support as the enemy closes in.

The Taliban risk isolating the country if they do seize overall control.

“Attempts to monopolize power through violence, fear, and war will only lead to international isolation,” the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy, Ross Wilson, said on Twitter.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin would not provide financial support to Afghanistan if the Taliban take over and introduce sharia religious law.

The violence has also raised concerns in Europe of more refugees arriving there.

The Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan before they were ousted in 2001 for harboring al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

A generation of Afghans who have come of age since 2001 worry that the progress made in areas such as women’s rights and media freedom over the past two decades will be lost.

The United Nations said more than 1,000 civilians had been killed in the past month, and the International Committee of the Red Cross said some 4,042 wounded people had been treated at 15 health facilities since Aug. 1.

On Wednesday, the Taliban denied targeting or killing civilians and called for an investigation.

(Reporting by Kabul bureauWriting by Robert Birsel and Nick MacfieEditing by Nick Macfie, John Stonestreet and Frances Kerry)

Biden, Kadhimi seal agreement to end U.S. combat mission in Iraq

By Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Monday sealed an agreement formally ending the U.S. combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, more than 18 years after U.S. troops were sent to the country.

Coupled with Biden’s withdrawal of the last American forces in Afghanistan by the end of August, the Democratic president is completing U.S. combat missions in the two wars that then-President George W. Bush began under his watch.

Biden and Kadhimi met in the Oval Office for their first face-to-face talks as part of a strategic dialogue between the United States and Iraq.

“Our role in Iraq will be … to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat zone,” Biden told reporters as he and Kadhimi met.

There are currently 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq focusing on countering the remnants of Islamic State. The U.S. role in Iraq will shift entirely to training and advising the Iraqi military to defend itself.

The shift is not expected to have a major impact since the United States has already moved toward focusing on training Iraqi forces.

A U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 based on charges that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was ousted from power, but such weapons were never found.

In recent years the U.S. mission was dominated by helping defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

“Nobody is going to declare mission accomplished. The goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of Kadhimi’s visit.

The reference was reminiscent of the large “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier above where Bush gave a speech declaring major combat operations over in Iraq on May 1, 2003.

“If you look to where we were, where we had Apache helicopters in combat, when we had U.S. special forces doing regular operations, it’s a significant evolution. So by the end of the year we think we’ll be in a good place to really formally move into an advisory and capacity-building role,” the official said.

U.S. diplomats and troops in Iraq and Syria were targeted in three rocket and drone attacks earlier this month. Analysts believed the attacks were part of a campaign by Iranian-backed militias.

The senior administration official would not say how many U.S. troops would remain on the ground in Iraq for advising and training.

Kadhimi is seen as friendly to the United States and has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned militias. But his government condemned a U.S. air raid against Iran-aligned fighters along its border with Syria in late June, calling it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

The U.S.-Iraqi statement is expected to detail a number of non-military agreements related to health, energy and other matters.

The United States plans to provide Iraq with 500,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine under the global COVAX vaccine-sharing program. Biden said the doses should arrive in a couple of weeks.

The United States will also provide $5.2 million to help fund a U.N. mission to monitor October elections in Iraq.

“We’re looking forward to seeing an election in October,” said Biden.

(Reporting By Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt; editing by Grant McCool)

Biden to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, officials say

By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden plans to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, 20 years to the day after the al Qaeda attacks that triggered America’s longest war, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.

The disclosure of the plan came on the same day that the U.S. intelligence community released a gloomy outlook for Afghanistan, forecasting “low” chances of a peace deal this year and warning that its government would struggle to hold the Taliban insurgency at bay if the U.S.-led coalition withdraws support.

Biden’s decision would miss a May 1 deadline for withdrawal agreed to with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump. The insurgents had threatened to resume hostilities against foreign troops if that deadline was missed. But Biden would still be setting a near-term withdrawal date, potentially allaying Taliban concerns.

The Democratic president will publicly announce his decision on Wednesday, the White House said. A senior Biden administration official said the pullout would begin before May 1 and could be complete well before the Sept. 11 deadline. Significantly, it will not would be subject to further conditions, including security or human rights.

“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe in staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in a briefing with reporters.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are expected to discuss the decision with NATO allies in Brussels on Wednesday, sources said.

Biden’s decision suggests he has concluded that the U.S. military presence will no longer be decisive in achieving a lasting peace in Afghanistan, a core Pentagon assumption that has long underpinned American troop deployments there.

“There is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan, and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process,” the senior administration official said.

The U.S. intelligence report, which was sent to Congress, stated: “Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.”

The Taliban declined comment, saying the group has not been notified of the U.S. decision.

The May 1 deadline had already started to appear less and less likely in recent weeks, given the lack of preparations on the ground to ensure it could be done safely and responsibly. U.S. officials have also blamed the Taliban for failing to live up to commitments to reduce violence and some have warned about persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks, when hijackers slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, killing almost 3,000 people. The Biden administration has said al Qaeda does not pose a threat to the U.S. homeland now.

‘ABANDON THE FIGHT’

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell accused Biden of planning to “turn tail and abandon the fight in Afghanistan.” It was Trump, a Republican, who had agreed to the May 1 withdrawal.

“Precipitously withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake,” McConnell said, adding that effective counter-terrorism operations require presence and partners on the ground.

There currently are about 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011. About 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed in the course of the Afghan conflict and many thousands more wounded.

It remains unclear how Biden’s move would impact a planned 10-day summit starting April 24 about Afghanistan in Istanbul that is due to include the United Nations and Qatar. Taliban representatives have not yet committed to attend.

Officials in Afghanistan are bracing for the withdrawal.

“We will have to survive the impact of it and it should not be considered as Taliban’s victory or takeover,” said a senior Afghan government source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Although successive U.S. presidents sought to extricate themselves from Afghanistan, those hopes were confounded by concerns about Afghan security forces, endemic corruption in Afghanistan and the resiliency of a Taliban insurgency that enjoyed safe haven across the border in Pakistan.

Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States could cut off financial assistance to Afghanistan “if there is backsliding on civil society, the rights that women have achieved.” Under previous Taliban rule, the rights of women and girls were curtailed.

Democratic Senator Jack Reed, chairman of Senate Armed Services, called it a very difficult decision for Biden.

“There is no easy answer,” Reed said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Steve Holland, Trevor Hunnicutt, Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay in Washington, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Editing by Will Dunham)

No decisions made about U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – No decisions have been made on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, the State Department said on Wednesday after a bipartisan report to Congress called on Washington to delay a Trump administration plan to pull all U.S. forces out by May 1.

“At this time, no decisions about our force posture have been made,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, saying the Biden administration was reviewing the U.S.-Taliban troop withdrawal pact negotiated by the Trump administration.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Leslie Adler)