Afghan police say Kabul mosque bombing kills 12 worshipers

Afghan police say Kabul mosque bombing kills 12 worshipers

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Afghan journalist take photos and film inside a mosque after a bomb explosion in Shakar Dara district of Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, May 14, 2921. A bomb ripped through a mosque in northern Kabul during Friday prayers killing 12 worshippers, Afghan … more >

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By Tameem Akhgar

Associated Press

Friday, May 14, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A bomb ripped through a mosque in northern Kabul during Friday prayers and killed 12 worshippers, Afghan police said.

Spokesman Ferdaws Faramarz said the mosque’s imam, Mofti Naiman, was among the dead. Another 15 people were wounded.

The bomb exploded as prayers had begun. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, but initial police investigations suggest the imam may have been the target, Faramarz said.

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A worshipper at the mosque, Muhibullah Sahebzada, said he had just stepped into the mosque when the explosion went off. Stunned, he heard the sound of screams, including children, as smoke filled the mosque. Sahebzada said he saw several bodies on the mosque floor and at least one child was among the wounded.

It appeared the explosive device had been hidden inside the pulpit at the front of the mosque.

“I was afraid of a second explosion so I came immediately to my home,” he said.

An image circulating on social media showed three bodies lying on the floor of the mosque, which showed minor damage.

The explosion comes on the second day of a three-day cease-fire announced by the warring Taliban and Afghan government. The pause was for the Islamic festival Eid-al-Fitr, which follows the fasting month of Ramadan.

Until now many of the attacks in the capital have been claimed by the local Islamic State affiliate, but both the Taliban and government blame each other.

The most recent attack last week killed over 90 people, many of them pupils leaving a girls’ school when a powerful car bomb exploded. The Taliban denied involvement and condemned the attack.

The relentless violence comes as the U.S. and allied NATO forces continue with their final withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war.

Just this week the last of the U.S. troops left southern Kandahar Air Base, while some NATO troops still remained. At the war’s peak, more than 30,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Kandahar, the Taliban heartland. Kandahar was the second-largest U.S. base in Afghanistan after Bagram north of the Afghan capital.

Death toll soars to 50 in school bombing in Afghan capital

Death toll soars to 50 in school bombing in Afghan capital

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Afghan men bury a victim of deadly bombings on Saturday near a school, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 9, 2021. The Interior Ministry said Sunday the death toll in the horrific bombing at the entrance to a girls’ school … more >

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By Rahim Faiez

Associated Press

Sunday, May 9, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The death toll in a horrific bombing at a girls’ school in the Afghan capital has soared to 50, many of them pupils between 11 and 15 years old, the Interior Ministry said Sunday.

The number of wounded in Saturday’s attack has also climbed to more than 100, said Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian.

Three explosions outside the school entrance struck as students were leaving for the day, he said. The blasts occurred in a mostly Shiite neighborhood in the west of the capital. The Taliban denied responsibility, condemning the attack.

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The first explosion came from a vehicle packed with explosives, followed by two others, said Arian, adding that the casualty figures could still rise.

In the capital rattled by relentless bombings, Saturday’s attack was among the worst. Criticism has mounted over lack of security and growing fears of even more violence as the U.S. and NATO complete their final military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The attack targeted Afghanistan‘s ethnic Hazaras who dominate the western Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, where the bombings occurred. Most Hazaras are Shiite Muslims

The area has been hit by violence against minority Shiites and most often claimed by the Islamic State affiliate operating in the country. No one has yet claimed Saturday’s bombings.

The radical Sunni Muslim group has declared war on Afghanistan’s Shiites. Washington blamed IS for a vicious attack last year in a maternity hospital in the same area that killed pregnant women and newborn babies.

Soon after the bombing, angry crowds attacked ambulances and even beat health workers as they tried to evacuate the wounded, Health Ministry spokesman Ghulam Dastigar Nazari said. He had implored residents to cooperate and allow ambulances free access to the site.

Bloodied backpacks and school books lay strewn outside the Syed Al-Shahda school. In the morning, boys attend classes in the sprawling school compound and in the afternoon, it’s girls’ turn.

Residents in the area said the explosion was deafening. Naser Rahimi told The Associated Press he heard three separate explosions, and immediately thought that the sheer power of the blasts meant the death toll would almost certainly climb.

One of the students fleeing the school recalled the attack, the girls’ screams of the girls, the blood.

“I was with my classmate, we were leaving the school, when suddenly an explosion happened,“ said 15-year-old Zahra, whose arm had been broken by a piece of shrapnel.

“Ten minutes later there was another explosion and just a couple of minutes later another explosion,” she said. “Everyone was yelling and there was blood everywhere, and I couldn’t see anything clearly.” Her friend died.

Outside the Muhammad Ali Jinnah Hospital, in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, dozens of people lined up to donate blood, while family members checked casualty posted lists on the walls.

Most of the dozens of injured brought to the EMERGENCY Hospital for war-wounded in the Afghan capital, “almost all girls and young women between 12 and 20 years old,” said Marco Puntin, the hospital’s program coordinator in Afghanistan.

In a statement following the attack, the EMERGENCY Hospital said the first three months of this year have seen a 21 percent increase in war-wounded.

IS has previously claimed attacks against minority Shiites in the same area, last year claiming two brutal attacks on education facilities that killed 50 people, most of them students.

Even as the IS has been degraded in Afghanistan, according to government and US officials, it has stepped up its attacks, particularly against Shiite Muslims and women workers.

Earlier the group took responsibility for the targeted killing of three women media personnel in eastern Afghanistan.

The attack comes days after the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 American troops officially began leaving the country. They will be out by Sept. 11 at the latest. The pullout comes amid a resurgent Taliban, who control or hold sway over half of Afghanistan.

The top U.S. military officer said Sunday that Afghan government forces face an uncertain future and possibly some “bad possible outcomes” against Taliban insurgents as the withdrawal accelerates in the coming weeks.

_____

Associated Press photographer Rahmat Gul and video journalist Ahmad Seir in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

Bomb kills at least 30 near girls’ school in Afghan capital

Bomb kills at least 30 near girls’ school in Afghan capital

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Afghan school students treated at a hospital after a bomb explosion near a school in west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, May 8, 2021. A bomb exploded near a school in west Kabul on Saturday, killing several, many them young students, … more >

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By Rahim Faiez

Associated Press

Saturday, May 8, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A bomb exploded near a girls’ school in a majority Shiite district of west Kabul on Saturday, killing at least 30 people, many of them young pupils between 11 and 15 years old. The Taliban condemned the attack and denied any responsibility.

Ambulances evacuated the wounded as relatives and residents screamed at authorities near the scene of the blast at Syed Al-Shahda school, in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said. The death toll was expected to rise further.

The bombing, apparently aimed to cause maximum civilian carnage, adds to fears that violence in the war-wrecked country could escalate as the U.S. and NATO end nearly 20 years of military engagement.

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Residents in the area said the explosion was deafening. One, Naser Rahimi, told The Associated Press he heard three separate explosions, although there was no official confirmation of multiple blasts. Rahimi also said he believed that the sheer power of the explosion meant the death toll would almost certainly climb.

Rahimi said the explosion went off as the girls were streaming out of the school at around 4:30 p.m. local time. Authorities were investigating the attack but have yet to confirm any details.

One of the students fleeing the school recalled the attack. the screaming of the girls, the blood.

“I was with my classmate, we were leaving the school, when suddenly an explosion happened, “ said 15-year-old Zahra, whose arm had been broken by a piece of shrapnel.

“Ten minutes later there was another explosion and just a couple of minutes later another explosion,” she said. “Everyone was yelling and there was blood everywhere, and I couldn’t see anything clearly.” Her friend died.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, the Afghan Islamic State affiliate has targeted the Shiite neighborhood before.

The radical Sunni Muslim group has declared war on Afghanistan‘s minority Shiite Muslims. Washington blamed IS for a vicious attack last year in a maternity hospital in the same area that killed pregnant women and newborn babies.

In Dasht-e-Barchi, angry crowds attacked the ambulances and even beat health workers as they tried to evacuate the wounded, Health Ministry spokesman Ghulam Dastigar Nazari said. He implored residents to cooperate and allow ambulances free access to the site.

Images circulating on social media purportedly showed bloodied school backpacks and books strewn across the street in front if the school, and smoke rising above the neighborhood.

At one nearby hospital, Associated Press journalists saw at least 20 dead bodies lined up in hallways and rooms, with dozens of wounded people and families of victims pressing through the facility.

Outside the Muhammad Ali Jinnah Hospital, dozens of people lined up to donate blood, while family members checked casualty posted lists on the walls.

Both Arian and Nazari said that at least 50 people were also wounded, and that the casualty toll could rise. The attack occurred just as the fasting day came to an end.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, and Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters in a message that only the Islamic State group could be responsible for such a heinous crime. Mujahid also accused Afghanistan‘s intelligence agency of being complicit with IS, although he offered no evidence.

The Taliban and the Afghan government have traded accusations over a series of targeted killings of civil society workers, journalists and Afghan professionals. While IS has taken responsibility for some of those killings, many have gone unclaimed.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued a statement condemning the attack, blaming the Taliban even as they denied it. He offered no proof.

IS has previously claimed attacks against minority Shiites in the same area, last year claiming two brutal attacks on education facilities that killed 50 people, most of them students.

Even as the IS has been degraded in Afghanistan, according to government and US officials, it has stepped-up its attacks particularly against Shiite Muslims and women workers.

Earlier the group took responsibility for the targeted killing of three women media personnel in eastern Afghanistan.

The attack comes days after the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 American troops officially began leaving the country. They will be out by Sept. 11 at the latest. The pullout comes amid a resurgent Taliban, who control or hold sway over half of Afghanistan.

The top U.S. military officer said Sunday that Afghan government forces face an uncertain future and possibly some “bad possible outcomes” against Taliban insurgents as the withdrawal accelerates in the coming weeks.

_____

Associated Press photographer Rahmat Gul and video journalist Ahmad Seir in Kabul, Afghanistan and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan contributed to this report.

Rights report: State of Afghan women’s health care grim

Rights report: State of Afghan women’s health care grim

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FILE – In this Aug. 21, 2019 file photo, a doctor briefs the mother of a malnourished child on how to feed her baby in a ward at Indira Gandhi hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. After nearly 20 years since the … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Thursday, May 6, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – After nearly 20 years since the ouster of the Taliban and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure and aid, many Afghan women still have desperately poor access to health facilities and adequate health care, a leading rights group said Thursday.

Human Rights Watch offered a bleak assessment of women’s health care in Afghanistan in its latest report, saying that even basic information on health and family planning is not available to most Afghan women. And even when women can get the care they need, the quality is often poor, the New York-based group said.

New health facilities that have opened over the years are often insufficiently staffed and inadequately equipped, HRW said. The group’s researchers visited several health facilities in the capital of Kabul, where many of the country’s better clinics and hospitals are located.

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The report says there are 4.6 medical professionals to 10,000 people in Afghanistan; the World Health Organization considers 23 medical professionals to 10,000 people a critical shortage.

“What emerged is a picture of a system that is increasingly unaffordable to the estimated 61% to 72% percent of Afghan women, who live in poverty, and one in which women often have more children than they want because of lack of access to modern contraception; face risky pregnancies because of lack of care; and undergo procedures that could be done more safely with access to and capacity to use more modern techniques,” the report said.

Most women cannot afford the increasingly costly medicines they need or even the cost of a taxi ride to a clinic, often at least a half hour away. Most Afghans live on less than $1.90 a day.

Patricia Gossman, associate director of HRW’s Asia division, said the money that came to Afghanistan after 2001 was squandered due to widespread corruption. Before that, the Taliban regime, which was also heavily sanctioned, had mostly ignored women’s health issues.

Washington alone committed $1.5 billion to rebuild Afghanistan‘s health care sector, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. watchdog overseeing the billions of dollars America invested in Afghanistan‘s reconstruction.

“The question everyone should be asking is why after 20 years and hundreds of millions of dollars the state of women’s health care is so grim,” said Gossman in an email. “Where did the money go … a horrendous amount has been lost to corruption, and nothing – nothing – has really ever been done about it.”

Gossman said some organizations have done better than others delivering aid, particularly in rural areas and even in Taliban-controlled parts of the country.

International aid to Afghanistan has also been dwindling in recent years, in part because of the deteriorating security amid relentless violence, but also because of increasing demands on funds exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

As U.S. and NATO troops continue their final withdrawal from Afghanistan, expected to be completed by Sept. 11 at the latest, assistance is likely to further decrease.

“This is a critical moment in Afghanistan,” said Humans Rights Watch, citing fears of a growing Taliban influence and escalating violence as U.S. and other NATO troops pull out.

“The need for international assistance is greater than ever,” it said.

Amid US pullout, Taliban issue threat to Afghan journalists

Amid US pullout, Taliban issue threat to Afghan journalists

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A U.S. flag is lowered as American and Afghan soldiers attend a handover ceremony from the U.S. Army to the Afghan National Army, at Camp Anthonic, in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Sunday, May 2, 2021. (Afghan Ministry of Defense Press … more >

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By KATHY GANNON and TAMEEM AKHGAR

Associated Press

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – The Taliban on Wednesday issued a threat to Afghan journalists they accuse of siding with Afghanistan‘s intelligence agency in Kabul, a warning that came amid a U.S. troop pullout and rising fears of more violence in the war-wrecked country.

In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid warned those Afghan journalists who give “one-sided news in support of Afghanistan’s intelligence” service to stop or “face the consequences.”

The U.S. and Britain responded, with their embassies in Kabul quickly condemning the Taliban threat just two days after World Press Freedom Day.

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“We strongly support Afghanistan’s independent media,” tweeted Ross Wilson, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Kabul. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the on-going violence and threats against the media, and the Taliban’s attempts to silence journalists.”

Afghanistan is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. Since 2006, as many as 76 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan, according to UNESCO.

Last year alone at least 15 were killed, and earlier this year, three women employed by media outlets were killed in eastern Afghanistan. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for some of the killings, including that of the three women. The majority of the targeted journalists have been women.

The government blames a resurgent Taliban – who now control or hold sway over half the country – for many of the targeted killings. The insurgents, meanwhile claim the Afghan intelligence service is carrying out these attacks so as to blame the Taliban.

Earlier this week, Amnesty International decried the spiraling violence against journalists in Afghanistan and the impunity of the culprits carrying out the attacks.

“Nearly all the killings, invariably carried out by unidentified gunmen, have gone uninvestigated,” Amnesty said. “Dozens of others have been injured, while journalists routinely receive threats, intimidation and harassment because of their work. Faced with this dire situation and with multiple journalist ‘hit lists’ in open circulation, many journalists are fleeing the country.”

Also Wednesday, an Afghan open media advocacy group expressed concerns about statements reportedly made by the head of the intelligence agency, known as the National Directorate of Security or NDS, criticizing some outlets he accused of carrying insurgent propaganda.

The comments by the intel chief, Ahmad Zia Seraj, were tweeted by Arif Rahmani, a lawmaker from the central Ghazni province who attended a private meeting of lawmakers with the NDS chief.

Rahmani told The Associated Press that at the meeting, Seraj was asked by lawmakers about alleged pro-Taliban coverage by some media outlets. The NDS chief said in response that there would be severe legal consequences for outlets carrying “”terrorist propaganda,” according to Rahmani.

He did not name the outlets, Rahmani said. There was no immediate comment from the intelligence agency.

Last week, the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 American troops officially began leaving Afghanistan. They are expected to be out by Sept. 11 at the latest – a deadline set by President Joe Biden.

The U.S. has openly also warned of battlefield gains for the Taliban and officials in Washington say Afghan government forces face an uncertain future against the insurgents as the withdrawal accelerates in the coming weeks.

Pentagon offers first progress report on exit from Afghanistan

Pentagon offers first progress report on exit from Afghanistan

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In this Jan. 15, 2018, file photo, U.S. Marines watch during the change of command ceremony at Task Force Southwest military field in Shorab military camp of Helmand province, Afghanistan. The final phase of ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan … more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Kicking off President Biden’s withdrawal from operations in Afghanistan, the military reported Tuesday it has already moved the equivalent of 60 C-17 loads of material out of the country and turned over more than 1,300 pieces of equipment to the Defense Logistics Agency for destruction.

A day after it formally began withdrawing troops from the country, the military also handed over Camp New Antonik in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province to Afghan forces. According to U.S. Central Command, U.S. forces in the country have completed between 2% to 6% of the “entire retrograde process.”

According to the France 24 news agency, Camp New Antonik will be used by Afghan special forces soldiers who have been trained in counter-terrorism operations by the U.S. military and NATO.

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Central Command officials said they intend to provide a weekly update on the progress of the retrograde process.

Hillary Clinton: Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan will have ‘huge consequences’

Hillary Clinton: Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan will have ‘huge consequences’

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Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton attends the premiere of the Hulu documentary "Hillary" in New York on March 4, 2020. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File) more >

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By Jessica Chasmar

The Washington Times

Monday, May 3, 2021

Hillary Clinton said Sunday that President Biden should be prepared for “huge consequences” in the Middle East after his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

The former secretary of state, who strongly supported the U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, said the president’s decision to withdraw 2,448 U.S. troops from Afghanistan could lead to a refugee crisis and a massive resurgence in terrorism.

“I know it’s a very difficult decision,” Mrs. Clinton told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “This is what we call ‘a wicked problem.’ You know there are consequences, both foreseen and unintended, of staying and of leaving. The president has made the decision to leave. 

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“And I think that our government has to focus on two huge consequences,” she continued. “One, the potential collapse of the Afghan government and a takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, probably with a resumption of civil war in certain parts of the country, but a largely Taliban-run government at some point in the not-too-distant future. 

“How do we help and protect the many, many thousands of Afghans who worked with the United States and NATO, who worked with American and other NATO-connected contractors, who stood up and spoke out for women’s rights and human rights?” she asked. “I hope that the administration, in concert with the Congress, will have a very large visa program and will begin immediately to try to provide that channel for so many Afghans to utilize so that they are not left in danger. There will also be, I fear, a huge refugee outflow.

“And of course, the second big set of problems revolves around a resumption of activities by global terrorist groups, most particularly al Qaeda and the Islamic State,” she added. 

“And so I think these two huge sets of issues have got to be addressed. I mean, it’s one thing to pull out troops that have been, you know, supporting security in Afghanistan, supporting the Afghan military, leaving it pretty much to fend for itself. But we can’t afford to walk away from the consequences of that decision,” she said.

Mrs. Clinton stopped short of saying she opposed the decision.

The Democrat’s comments followed an Axios report that she and Condoleezza Rice, a Republican, both raised concerns about Mr. Biden‘s withdrawal plans during a Zoom call Wednesday with members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Both of the former secretaries of state spoke during the call about protecting U.S. diplomats on the ground and the potential consequences a troop withdrawal would mean for the global war on terrorism, Axios reported.

During her interview with CNN, Mrs. Clinton gave Mr. Biden an A grade for his first 100 days in office. 

“He has once again embodied and modeled what a president should act like in the Oval Office, in the White House, in the world at large, with dignity, with purposefulness, with care for what he says and how he treats people,” she said. “I mean, we now have a mature, experienced president, and thank goodness we do.”

Joe Biden celebrates Osama bin Laden killing on 10 year anniversary

Biden celebrates Osama bin Laden killing on 10th anniversary despite opposition to raid

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Osama bin Laden is seen at a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Mazhar Ali Khan, File) more >

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By Alex Swoyer

The Washington Times

Sunday, May 2, 2021

President Biden remembered the killing of Osama bin Laden 10 years later on Sunday, saying it is now time to bring American soldiers home after the nation’s longest war. 

Mr. Biden, as vice president, was alongside former President Obama when the call was made to take bin Laden out by Seal Team 6, which raided his compound in May of 2011. 

“It is a moment I will never forget—the intelligence professionals who had painstakingly tracked him down; the clarity and conviction of President Obama in making the call; the courage and skill of our team on the ground,” Mr. Biden said in a statement Sunday. “It had been almost ten years since our nation was attacked on 9/11 and we went to war in Afghanistan, pursuing al Qaeda and its leaders.”

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But at the time, Mr. Biden was opposed to the raid, according to numerous insider accounts of others “in the room,” including Mr. Obama.

“Joe also weighed in against the raid, arguing that given the enormous consequences of failure, I should defer any decision until the intelligence community was more certain that bin Laden was in the compound,” the former president wrote in his 2020 memoir “A Promised Land.”

It’s been another 10 years since the killing that American troops have been overseas in Afghanistan, noted the current president’s statement.

“As a result of those efforts, as we bring to an end America’s longest war and draw down the last of our troops from Afghanistan, al Qaeda is greatly degraded there,” Mr. Biden said.

The administration plans to bring home the remaining troops in Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021 — 20 years after the deadly terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. 

AP INTERVIEW: Peace chief says Afghan gov’t must step up

AP INTERVIEW: Peace chief says Afghan gov’t must step up

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Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation gives an interview to The Associated Press at the Sapidar Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, May 1, 2021. Afghanistan’s chief peace negotiator says the often fractured Afghan political leadership must … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Saturday, May 1, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghanistan‘s chief peace negotiator said Saturday the often fractured Afghan political leadership must unify in its peace talks with the Taliban or risk the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops bringing more bitter fighting.

Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, said the time is now for Afghanistan’s political leaders to stand united in the talks. But some of them are former warlords with fierce reputations, heavily armed militias and deep seated grudges.

In an interview with The Associated Press in the Afghan capital, Abdullah warned that history and millions of Afghans – already frustrated by what they see as government ineptitude and runaway corruption – will judge them harshly if unity eludes the powerful leaders now in Kabul. In the early 1990s bitter fighting between many of the same leaders killed thousands of mostly civilians in the capital and gave rise to the Taliban, who took power in 1996.

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Abdullah said the withdrawal that officially began Saturday of the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. troops and about 7,000 NATO allied forces will present “huge challenges.”

“I wouldn’t call it the end of of the world for our people. I would say that it will be very challenging and that’s why I am of the opinion that the whole focus has to be on achieving peace, that does not only take us, it takes the other side,” he said.

Still, Abdullah said he is unconvinced the Taliban want peace. He said the National Reconciliation Council, of which he is the chairman, has put out countless calls for the Taliban to put all their demands on the table.

Messages go back and forth between a variety of Taliban to senior negotiators, including himself, said Abdullah. He noted that he has received countless messages from Taliban officials, some written, some as voice messages. Sometimes they are detailed, and other times terse and brief. But he said he has yet to see a commitment to peace from the insurgent group on which he can rely.

Abdullah said his response to the Taliban has been consistent: “Put everything that you want on the negotiating table. We are ready to discuss it. We are ready to find ways that it works for both sides.”

He said the withdrawal adds pressure on both sides to find a peace deal.

The Taliban cannot win militarily, he said, and even regional powers – including Pakistan with its influence over the insurgent group – have steadfastly rejected a military takeover in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders are headquartered in Pakistani cities.

An “inclusive, peaceful settlement, this is what everybody believes in. … God forbid if we don’t have peace then, of course, nobody has forgotten the recent history of the country. So everything has to be done in order to mitigate the serious consequences of the withdrawal.”

Meanwhile, Abdullah questioned assurances Washington has received from the Taliban to reject terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaida, the reason Washington and NATO invaded 20 years ago. Links between the Taliban and al-Qaida have continued to surface and al-Qaida publications and websites pledge allegiance to the Taliban leadership.

“What has happened to al-Qaida?” he asked. “That’s a big question.”

Formal start of final phase of Afghan pullout by U.S., NATO

Formal start of final phase of Afghan pullout by U.S., NATO

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In this Sept. 11, 2011, file photo, a U.S. Army soldier walks past an American flag hanging in preparation for a ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar province, Afghanistan. The … more >

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By Kathy Gannon

Associated Press

Saturday, May 1, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The final phase of ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan after 20 years formally began Saturday, with the withdrawal of the last U.S. and NATO troops by the end of summer.

President Joe Biden had set May 1 as the official start of the withdrawal of the remaining forces – about 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops and about 7,000 NATO soldiers.

Even before Saturday, the herculean task of packing up had begun.

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The military has been taking inventory, deciding what is shipped back to the U.S., what is handed to the Afghan security forces and what is sold as junk in Afghanistan‘s markets. In recent weeks, the military has been flying out equipment on massive C-17 cargo planes.

The U.S. is estimated to have spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan in the past two decades, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, which documents the hidden costs of the U.S. military engagement.

Defense department officials and diplomats told The Associated Press the withdrawal has involved closing smaller bases over the last year. They said that since Biden announced the end-of-summer withdrawal date in mid-April, only roughly 60 military personnel had left the country.

The U.S. and its NATO allies went into Afghanistan together on Oct. 7, 2001 to hunt the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks who lived under the protection of the country’s Taliban rulers. Two months later, the Taliban had been defeated and al-Qaida fighters and their leader, Osama bin Laden, were on the run.

In his withdrawal announcement last month, Biden said the initial mission was accomplished a decade ago when U.S. Navy SEALS killed bin Laden in his hideout in neighboring Pakistan. Since then, al-Qaida has been degraded, while the terrorist threat has “metastasized” into a global phenomenon that is not contained by keeping thousands of troops in one country, he said.

Until now the U.S. and NATO have received no promises from the Taliban that they won’t attack troops during the pullout. In a response to AP questions, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the Taliban leadership was still mulling over its strategy.

The insurgent group continues to accuse Washington of breaching the deal it signed with Biden‘s predecessor more than a year ago. In that agreement, the U.S. said it would have all troops out by May 1.

In a statement Saturday, Taliban military spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the passing of the May 1 deadline for a complete withdrawal “opened the way for (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) mujahidin to take every counteraction it deems appropriate against the occupying forces.”

However, he said fighters on the battlefield will wait for a decision from the leadership before launching any attacks and that decision will be based on “the sovereignty, values and higher interests of the country.”

Violence has spiked in Afghanistan since the February 2020 deal was signed. Peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, which were part of the agreement, quickly bogged down. On Friday, a truck bomb in eastern Logar province killed 21 people, many of them police and students.

Afghans have paid the highest price since 2001, with 47,245 civilians killed, according to the Costs of War project. Millions more have been displaced inside Afghanistan or have fled to Pakistan, Iran and Europe.

Afghanistan‘s security forces are expected to come under increasing pressure from the Taliban after the withdrawal if no peace agreement is reached in the interim, according to Afghan watchers.

Since the start of the war they have taken heavy losses, with estimates ranging from 66,000 to 69,000 Afghan troops killed. The Afghan military has been battered by corruption. The U.S. and NATO pay $4 billion a year to sustain the force.

Some 300,000 Afghan troops are on the books, although the actual number is believed to be lower. Commanders have been found to inflate the numbers to collect paychecks of so-called “ghost soldiers,” according to the U.S. watchdog monitoring Washington’s spending in Afghanistan.

Last year was the only year U.S. and NATO troops did not suffer a loss. The Defense Department says 2,442 U.S. troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded since 2001. It is estimated that over 3,800 U.S. private security contractors have been killed. The Pentagon does not track their deaths.

The conflict also has killed 1,144 personnel from NATO countries.

The Taliban, meanwhile, are at their strongest since being ousted in 2001. While mapping their gains and territorial holds is difficult, they are believed to hold sway or outright control over nearly half of Afghanistan.

“We are telling the departing Americans … you fought a meaningless war and paid a cost for that and we also offered huge sacrifices for our liberation,” Shaheen told the AP on Friday.

Striking a more conciliatory tone, he added: “If you … open a new chapter of helping Afghans in reconstruction and rehabilitation of the country, the Afghans will appreciate that.”

In announcing the departure, Biden said waiting for ideal conditions to leave would consign America to an indefinite stay.

In the Afghan capital and throughout the country, there is a growing fear that chaos will follow the departure of the last foreign troops. After billions of dollars and decades of war, many Afghans wonder at whether it was worth it.

Hospital fire kills 18 coronavirus patients as India steps up jabs

Hospital fire kills 18 coronavirus patients as India steps up jabs

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A relative of a person who died of COVID-19 mourns at a crematorium in Jammu, in Jammu, India, Friday, April 30, 2021. Indian scientists appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to publicly release virus data that would allow them to … more >

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By Ashok Sharma

Associated Press

Friday, April 30, 2021

NEW DELHI (AP) — A fire in a COVID-19 hospital ward in western India killed 18 patients early Saturday, as the country grappling with the worst outbreak yet steps up a vaccination drive for all its adults even though some states say they don’t have enough jabs.

India on Saturday set yet another daily global record with 401,993 new cases, taking its tally to more than 19.1 million. Another 3,523 people died in the past 24 hours, raising the overall fatalities to 211,853, according to the Health Ministry. Experts believe both figures are an undercount.

The fire broke out in a COVID-19 ward on the ground floor of the Welfare Hospital in Bharuch, a town in Gujarat state, and was extinguished within an hour, police said. The cause is being investigated.

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Thirty-one other patients were rescued by hospital workers and firefighters and their condition was stable, said police officer B.M Parmar. The eighteen patients died in the blaze and smoke before rescuers could reach them, Parmar said.

On April 23, a fire in an intensive care unit killed 13 COVID-19 patients in the Virar area on the outskirts of Mumbai.

India’s government on Saturday shifted its faltering vaccination campaign into high gear by saying all adults 18 and over would get shots. Since January, nearly 10% of Indians have received one dose, but only around 1.5% have received both, although India is one of the world’s biggest producers of vaccines.

Some states already said they don’t have enough doses for everyone. Even the ongoing effort to inoculate people above 45 is stuttering.

The state of Maharashtra has said it won’t be able to start on Saturday, and Satyender Jain, the health minister in New Delhi, said earlier this week that the city doesn’t have enough doses to vaccinate people between 18 and 44.

Separately, eight COVID-19 patients, including a doctor, died Saturday at a hospital in the capital of New Delhi after it ran short of oxygen supplies, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. There was no confirmation by hospital officials.

The New Delhi television news channel also said an attorney for the Batra hospital told a New Delhi court that the hospital ran out of oxygen supply for 80 minutes before the tank was replenished.

Hospitals in the Indian capital have been complaining of emergencies caused by irregular oxygen supplies by manufacturers due to the sudden rise in demand caused by the massive spike in virus infections.

Faced with an unprecedented surge in cases that has filled hospitals and crematoriums, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government described the pandemic as a “once-in-a-century crisis.” Modi held a Cabinet meeting Friday that discussed steps to save the country’s crumbling health system by adding hospital beds, resolving issues in production, storage and transport of oxygen and tackling the shortage of essential medicines.

Television images showed a woman gasping for breath in her car while her family looked for a hospital bed on the outskirts of New Delhi.

The 33-year-old woman couldn’t find room at three hospitals and died in the car on Friday, The Times of India newspaper reported.

The U.S. meanwhile joined a growing list of countries restricting travel from India, the White House said, citing the devastating rise in COVID-19 cases and the emergence of potentially dangerous variants of the coronavirus.

President Joe Biden spoke Monday with Modi about the growing health crisis and pledged to immediately send assistance. This week, the U.S. began delivering therapeutics, rapid virus tests and oxygen to India, along with some materials needed for India to boost its domestic production of COVID-19 vaccines.

Additionally, a CDC team of public health experts was expected to be on the ground soon to help Indian health officials move to slow the spread of the virus.

Other nations have also sent assistance, and the Indian air force airlifted oxygen containers from Singapore, Dubai and Bangkok.

A German military aircraft with 120 ventilators for India departed Saturday morning from Cologne, and plans were being made for other flights with more supplies. Also on board was a team of 13 that will help prepare to set up a mobile oxygen production unit that will be flown to India next week, German news agency dpa said.

Taliban violence in Afghanistan surged in Biden’s first months

Taliban violence in Afghanistan surged in Biden’s first months

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Afghan national army (ANA) Soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 17, 2021. The Biden administration’s surprise announcement of an unconditional troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, appears to strip the … more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Friday, April 30, 2021

Even as the United States begins its troop withdrawal, Afghanistan experienced a rising wave of violent attacks against security forces and civilians during President Biden‘s first three months in office.

The attacks, blamed mainly on the Taliban insurgency, raise fresh questions about the country’s fate as President Biden sets a definitive end date for U.S. combat troops in the country. Power-sharing talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul have largely stalled even as the Pentagon and NATO countries begin the process of bringing their troops home.

In a just-released report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, “enemy-initiated attacks” in the first quarter of 2021 increased nearly 37% compared to the same quarter last year. Officials from both NATO’s Operation Resolute Support and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, recorded “strikingly high” civilian casualties during the same time period, auditors reported.

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The number of so-called insider attacks on Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) troops increased by 82% this year over the same period last year. NATO reported more than 2,000 civilian casualties — including 643 deaths — in the latest January-to-March quarter. Anti-government forces, predominantly the Taliban, are believed responsible for more than 90% of civilian casualties, according to the SIGAR report.

Afghan security forces conducted more than 90% of their missions during the first quarter of 2021 independent of any support from the U.S. or coalition partners, NATO reported. Officials with SIGAR said that figure is well above the percentage of independent operations during the same period last year.

Almost 17,000 civilian contractors — a mix of U.S. citizens, third-country nationals and Afghan civilians — were working in Afghanistan during the first quarter of the year. Pentagon officials said the American contractors will be joining the U.S. troops in fully withdrawing from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021 as ordered by President Biden earlier this month.

“It is unclear who, if anyone, will replace them or perform their work after their withdrawal,” SIGAR officials said in the report.

The contractors provide the bulk of the maintenance work for the airplanes and vehicles used by Afghan government forces. The report says local Afghan employees have “dramatically improved” their ability to take on the work, but remain well below the benchmark for how much they are supposed to perform.

The conditions for local Afghans will continue to be grim once U.S. military forces are no longer in the picture. More than 40% of its population — up to 17 million people — will likely face drought and food insecurity, according to the SIGAR report. According to the U.N. Children’s Fund, child mortality rates in Afghanistan increased by 2.7% while neonatal rates increased by 3.6%. Maternal deaths rose by 3.6% during this period, officials said.

Young women, grown up without Taliban, dread their return

Young women, grown up without Taliban, dread their return

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Sultana Karimi applies makeup on a customer at Ms. Sadat’s Beauty Salon in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, April 25, 2021. Kabul’s young working women say they fear their dreams may be short-lived if the Taliban return to Kabul, even if peacefully … more >

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By Kathy Gannon

Associated Press

Thursday, April 29, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Inside Ms. Sadat’s Beauty Salon in Afghanistan’s capital, Sultana Karimi leans intently over a customer, meticulously shaping her eyebrows. Make-up and hair styling is the 24-year-old’s passion, and she discovered it, along with a newfound confidence, here in the salon.

She and the other young women working or apprenticing in the salon never experienced the rule of the Taliban over Afghanistan.

But they all worry that their dreams will come to an end if the hard-line militants regain any power, even if peacefully as part of a new government.

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“With the return of Taliban, society will be transformed and ruined,” Karimi said. “Women will be sent into hiding, they’ll be forced to wear the burqa to go out of their homes.”

She wore a bright yellow blouse that draped off her shoulders as she worked, a style that’s a bit daring even in the all-women space of the salon. It would have been totally out of the question under the Taliban, who ruled until the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. In fact, the Taliban banned beauty salons in general, part of a notoriously harsh ideology that often hit women and girls the hardest, including forbidding them education and the right to work or even to travel outside their home unaccompanied by a male relative.

With U.S. troops committed to leaving Afghanistan completely by Sept. 11, women are closely watching the stalemated peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the post-withdrawal future, said Mahbouba Seraj, a women’s rights activist.

The U.S. is pressing for a power-sharing government that includes the Taliban. Seraj said women want written guarantees from the Taliban that they won’t reverse the gains made by women in the past 20 years, and they want the international community to hold the insurgent movement to its commitments.

“I am not frustrated that the Americans are leaving … the time was coming that the Americans would go home,” said Seraj, the executive director of Afghan Women’s Skill Development.

But she had a message for the U.S. and NATO: “We keep yelling and screaming and saying, for God’s sake, at least do something with the Taliban, take some kind of assurance from them … a mechanism to be put in place” that guarantees women’s rights.

Last week the Taliban in a statement outlined the type of government they seek.

It promised that women “can serve their society in the education, business, health and social fields while maintaining correct Islamic hijab.” It promised girls would have the right to choose their own husbands, considered deeply unacceptable in many traditional and tribal homes in Afghanistan, where husbands are chosen by their parents.

But the statement offered few details, nor did it guarantee women could participate in politics or have freedom to move unaccompanied by a male relative.

Many worry that the vague terms the Taliban use in their promises, like “correct hijab” or guaranteeing rights “provided under Islamic law” give them wide margin to impose hard-line interpretations.

At the beauty salon, the owner Ms. Sadat told how she was born in Iran to refugee parents. She was forbidden to own a business there, so she returned to a homeland she’d never seen to start her salon 10 years ago.

She asked not to be identified by her full name, fearing that attention could make her a target. She has become more cautious as violence and random bombings have increased in Kabul the past year – an augur of chaos when the Americans fully leave, many fear. She used to drive her own car. Not anymore.

The women building a future working or apprenticing in the salon all dreaded a restored Taliban – “Just the name of the Taliban horrifies us,” said one.

They’re left gaming out how much compromise of their rights they can endure. Tamila Pazhman said she doesn’t want “the old Afghanistan back,” but she does want peace.

“If we know we will have peace, we will wear the hijab while we work and study,” she said. “But there must be peace.”

In their early 20s, they all grew up amid the incremental, but important gains made by women since the Taliban‘s ouster. Girls are now in school, and women are in Parliament, government and business.

They also know how reversible those gains are in an overwhelmingly male-dominated, deeply conservative society.

“Women in Afghanistan who raise their voices have been oppressed and ignored,” Karimi said. “The majority of Afghan women will be silent. They know they will never receive any support.”

Afghanistan remains one of the worst countries in the world for women, after only Yemen and Syria, according to an index kept by Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

In most rural areas, life has changed little in centuries. Women wake at dawn, do much of the heavy labor in the home and in the fields. They wear the traditional coverings that conceal them from head to toe. One in three girls is married before 18, most often in forced marriages, according to U.N. estimates.

Religious conservatives who dominate Parliament have prevented passage of a Protection of Women bill.

Afghanistan’s broader statistics are also grim, with 54% of its 36 million people living below the poverty level of $1.90 a day. Runaway government corruption has swallowed up hundreds of millions of dollars, rights workers and watchdogs say.

At a bakery in Kabul’s Karte Sakhi neighborhood, 60-year-old Kobra squats in a brick shack blackened by soot in front of a clay oven dug into the floor.

The work is backbreaking, smoke fills her lungs, flames scorch her. She makes about 100 Afghanis a day, the equivalent of $1.30, after paying for firewood. She is the only wage earner for her sick husband and five children.

Her 13-year-old daughter Zarmeena works by her side, helping bake and sweeping the soot-coated floor. Neighborhood women bring their dough to be baked, and Zarmeena kneads it and puts it into the oven. They yell insults at her if she accidentally drops it into the fire.

Zameena has never been to school because her mother needs her in the bakery, though her younger brother, at 7, is in school. “If I could go … I would be a doctor,” she said.

Nearly 3.7 million Afghan children between 7 and 17 are out of school, most of them girls, according to the United Nations Children Education Fund.

Kobra isn’t looking forward to a Taliban return. She’s Hazara, an largely Shiite ethnic minority that has faced violence from the Taliban and other Sunni groups.

But she also rails against the current government, accusing them of “eating all the money” sent for Afghanistan’s poor to feed their own corruption. For months, she has tried to collect a stipend for the poor worth about $77 but each time she is told her name is not on the list.

“Who took my name?” she said. “You have to know someone, have a contact in the government or you will never receive anything.”

__

Associated Press Writer Tameem Akhgar contributed to this report.

Joe Biden defends plan to pull troops from Afghanistan

‘Forever war’ must end: Biden defends plan to pull troops from Afghanistan

'Today we have service members serving in the same war zone as their parents once did'

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President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP) more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

President Biden on Wednesday night defended his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, arguing that America has accomplished its goals in the 20-year “forever war.”

Speaking to a joint session of Congress, the president said the Afghanistan conflict was never meant to drag on for decades and pull multiple generations of U.S. troops into combat.

“Today we have service members serving in the same war zone as their parents once did. We have service members in Afghanistan who were not yet born on 9/11,” Mr. Biden said. “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking of nation-building.”

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Mr. Biden announced this month that the roughly 3,500 American forces still in the country will return home by the fall and nearly 10,000 NATO troops also in Afghanistan will follow suit.

Some military leaders and foreign policy analysts fear that without U.S. backing, the insurgent Taliban could quickly overrun the country and topple the fragile government in Kabul. 

But the president suggested that it’s not America’s responsibility to prop up Afghanistan forever. And he said that the American military has met the mission laid out after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“We went to Afghanistan to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. And we said we would follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell to do it … And we delivered justice to bin Laden,” the president said. 

As part of a deal it struck with former President Trump last year, the Taliban vowed to break ties with al Qaeda and not allow the terrorist group to ever again use Afghanistan as a home base. 

But recent Defense Department and United Nations reports have found that members of the Taliban and al Qaeda still have working relationships, raising questions about whether terrorist groups will again thrive once the U.S. and NATO exit.

Biden’s first 100 days: Where he stands on key promises

Biden’s first 100 days: Where he stands on key promises

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In this Feb. 11, 2021, photo President Joe Biden looks at a model of COVID-19 as he visits the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) **FILE** more >

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By ALEXANDRA JAFFE and AAMER MADHANI AND KEVIN VINEYS

Associated Press

Monday, April 26, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – As he rounds out his first 100 days in office, President Joe Biden’s focus on reining in the coronavirus during the early months of his administration seems to have paid off: He can check off nearly all his campaign promises centered on the pandemic.

Biden has delivered on a number of his biggest campaign pledges focused on climate change and the economy as well. But some issues have proved to be tougher for the administration – including immigration, where Biden is grappling with how to enact promised reforms in the face of a steep increase in unaccompanied minors seeking to cross the border. On some of his promises, Biden is waiting for Congress to act.

Where Biden stands on some of his key promises:

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IMMIGRATION

– Raise refugee cap to 125,000, up from the 15,000 set by President Donald Trump.

Nowhere close. The White House first said it would stick to Trump‘s 15,000 cap due to “humanitarian concerns.” After facing backlash from Democrats, it shifted gears and said Biden would increase the historically low cap on refugees set by Trump – but probably not all the way to the 62,500 that Biden previously had planned. And the numbers actually admitted this year are likely to be closer to 15,000.

– Surge humanitarian resources to the border and encourage public-private partnerships to deal with an increase in migration there.

Yes, but is it enough? The Department of Homeland Security has deployed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help deal with the major increase of border arrivals, and Biden signed an executive order asking officials to prepare plans for using humanitarian resources there. He has yet to establish any new public-private partnerships. The largest number of unaccompanied children ever at the border created massive overcrowding at Customs and Border Protection facilities and set off a mad scramble for temporary space at convention centers, military bases and other large venues.

– Reform the U.S. asylum system.

Incomplete. Biden signed an executive order in February directing his officials to craft a strategy for migration, including refugees and asylum seekers. Biden has promised to unveil a new “humane” asylum system but he and his aides have been mum on timing and offered no specifics. He’s eliminated some Trump-era policies, like a requirement that new asylum seekers wait in Mexico. But he has kept a Trump-era policy that allows Customs and Border Protection to expel migrants who enter the country without authorization to avoid the spread of COVID-19. And Biden has yet to articulate a plan to manage asylum flows beyond proposing that billions of dollars be spent to address root causes in Central America.

– Deliver a comprehensive immigration reform bill to Congress within his first 100 days.

Done.

– End travel restrictions on people from a number of Muslim-majority countries.

Done.

– Reverse Trump-era order expanding criteria for deporting immigrants and return to Obama-era principle of prioritizing deportations of immigrants posing a national security, border security or public health risk.

Done.

– Stop funding and building the border wall.

Done.

– Reverse Trump’s public charge rule discouraging immigrants from using public benefits.

Done.

– Restore the Obama-era principle of deporting foreigners who are seen as posing a national security threat or who have committed crimes in addition to the crime of illegal entry.

Done.

– Freeze deportations for 100 days.

Attempted, but blocked in court.

– Streamline and improve the naturalization process for green card holders.

In progress. Biden signed an executive order in February ordering a plan to improve the naturalization process, and the Department of Homeland Security has since revoked some Trump-era rules, sought public input into naturalization barriers and reverted to a 2008 version of the U.S. civics test for applicants, considered more accessible than the Trump-era revamp.

– End family separation and create task force to reunite families separated at the border.

In progress. Biden signed executive orders ending the policy and establishing a task force focused on reuniting families. The task force is making slow progress as it pores over thousands of records.

– Order a review of Temporary Protected Status.

No review has been ordered, but Biden’s Department of Homeland Security has granted TPS for Venezuelans and Burmese, extended it for Syrians and extended a related program for Liberians.

– Convene a regional meeting of leaders, including officials from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Canada, to address the factors driving migration and propose a regional resettlement solution.

Not yet. Vice President Kamala Harris, tasked with dealing with the root causes of migration, has spoken to the leaders of Mexico and Guatemala, but no regional meeting is on the horizon.

– Protect those often described as “Dreamers” – young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents – and their families by reinstating DACA, the Obama-era policy defending them from deportation.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in March his agency was issuing a rule to “preserve and fortify DACA,” but the policy faces a Texas court challenge that could invalidate protections for those often described as “dreamers.”

– Ensure that personnel within Immigration and Customs Enforcement and within Customs and Border Protection abide by professional standards and are held accountable for inhumane treatment.

Biden included funding for training and investigating misconduct in his immigration bill and in the budget he proposed to Congress. His administration has faced questions about allegations of abuse in at least one Texas facility, which are being investigated.

– End prolonged migrant detention and invest in a case-management system to process people.

There’s been no announcement of added investments in case-management systems. The administration did roll out plans to release parents and children within 72 hours of their arrival in the United States in March. Officials subsequently acknowledged that hundreds of children have been held by Border Patrol for much longer, due to an increase in unaccompanied minors arriving at the border and a lack of facilities to house them.

___

DOMESTIC POLICY

– Reverse transgender military ban.

Done.

– Establish police oversight board.

Abandoned. The Biden administration said it was scrapping the idea, after consultations with civil rights groups and police unions that said it would be counterproductive.

– Direct attorney general to deliver a list of recommendations for restructuring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other Justice Department agencies to better enforce gun laws.

Not yet.

– Direct FBI to issue report on delays in background checks for gun purchases.

Not yet.

– Reauthorize Violence Against Women Act

Requires congressional action.

– Sign Equality Act

Requires congressional action.

– Create Cabinet-level working group focused on promoting union organizing, tasked with delivering a plan to increase union density and address economic inequality.

Done, by executive order Monday.

___

COVID-19

– Rejoin World Health Organization.

Done.

– Ensure 100 million vaccines have been administered before the end of his first 100 days, later increased to 200 million.

Done.

– Increase access to testing and establish pandemic testing board.

Done.

– Issue mask mandate on federal property and ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days.

Done.

– Extend nationwide restrictions on home evictions and foreclosures.

Done.

– Continue to pause student loan payments.

Done.

– Safely reopen a majority of K-8 schools.

According to data collected by Burbio, a school-tracking site, as of April 18 62% of schools offered in-person learning every day. It’s unclear what percentage of those schools are elementary schools.

– Push for passage of $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief legislative package.

Done; the bill passed in March.

___

CLIMATE

– Rescind Keystone XL oil pipeline permit, protect the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, rejoin the Paris climate agreement and embrace the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol to reduce harmful hydrofluorocarbons, or HFC’s.

Done.

– Convene climate world summit and persuade nations to set more ambitious emissions pledges.

Done.

– Ban new oil and gas leases on federal lands and offshore waters.

Sort of – he’s imposed an indefinite moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters.

– Reverse Trump rollbacks on 100 public health and environmental rules.

In progress. Biden signed an executive order on Inauguration Day ordering a review of Trump-era rules on the environment, public health and science, and has begun the process of rolling back some.

___

ECONOMY

– Roll back Trump‘s 2017 cuts to corporate tax rates.

In progress. Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate to 28% from the 21% rate set by Trump‘s 2017 overhaul of the tax code.

– Provide $2,000 in direct payments as part of COVID-19 relief.

Done. The aid package approved right before Biden became president offered $600 in direct payments to eligible Americans. Biden said the payment should have been $2,000. His $1.9 trillion relief package included $1,400 in additional direct payments, which with the prior round adds up to $2,000.

– Pause federal student debt payments.

Done.

– Order a review of U.S. supply chains.

Done.

___

FOREIGN POLICY

– “End the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East” and terminate U.S. involvement in the Yemen civil war.

In progress. Biden announced that the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would begin by May 1 and the redeployment would be done no later than Sept. 11. Biden announced he was ending American support for the five-year Saudi Arabia-led military offensive in Yemen.

– Put human rights at the center of foreign policy.

Mixed. Biden has directly raised concerns with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Hong Kong, human rights abuses against Uyghur and ethnic minorities in the western Xinjiang province, and its actions toward Taiwan. He’s repeatedly raised concerns about the jailing and treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. But Biden declined to hold Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, directly responsible for the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi even after the publication of U.S. intelligence showing Salman approved of the hit.

– Improving relations with allies who had rocky relations with Trump.

Mostly accomplished. Allies like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Germany’s Angela Merkel, who had stormy relationships with Trump, have praised Biden for his efforts reclaim U.S. leadership on climate issues, and leaders in the Indo-Pacific have been pleased by early efforts at coordination on China policy.

– Reversing the embrace of “dictators and tyrants like Putin and Kim Jong Un.”

Mostly accomplished. Biden has levied two rounds of sanctions against the Russians. His administration decided to be measured in its approach with Putin and has said that he’s interested in finding areas where the U.S. and Russia can find common ground. Biden’s team acknowledges they have sought to reengage with North Korea, but have been rebuffed.

– Quickly rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran so long as Tehran comes back into compliance.

Mixed. Indirect talks are under way among other signatories of the 2015 deal, including British, German, French, Chinese and Russian officials, with American officials down the hall. But the path forward is less than certain as Tehran has thus far refused to come into compliance with the old deal without sanctions relief and it recently began enriching uranium to its highest purity ever.

– Recognize World War I-era atrocities against Armenians as genocide.

Completed. As a candidate, Biden said, if elected, he’d make it U.S. policy to recognize the killings and mass deportations by Ottoman Empire forces of hundreds of thousands of Armenians more than a century ago – something past presidents have avoided doing out of concern of angering strategic ally Turkey. Biden followed through on the promise on the annual commemoration Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Turkey swiftly condemned the move.

___

Associated Press writer Josh Boak contributed to this report.

___

Biden promises tracker interactive: https://interactives.ap.org/biden-promise-tracker.

Rights group cites abuses by Venezuelan forces near Colombia

Rights group cites abuses by Venezuelan forces near Colombia

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By REGINA GARCIA CANO

Associated Press

Monday, April 26, 2021

MEXICO CITY (AP) – Venezuelan security forces operating against Colombian rebels along the nations’ shared border have executed peasants, tortured and arbitrarily arrested people, and prosecuted civilians in military courts, an international monitoring group said Monday.

The Human Rights Watch report said the operation began March 21 in the rural state of Apure, where it said Venezuelan authorities previously had tolerated the presence of armed Colombians.

The report said accounts on what prompted the clashes vary, but community leaders as well as human rights and aid groups told the organization that an armed band with close ties to the Venezuelan government is trying to oust a rival guerrilla group to consolidate control over drug trafficking.

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“The egregious abuses against Apure residents are not isolated incidents by rogue agents, but consistent with the Venezuelan security forces’ systematic practices,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “International inquiries are essential into the mounting evidence against security force members who have committed abuses, and against commanders and top-level officials who knew or should have known what was happening during these operations.”

The operation in Apure has prompted roughly 6,000 people to flee, mostly to Arauquita, a town in Colombia where shelters are now overcrowded. Not all have access to aid.

A day after the clashes began, Venezuela‘s defense minister, Gen. Vladimir Padrino López, said the operation had resulted in the arrests of more than 30 people, the destruction of six rebel camps and the seizure of weapons, but he did not name the Colombian armed group involved. After reports of abuses surfaced, Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek Saab announced two efforts to investigate the situation.

Hours after the report was released, Venezuelan authorities in a statement said several soldiers had been killed in clashes with the Colombian armed groups. They did not give a specific number.

Padrino López in a statement said “bloody combat has been taking place with Colombian irregular armed groups” in the last 72 hours. The statement said that “a significant number of casualties” were recorded in the irregular groups and “several subjects who are providing valuable information for future actions were captured.”

Padrino López added that “some of our troops whose bodies are being identified also died” and others were injured. It is unknown whether the incidents were part of a military operation or if the Venezuelan security forces were ambushed in the vicinity of the border town of La Victoria in Apure state, some 770 kilometers southwest of the capital, Caracas.

Authorities earlier had reported the deaths of eight members of the military through April 5.

Human Rights Watch in the report said several armed groups operate in the border communities, including the Martín Villa 10th Front and the Second Marquetalia, both of which formed after the 2016 demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC.

A peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC in 2016 ended five decades of war. But the group has suffered deep divisions, with some of its members joining mainstream leftist movements and others giving up on the peace process and returning to arms.

The Second Marquetalia is close to the socialist administration of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Human Rights Watch said. Its report said that group is seeking to push out the 10th Front, which it said is the target of the Venezuelan operation.

Among the cases of abuse detailed in the report are the killings on March 25 of four members of a family. Their bodies with bullet wounds, cuts and other injuries were found about a mile from their home. The report said forensic experts determined weapons might been planted close to their hands.

Emir Remolina, the son of two of the people killed, told Human Rights Watch that he had seen his parents alive that morning, but when he returned to their home in the afternoon, he found it had been ransacked and his parents were missing. Neighbors told him security forces had loaded them onto an armored tank.

“After several hours, Emir saw messages and photos circulating in WhatsApp groups reporting that (the Special Action Force of the Bolivarian National Police) had killed a family on a farm near the rural area of El Ripial, about a mile from Emir’s parents’ home,” the report said. “The images, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, showed the bodies on the ground, face up, with weapons by their hands. Emir recognized them as his parents, brother, and uncle.”

The report said the Venezuelan government later reported that security forces had “neutralized” six people in Remolina’s parents’ community.

Colombia and Venezuela share about 1,370 miles (2,200 kilometers) of border but have not had diplomatic relations since February 2019 following Maduro’s decision to expel Colombian diplomats. Colombian President Iván Duque does not recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president and instead supports opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

Padrino López on Monday said the irregular groups are “connected with drug trafficking” and that it is supposedly part of a strategy by the U.S. and Colombia governments to “act against Venezuela.”

Top general says military in Afghanistan begins closing down

Top general says military in Afghanistan begins closing down

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Sunday, April 25, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – America’s top general in Afghanistan said Sunday that the U.S. military has begun closing down operations in the country and that Afghanistan’s security forces ‘must be ready” to take over.

“I often get asked, how are the security forces, can the security forces do the work in our absence? And my message has always been the same. They must be ready. They must be ready,” Gen Austin Miller told Afghan journalists at a press conference in the capital Kabul.

He also said the Taliban not returning to peace talks “does not make sense’.

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His comments came just hours before Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai appeared to indicate a breakthrough in negotiations.

In a terse tweet, Stanikzai said “soon the Taliban leaders name will be removed from blacklist. And 7,000 Taliban prisoners will be released.”

Until now Afghanistan‘s Council for National Reconciliation has tied the Taliban’s twin demands to a cease fire. Stanikazai made no mention of a cease fire and there was no immediate comment from the reconciliation council headed by Abdullah Abdullah.

The Afghan government and President Ashraf Ghani has until now refused to release any more Taliban prisoners, charging the 5,000 his government released last year were at least in part responsible for the stepped up violence, having returned to the battlefield. The Taliban deny the charges.

The 5,000 prisoners were released in keeping with the peace deal the previous U.S. administration negotiated with the Taliban, which the Biden administration reviewed and has largely followed.

Meanwhile, peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government which were to begin in Turkey this weekend were cancelled after the Islamic militia dismissed the U.S.-promoted conference in Istanbul as a political spectacle serving American interests.

“From a purely military perspective, the idea of them not returning to a peace process is, again, does not make sense,” Miller said. “A return to violence would be one senseless and tragic.”

While the official start to the withdrawal of Washington’s 2,500 to 3,500 troops and NATO’s 7,000 allied forces is May 1, Miller said “at the same time, as we start taking local actions, we’ve already begun that. ”

The U.S. military and NATO would be shipping some military equipment out of Afghanistan while deciding what would remain behind with the Afghan Defense and Security Force, he said.

In February last year, the U.S. military began closing its smaller bases. In mid-April, the Biden administration announced that the final phase of the withdrawal would begin May 1 and be completed before Sept. 11.

Relics seized from smugglers are returning to Afghanistan

Relics seized from smugglers are returning to Afghanistan

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Afghan Ambassador to the U.S. Roya Rahmani, accompanied by embassy staff, speaks as she gives the Associated Press a tour at the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, of looted and stolen Afghan religious relics and antiquities recovered … more >

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By BEN FOX

Associated Press

Thursday, April 22, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – Precious relics of Afghanistan’s ancient past are returning home as the nation confronts deepening uncertainty about its future.

A collection of 33 artifacts seized from a New York-based art dealer who authorities say was one of the world’s most prolific smugglers of antiquities was turned over by the U.S. to the government of Afghanistan this week.

“The significance of the material is huge,” Roya Rahmani, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., said Wednesday. “Each one of these pieces are priceless depictions of our history.”

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Rahmani formally took control of the collection in a ceremony Monday in New York with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and Homeland Security Investigations, which recovered the artifacts as part of a larger investigation into the trafficking of antiquities from a number of countries.

Now, after briefly being displayed at the embassy in Washington, the masks, sculptures and other items, some from the second and third centuries, are en route to Kabul, where they are expected to go on display at the National Museum.

It’s the same museum where members of the Taliban destroyed artifacts in 2001 as part of a cultural rampage rooted in a fundamentalist version of Islam in which depictions of the human form are considered offensive.

The Taliban is now out of power. But it controls much of the country outside of Kabul amid stalled talks with the government and the looming withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces after two decades of war. Rahmani concedes it’s a delicate time.

“However, what I know is that our security forces are determined to defend our people,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The government is committed to do its part for peace and stability in a way that would bring durable peace.”

They may get a chance earlier than expected. Germany’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that discussions are underway among military planners with the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Kabul for a possible withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan as early as July 4.

President Joe Biden has already said the U.S. would remove all its troops by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that prompted the American invasion to dislodge the Taliban in 2001 for allowing al-Qaida to operate from Afghanistan.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Taliban had already become internationally notorious for enforcing a harsh form of Islamic law that kept women out of public view and for destroying – with rockets, shells and dynamite – the famed giant, sixth century sandstone Buddha statues built into a cliff in Bamiyan province.

The destruction of the statues was on the ambassador’s mind as she prepared to ship the artifacts to her homeland, not only because a mural of the sandstone Buddhas adorns the room at the embassy where visitors gathered this week to see the relics.

Rahmani, her country’s first female ambassador to the United States, recalls that she wept when she first learned what the Taliban had done to the Buddhas. It was an important moment, she says, because she had pledged never to let anyone see her cry as a way to defy the male-dominated culture of her homeland.

“I broke my vow,” she said. “I really cried hard. I wept and wept.”

In contrast, the items are “returning to a government and people who cherish their past” and will make sure they are preserved for future generations, Rahmani said. She doesn’t expect the Taliban, if they return to power, would dare to destroy them.

“Our security forces and our government would not let that happen,” she said. “We are determined not to let that happen.”

Like the statues, some of the recovered antiquities depict Buddha. There’s also a marble statue of Shiva and a Greek mask. The artifacts reflect the multicultural influences on Afghanistan, an important center of trade and commerce, according to Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow who studies the country.

There are at least 2,600 archaeological sites around the country, said Hiebert, who helped authenticate some of the items after they had been confiscated by federal agents and discuss the relics at a gathering Tuesday at the embassy.

Afghanistan is one of the richest countries in archaeology and history in the world,” he said. And there’s very good reason, of course. For 6,000 years there’s been civilization based in Afghanistan.”

That also makes it an attractive target to looters, which is how the items eventually ended up in the United States.

In 2007, Homeland Security Investigations, an agency that deals with cases of smuggling that traverse international borders, received information about looted artifacts brought to the New York City area from India.

It eventually led to the indictment of a New York art gallery owner, Subhash Kapoor, and seven others as well as the seizure of more than 2,600 artifacts, valued at more than $140 million. He is jailed in India on charges and faces extradition to the U.S. when that case is resolved.

In the meantime, the U.S. government is working to repatriate the looted material, much of which was found in a series of raids on storage units in the New York City area.

They have already returned relics to Nepal and Sri Lanka and soon will turn over artifacts to Thailand, said Stephen Lee, the supervisor special agent in charge of HSI’s cultural property, arts and antiquities unit. The 33 items being sent to Afghanistan, valued at around $1.8 million, are the first to go back there as part of this investigation.

“They belong to the people of Afghanistan,” Lee said. “That’s their cultural history.”

In Kabul, Pentagon chief speaks of ‘responsible end’ to war

In Kabul, Pentagon chief speaks of ‘responsible end’ to war

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FILE – In this Saturday, March 20, 2021 file photo, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reviews an honor guard with Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, in New Delhi, India. Austin arrived Sunday, in Kabul on his first trip to Afghanistan … more >

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By LOLITA C. BALDOR and RAHIM FAIEZ

Associated Press

Sunday, March 21, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, on his first visit to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief, said Sunday that the Biden administration wants to see “a responsible end” to America’s longest war, but the level of violence must decrease for “fruitful” diplomacy to have a chance.

With questions swirling about how long U.S. troops will remain in the country, Austin said that “in terms of an end date or setting a specific date for withdrawal, that’s the domain of my boss.” He said his stop in Kabul, the capital, where he met with military commanders and senior Afghan government officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, was intended to let him “listen and learn” and “inform my participation” in reviewing the future of the American force.

President Joe Biden said last week in an ABC News interview that it will be “tough” for the U.S. to meet a May 1 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. But Biden said that if the deadline, which is laid out in an agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban, is extended, it wouldn’t be by a “lot longer.”

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Austin, who arrived after a visit to India, said: “There’s always going to be concerns about things one way or the other, but I think there’s a lot of energy focused on, you know, doing what’s necessary to bring about a responsible end, a negotiated settlement to the war.”

The Taliban on Friday warned of consequences if the United States doesn’t meet the deadline. Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiation team, told reporters that if American troops were to stay beyond May 1, “it will be a kind of violation of the agreement. That violation would not be from our side. … Their violation will have a reaction.”

A statement released by the presidential palace on the Ghani-Austin meeting said both sides condemned the increase in violence in Afghanistan. There was no mention of the May 1 deadline. Washington is reviewing the agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban last year and has been stepping up pressure on both sides in the protracted conflict to find a swift route to a peace agreement.

“It’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country,” Austin said. “We’d really like to see that violence come down and I think if it does come down, it can begin to set the conditions for, you know, some really fruitful diplomatic work.”

In a sharply worded letter to Ghani earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was urgent to make peace in Afghanistan and that all options remained on the table. He also warned that it was likely the Taliban would make swift territorial gains if U.S. and NATO troops withdrew. The United States spends $4 billion a year to sustain Afghanistan’s National Security Forces

The Taliban warned America against defying the May 1 deadline, at a news conference in Moscow, the day after meeting with senior Afghan government negotiators and international observers to try to jumpstart a stalled peace process to end Afghanistan’s decades of war.

Washington has given both the Taliban and the Afghan government an eight-page peace proposal, which both sides are reviewing. It calls for an interim “peace government” that would shepherd Afghanistan toward constitutional reform and elections.

Ghani has resisted an interim administration causing his critics to accuse him of clinging to power. He says elections alone would be acceptable to bring a change of government.

Both the U.S. and Kabul have called for a reduction in violence leading to a cease-fire. The Taliban say a cease-fire would be part of the peace negotiations. The insurgent movement has not attacked U.S. or NATO troops since signing the agreement.

But U.S. military commanders and NATO leaders have argued that the Taliban have not lived up to their part of the peace agreement, which includes a reduction in violence and a separation from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

Austin said he was confident in the ability of Gen. Austin Miller, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to accomplish his mission “with the resources he has” and to protect American troops.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last month that the alliance “will only leave when the time is right” and when conditions have been met.

“The main issue is that Taliban has to reduce violence, Taliban has to negotiate in good faith and Taliban has to stop supporting international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda,” he said.

Austin has said little on the record about the stalemate. After a virtual meeting of NATO defense ministers, Austin told reporters that “our presence in Afghanistan is conditions based, and Taliban has to meet their commitments.”

Austin’s stop in Afghanistan was his first return to a U.S. war zone in the Middle East since taking the Pentagon post. But he spent a great deal of time in the region during his service as an Army commander.

Austin, a retired four-star general, served in Afghanistan as commander of the 10th Mountain Division. From 2013-2016 he was the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan visit comes at the end of Austin’s his first overseas trip as secretary. After a stop in Hawaii, he went to Japan and South Korea, where he and met with their defense and foreign counterparts.

___

Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.

Afghan president appoints 2 ministers, angers ruling partner

Afghan president appoints 2 ministers, angers ruling partner

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FILE – In this March 6, 2021, file photo, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during the opening ceremony of the new legislative session of the Parliament in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ghani has made two key Cabinet changes, evoking a strong response … more >

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By RAHIM FAIEZ

Associated Press

Saturday, March 20, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has made two key Cabinet changes, a move condemned on Saturday as “unacceptable” by his powerful governing partner, Abdullah Abdullah, at a time when the U.S. is ratcheting up the pressure to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban.

In May 2020, Ghani and political rival Abdullah signed a power-sharing agreement, two months after both declared themselves the winner of the September 2019 presidential election. Under the deal, Ghani remained president of the war-torn nation while Abdullah was named head of the country’s National Reconciliation Council, which has the authority to handle and approve all affairs related to Afghanistan’s peace process. Abdullah would also be able to appoint half of Ghani’s Cabinet and issue executive orders.

On Friday, Ghani dismissed Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi, appointing Hayatullah Hayat as caretaker minister. In recent years, Hayat had served as governor of southern Kandahar province.

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There was little explanation from the government for the changes, but the moves angered Abdullah. “This decision is against the interests of the country in the current situation and is unacceptable,” he said in a statement released Saturday.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Yasin Zia was appointed acting defense minister. He replaced Asadullah Khalid, who had been receiving treatment abroad for severe injuries sustained in a 2012 suicide bombing, according to an official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He said Khalid will be returning to Afghanistan sometime soon.

Khalid was head of Afghanistan’s intelligence at the time of the attack. He has received treatment in the United States and has periodically returned there.

The changes come as a May 1 deadline nears for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and America has increased pressure on both the national government and the Taliban to end decades-old fighting.

The Cabinet changes could be a sign that Ghani is pushing back against the U.S. and opposition’s increasing support for an interim administration. Ghani’s critics have accused him of clinging to power. He says he will leave office only through elections.

The statement from Abdullah’s office said the decision to remove Andarabi came “without consultation, without justifiable reason or reasons, was hastily (made) and in opposition to a political agreement between the two parties.”

The new appointments come as Afghanistan experiences a nationwide spike in bombings, targeted killings and other violence as peace negotiations in Qatar between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government stall.

The Islamic State group’s local affiliate has claimed responsibility for some of the violence, but many attacks go unclaimed, with the Afghan government putting the blame on the Taliban. The insurgents have denied responsibility for most of the attacks.

On Thursday, Russia hosted the first of three international conferences aimed at jump-starting the peace process ahead of the May 1 deadline for the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the country.

The Taliban warned Washington on Friday against defying the deadline, promising a “reaction” if it does, which could mean increased attacks by the insurgent group.

The talks in Qatar between the Afghan government and the Taliban have stalled, but Russia voiced hope that the talks in Moscow could help reinvigorate them.

On International Women’s Day, laments of retreat on rights

On International Women’s Day, laments of retreat on rights

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A woman waves a feminist flag as demonstrators attempt to storm the National Palace during a march to commemorate International Women’s Day and protesting against gender violence, in Mexico City, Monday, March 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell) more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on International Women’s Day that the COVID-19 pandemic has seen “a rollback in hard-won advances in women’s rights” even as calls for women’s empowerment echoed around the globe, from Myanmar and Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The U.N. chief paid tribute to women leaders whose countries have suffered fewer deaths during the pandemic, to the 70% of frontline health and care workers who are women – “many from racially and ethnically marginalized groups” – and to women’s organizations that have provided local services and information on COVID-19.

The pandemic, however, has shown that “this is still a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture,” Guterres said in a video message on Monday. “But it has also forced a reckoning with global inequalities, fragilities and entrenched gender discrimination.’’

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All those issues, as well as the increase in violence against women are certain to be on the agenda at two major upcoming events that are part of the delayed 25th anniversary of the 1995 Beijing women’s conference that adopted a 150-page road map to achieve gender equality.

The events, centered on civil society and meant “to catapult” gender equality, will kick off with a virtual global gathering in Mexico City March 29 to 31.

That will be followed by a meeting in Paris from June 30-July 2, announced on Monday, called the Generation Equality Forum.

“We stand at a crossroads as we ponder the recovery from a pandemic that has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls, ” said UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the U.N. observance of International Women’s Day.

She said the world faces the challenge of the underrepresentation of women in institutions, some that are critical for the recovery from COVID-19, noting that just 12% of parliaments are gender balanced, 119 countries have never had a female leader and just 13 Cabinets in the world have gender equality.

Mlambo-Ngcuka called the exclusion of women from decisions affecting their lives “bad corporate governance” and said the Generation Equality Forum will help take steps toward recovery.

Around the world, there were expressions of concern at the state of women’s rights.

In Afghanistan, Sima Samar, who has been fighting for women’s rights for 40 years, said much has been gained in the two decades since the Taliban were ousted, with schools for girls open and women now in the workforce, politics and working as judges. They are even at the negotiating table where the Taliban and the Afghan government are struggling to find a way to end war, she said.

But Samar said in an Associated Press interview that the gains are fragile, violence is on the rise, warlords have gained prominence and the U.S. is mulling a departure from Afghanistan in May.

According to Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, 65 women were killed and 95 wounded in targeted attacks in 2020.

Afghanistan is second only to Yemen as the worst place in the world to be a woman, according to a 2019 Index compiled by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security in Washington and the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. The illiteracy rate among Afghan women is 82% and most of the women in Afghan prisons are jailed for so-called “moral” crimes like seeking a divorce.

In Myanmar, five umbrella women’s rights organizations said in a joint letter that the number of women in mass protests against the Feb. 1 military coup is estimated at 60%, at least six women and girls have been killed, and many others have been detained and are “at high risks of violence, harassment, and sexual assault with limited to no legal protections.”

They urged “globally prominent women leaders” to issue a joint statement urging the U.N. Security Council and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to “take immediate action against the military coup and in support of the protection of civilians by all possible means.” They also called for a global arms embargo, a cutoff of revenue to the military, and an immediate stop to “the assaults, harassment and abusive tactics against women protesters and release (of) all those arbitrarily detained.”

The Georgetown Institute said it was asked to disseminate their letter to global women leaders.

In Europe, 158 parliamentarians from the European Union and the United Kingdom signed a joint statement urging authorities in Saudi Arabia to end discrimination against women and “fully dismantle the male guardianship system,” which was loosened in 2019 to allow women to travel freely without a man’s consent. Still in place, however, are rules that require male consent for a woman to leave prison, exit a domestic abuse shelter or marry.

The parliamentarians also urged Saudi authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release all women human rights defenders detained for their peaceful human rights advocacy, and drop the charges against them.”

In Kosovo, hundreds of women marked International Women’s Day with a demonstration to protest domestic violence and demand more respect for their rights.

At U.N. headquarters, Ireland’s U.N. Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason co-chaired an informal Security Council meeting on the participation of women in U.N.-led peace processes and said their representation in peace negotiations “remains unacceptably low.”

“Women are not asking permission to be at the table,” she said. “We are demanding to be at the table. Participation is our right. Tokenism will not satisfy that right: We need direct, substantive inclusion of diverse women so that they can influence the course and outcome of negotiations.”

In the United States, President Joe Biden signed executive orders establishing a White House Gender Policy Council to advance gender equity and equal rights and opportunity for women and girls, and ordering the Department of Education to review regulations and policies to ensure they “guarantee education free from sexual violence.”

U.S, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the council meeting that the United States is joining the U.N. Group of Friends for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls and announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will deliver the U.S. statement at the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women on March 16.

“The United States and the Biden-Harris administration care deeply about gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls around the world,” she said. “We all believe and understand that women do better, countries do better, communities do better, and families do better. Not just women, but everyone.”

___

Kathy Gannon contributed to this report from Islamabad, Pakistan

US presents warring Afghan sides with draft peace agreement

US presents warring Afghan sides with draft peace agreement

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FILE – In this Feb. 5, 2019, file photo, Afghan politician Fawzia Koofi attends the "intra-Afghan" talks in Moscow, Russia. Frustrated by a stalled peace process and escalating violence, the U.S. has presented an eight-page draft peace agreement to Afghanistan’s … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Monday, March 8, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Frustrated by a stalled peace process and escalating violence, the U.S. has presented an eight-page draft peace agreement to Afghanistan‘s warring sides for review.

The U.S. told the parties to come to Turkey in the coming weeks ready to move on it, according to Afghans on both sides of the table.

The draft was obtained by The Associated Press on Monday. The document outlines the terms of a cease-fire and its enforcement, calls for the protection of the rights of women, children and minorities and envisions a truth and reconciliation commission aimed at healing 42 years of conflict.

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U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price would not confirm the draft, saying “It’s often important for our diplomatic efforts that we’re able to conduct them in private.”

The Taliban received the draft and were reviewing it, said spokesman Mohammad Naeem.

There was no immediate comment from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the draft proposal or a sternly worded letter from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

In the letter, Blinken said Washington wanted to see progress on peace talks and mentioned the draft peace agreement, which calls for a new, inclusive government – which Ghani has resisted. In recent speeches, Ghani has said no interim government would be formed “as long as I am alive.”

But Blinken was uncompromising in his letter, which was released by Afghanistan’s TOLO TV. “I am making this clear to you so that you understand the urgency of my tone regarding collective work,” he wrote.

In the letter, Blinken said a May 1 deadline for a final withdrawal of U.S. troops – stipulated in a Taliban-U.S. deal last year – is still on the table. Even with America’s $4 billion in aid to Afghanistan’s National Security Forces, a U.S. withdrawal could mean quick territorial gains for the Taliban.

Ghani’s first vice president, Amrullah Saleh, said the president had received the letter and was unmoved by its contents. He said Ghani was not ready to embrace the secretary of state’s accelerated pace toward a settlement.

“We are neither concerned about the letter nor has it changed our position,” Saleh said. He thanked the U.S. for its sacrifices and financial assistance over the past 20 years but said the Afghan government won’t succumb to dictation.

“We will make peace with dignity, but never …an imposed peace,” he said at a ceremony on the anniversary of the death of a former defense minister. Ghani has been accused by his political opponents of trying to cling to power at all cost.

Fawzia Koofi, one of only four women at the negotiation table in Doha, warned against haste and a May 1 withdrawal of U.S. troops, saying it would cause chaos. She confirmed that all sides had received the U.S.-crafted draft agreement.

“One thing that is important is that Afghan ownership and Afghan leadership must be respected,” she said in a phone interview from Doha. “The process should not be rushed.”

Blinken’s letter proposes a revised plan for a 90-day reduction in violence that would prevent the start of a spring offensive by the Taliban and would be followed by a permanent cease-fire laid out in the draft peace agreement.

Both sides would stop fighting within hours of the agreement being signed, according to the draft. The Taliban would remove all its military and military structures from neighboring countries – a reference to Pakistan, where the leadership currently resides. The draft agreement also calls for an independent commission to oversee cease-fire violations.

The preamble of the U.S. document says the draft peace agreement is intended to jump-start negotiations.

“It sets forth principles for governance, security, and rule of law and presents options for power sharing that could help the two sides reach a political settlement that ends the war,” it says.

The preamble portrayed the draft as a compilation of “ideas and priorities” of Afghans on all sides of the political spectrum.

The draft lays out an ambitious road map that protects the rights of all, guarantees elections, demands transparency and a fight against corruption and the illicit drug trade. It demands guarantees of non-interference from Afghanistan‘s neighbors and guarantees from Afghanistan that the country won’t be used to attack or interfere with another.

It proposes the establishment of a “peace government” that would oversee the writing of a new constitution and elections held immediately afterward. The new constitution is to protect the rights gained in the last 20 years since the toppling of the Taliban.

According to the draft, the peace government would include separate, but equal branches, including the judiciary, and executive branch.

The draft also said there will be one national government, no parallel governments and no parallel security forces, which would mean an end to Taliban fighters and the many militias loyal to warlords holding sway in Kabul.

It promises to protect Islamic values and while an independent judiciary would have the ultimate authority, the High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence would have an advisory role.

“The new peace plan offers a chance for a cease-fire, it offers a chance to bring the Taliban from the battlefield to the talks table to discuss thorny issues of religion and its role in (the state),” without giving them all the power, said Torek Farhadi, former Afghan government adviser.

Afghanistan is bordering on a failed state status and is sure to enter the category immediately after the withdrawal of the foreign forces absent a better political arrangement,” he said, “ That is the reality of Afghanistan.”

___

Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.

Antony Blinken eyes pulling Iran, Russia into Afghan talks

‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’: Biden seeks a new way ahead for troubled talks

Administration eyes pulling Iran, Russia, China into Afghan talks

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks on foreign policy at the State Department, Wednesday, March 3, 2021 in Washington. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP) more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Monday, March 8, 2021

The Biden administration’s surprise diplomatic push in Afghanistan could serve a dual purpose: to lay the groundwork for a U.S. military presence in the country past a looming May 1 withdrawal deadline, and to create an opening to work with adversaries Iran, China and Russia, each of which has created major geopolitical headaches in the White House’s early days.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, revealed publicly over the weekend by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews, calls for a multinational conference to forge a comprehensive deal between the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and the insurgent Taliban, who hold tremendous sway over negotiations because of the vast territory they control and their demonstrated ability to survive and grow despite two decades of war with the U.S.

Seen by some regional analysts to be a last-ditch effort to save the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Mr. Blinken has proposed a meeting in Turkey that would bring the two Afghan parties together with representatives from the U.S., Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. The proposal also reportedly calls for a power-sharing arrangement that would give the Taliban a major role in determining the future of the country.

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The meeting would call into question the point of U.S.-backed power-sharing talks between the Taliban and the Ghani government that began under President Trump. The negotiations, held in Doha, Qatar, have produced little progress.

The unexpected diplomatic moves may signal that the Biden administration is prepared to keep some U.S. troops in Afghanistan past the May 1 exit date laid out in a deal that Mr. Trump struck with the Taliban in early 2020. That pact, among other things, called for a major reduction in attacks by Taliban fighters and a complete break with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. Virtually all observers believe the group has failed to meet those conditions.

The new round of multilateral negotiations could give Mr. Blinken, Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and other administration officials justification to keep roughly 2,500 American troops, as well as allied forces, in Afghanistan. In theory, it would give Washington more leverage as it pushes for concessions from Taliban leaders, who desperately want U.S. troops gone.

Although Washington’s interests clash with those of China, Russia and Iran on other fronts, none of the regional powers favors a return to harsh Taliban rule or to more violence, and instability in Afghanistan.

Critics say the administration faces long odds. Simply bringing more countries into the process, they say, does little to change the fact that the Taliban have not kept their word but are still on track to be rewarded with power and prestige.

“The Biden team is approaching Afghanistan with a naivete that makes pre-9/11 decision-making look quaint,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Bringing other countries in for cover doesn’t change the fact that Blinken and Khalilzad are empowering the Taliban.

“The proposed Islamic council to which the Taliban will appoint jurists will wield a veto over all laws,” he said. “In effect, Biden and Blinken are imposing on Afghans the Sunni version of Iran’s theocracy. This doesn’t mean the U.S. needs to stay forever, but if the goal is to leave, for God’s sake, don’t undercut and undermine the Afghan government on the way out.”

Mr. Ghani also has expressed skepticism, and the struggling government in Kabul seems wary of formally granting more power to the Taliban.

State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday would not confirm the authenticity of Mr. Blinken’s letter, though he seemed to suggest its broad strokes are correct. Officials have not disputed the letter’s contents.

“It is true that they are consulting and the department more broadly is consulting with allies, with our partners, with countries in the region. … But at the same time, everything, every idea we have put on the table, every proposal that is out there, certainly any proposal that we would endorse, we understand that this process at its core must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned,” Mr. Price said.

Seats at the table 

Early signs suggest that the U.S. could find willing negotiating partners in rivals Iran and Russia. Iran’s theocratic regime could enhance its standing in the theater if it plays a significant role in shaping the future of is neighbor. Officials in Tehran said Monday that the nation is open to joining talks.

Afghanistan is important to us and is not our bargaining card with anybody,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told Iranian media.

Multinational talks on Afghanistan would put the U.S. and Iran at the same negotiating table, which might improve the atmospherics as Washington and Tehran spar over reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that President Trump repudiated in 2018.

Russia, which has hosted officials from Kabul the Taliban, also appears open to participating. U.S.-Russian cooperation on the future of Afghanistan could help thaw a frosty relationship, further strained by U.S. economic sanctions on Moscow for the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and a massive hack of U.S. companies and government agencies largely believed to be the work of the Kremlin.

Russian officials have not publicly addressed Mr. Blinken’s letter, but top Kremlin leaders last week said the country wants a voice in the Afghanistan debate. China’s communist government has not commented on the specific proposal but may be willing to take part in the talks to flex its muscle and further prove itself to be an influential player in the region.

But the willingness of outside powers may matter little in the end. With the Afghan government skeptical at best of the proposal, Kabul could resent the pressure to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban, foreign policy analysts say.

“The U.S. political system is not exactly functioning in an exemplary fashion, but one wonders how President Biden would feel if a U.S. ‘ally’ circulated a plan that called for dumping the U.S. Constitution and setting up a ‘peace government’ requiring Biden to share power with the extremists who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6th,” William Maley, emeritus professor at the Australian National University, wrote in a Monday analysis piece for TOLOnews.

Monday also brought fresh evidence of the chaos and danger in Afghanistan. An analysis from the open-source military intelligence firm Janes found that 2,373 attacks last year from “non-state armed groups” killed 6,617 people, a 15.9% increase over the previous year. Janes said “the increasing violence in Afghanistan was driven almost exclusively by Taliban attacks targeting the security forces” of the Afghan government.

U.S. military officials have stressed that diplomacy is the only real path forward in Afghanistan, but they also have made clear that the Taliban have failed to keep the commitments they made to reduce violence.

“Both parties have got to show that they’re willing to make the concessions that are going to be necessary to find a political path forward. And frankly, I remain concerned about the actions that the Taliban have taken up until this point,” Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said last week during an event at the Middle East Institute.

⦁ Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

Slain Afghan midwife among those to be honored for courage by State Department

Slain Afghan midwife among those to be honored for courage by State Department

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in this Tuesday, May 12, 2020, photo, security officers are seen through the shattered window of a maternity hospital after gunmen attacked, in Kabul, Afghanistan, The Geneva-based international health organization Médecins Sans Frontières — also known as Doctors Without Borders … more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Friday, March 5, 2021

It was nearly a year ago that Maryam Noorzad, a midwife at a hospital in Afghanistan, took a stand when extremists went on a rampage at the maternity ward where she worked in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Ms. Noorzad, who refused to leave her patient as gunmen sprayed bullets through the ward, was among more than a dozen women killed, along with her own patient and the patient’s newborn baby in the May 2020 attack.

Now, she is being honored by the United States along with six other Afghan women who were assassinated in separate incidents while serving their communities in the war-torn nation last year.

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Recognition for the tragically murdered Afghan women will be given Monday, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosts the annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) awards virtual ceremony, honoring a group of extraordinary women from around the world. The event coincides with International Women’s Day on March 8.

“Now in its 15th year, the Secretary of State’s IWOC Award recognizes women from around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment — often at great personal risk and sacrifice,” the State Department said in a press release. “From the inception of this award in March 2007 to today, the Department of State has recognized more than 155 awardees from over 75 countries.”

Those being honored Monday include women from Afghanistan, Belarus, Burma, Cameroon, China, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guatemala, Iran, Nepal, Somalia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Venezuela.

Among them is Belarusian opposition figure Maria Kalesnikava, a jailed leader of the pro-democracy uprising that has nearly toppled the three-decade rule of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko over the past year. Also cited are Wang Yu, whom the State Department described as one of China’s “most prominent human rights lawyers until her arrest and imprisonment,” and Shohreh Bayat, an Iranian chess champion persecuted by the government in Tehran because she was photographed at an international chess competition without wearing her hijab.

A full list of the 2021 recipients with bios for each can be found on the State Department’s website.

With regard to the seven assassinated Afghan women to be honored, the case of Noorzad is one among the many involving the gruesome targeting of women in Afghanistan over the past year — assassinations occurring amid a surge of extremist violence that has coincided Washington’s difficult attempt to negotiate with Taliban militants and withdraw American forces after roughly two decades of involvement in the war-torn nation.

Noorzad was serving for Médecins Sans Frontières — Doctors Without Borders — when three gunmen attacked the maternity ward where she worked. A Doctors Without Borders press release last year said 15 mothers were killed in the attack, five of whom were in labor and were minutes, or at most hours, from giving birth. Two children aged 7 and 8 were also killed.

The BBC reported at the time that the attackers walked straight past a number of other wards, all closer to the entrance of Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, and made straight for the maternity unit. No group claimed responsibility for the massacre, although the BBC cited U.S. Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as blaming Islamic State terrorists for the attack, saying the jihadists are seeking to undermine ongoing peace talks and fan a sectarian war in Afghanistan.

New killings deepen Afghan journalists’ assassination fears

New killings deepen Afghan journalists’ assassination fears

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Afghans carry the body of a woman who was killed by gunmen in the city of Jalalabad east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Three women who worked for a local radio and TV station in eastern Afghanistan were … more >

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By TAMEEM AKHGAR

Associated Press

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – It was Mursal Wahidi’s dream job, landed right after finishing her studies in journalism – working at a local TV station in her home city in eastern Afghanistan.

This week, the 21-year-old left the office for the day and walked home. She only made it a few steps. A gunman shot her point blank in the head and chest. She died instantly.

At around the same time, two of her co-workers, 21-year-old Sadia Sadat and 20-year-old Shahnaz Raufi, left work together, jumping into an auto rickshaw. When they got out close to their homes, gunmen in another rickshaw that had been following them opened fire, killing both women and wounding two passers-by.

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The coordinated killings of the three women were the latest in a bloody campaign against journalists in Afghanistan, a country that was already considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. In just the last six months, 15 journalists and media workers have been killed in a series of targeted killings.

The killings have spread fear among Afghanistan’s journalist community, prompting some to stop working or flee or self-censor to avoid angering militants or government officials, who have threatened journalists reporting on killings of civilians by government forces.

The fear is even worse because the perpetrators remain mysterious, a sign of the country’s fracturing security situation even as peace negotiations try to gain a foothold. Judges, lawyers and activists have also been targeted in a wave of assassinations since Washington signed a peace deal with the Taliban a year ago.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, including Tuesday’s slaying of the three women. But many others have gone unclaimed. The government blames most on the Taliban, trying to undermine the group’s support among Afghans. The Taliban deny any role and blame the government for the slayings, saying it wants to undermine the peace process.

Zabiullah Doorandish, who works for a local TV channel in Kabul, said false information flying around, including from the government, only fuels speculation. Some “start to think maybe there are groups inside the government that are targeting media,” he said. Some armed groups are connected to officials, but no one has put forward evidence they have a role in killings.

Doorandish, who often covers corruption, violence and human rights violations, was targeted by a roadside bomb attack in May. He survived, but two colleagues were killed. Now he’s afraid every time he steps out of the house, he said.

He said he gets death threats, some claiming to be from the Taliban, but others unknown. The threats, he said, prompted him to put aside for now a documentary he was preparing about the killings of journalists.

“Whenever I cover some incident, an explosion or attack, I am filled with fear and panic,” said Doorandish, a father of two.

On Wednesday, funerals were held for the three women, who worked for Enikass Radio and TV in the city of Jalalabad. They dubbed popular and often emotion-laden dramas from Turkey and India into Afghanistan’s local languages of Dari and Pashtu. In December, IS claimed the killing of another female employee at the station, Malala Maiwand.

Wahidi’s father said he had implored her to quit her job after Maiwand’s killing, but she refused, fiercely loving her work.

“Journalism was her life’s dream, she studied and was living her dream,” Wahidullah Khogyani told The Associated Press. He said he did not think that she had received any threats – but if she did, “she was hiding it.”

The aftermath of the killing underscored the government’s credibility problem.

Afghan officials claimed they arrested the killer of the three, identifying him as Qari Baser and insisting he was a Taliban. Police did not explain how the man could have carried out two near simultaneous attacks so far apart.

Hours after the killings, the Islamic State group said it killed the women because they worked for one of the “media stations loyal to the apostate Afghan government.” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the group had any role.

Afghanistan has over 2,000 officially registered media outlets. Violence against journalists was up 26% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, which recorded 132 threats and acts of violence against journalists and media workers last year.

Attacks against the media have been countrywide.

Last month in northern Afghanistan, the former head of a journalist association was killed and in western Ghor province a journalist and his family was killed.

Early this year, an angry mob ransacked Radio Zohra, a local radio station in northern Afghanistan, after a mosque imam incited the attackers, claiming the station’s music interfered with prayers. The station’s equipment was damaged, and it had to halt broadcasting.

One female TV presenter told the AP she fled her home after receiving death threats by phone from a person claiming to be from the Taliban. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the caller had no connection to the insurgent group and the Taliban had no issue with the work she was doing.

“As a mother, I get depressed thinking about my children’s future. What will happen to them if something happens to me?” said the presenter. She spoke on condition she not be named or her hometown or current location identified to protect her security.

She also criticized the government, saying her pleas for help have gone unanswered. They just tell her to be careful.

“The government doesn’t do anything about these targeted killings,” she said. “They don’t care.”

Mohammad Naweed, a journalist who is now in hiding, said no side can be trusted.

“All sides in the war are seeking their own interests.”

Latif Mahmood, the director of the government media and information center, said the government is working for the safety of journalists and media workers and insisted officials provide accurate information. He blamed the Taliban for most of the attacks.

“Our investigations show that armed opponents of the government are behind the target killings, we have identified them, suspects are arrested, and they have confessed, their base and aim are totally clear,” he said.

The head of the journalist safety committee, Najeeb Sharifi, said he expected killings to continue until a final peace agreement is reached.

“The targeted killing of journalists is very much linked to the larger political landscape in Afghanistan.”

___

Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

Pakistan expert: Religiosity aiding spike in militancy

Pakistan expert: Religiosity aiding spike in militancy

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FILE – In this Aug. 5, 2012, file photo, Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan. Militant attacks are on the rise in Pakistan amid a growing religiosity that has brought greater … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Saturday, February 27, 2021

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Militant attacks are on the rise in Pakistan amid a growing religiosity that has brought greater intolerance, prompting one expert to voice concern the country could be overwhelmed by religious extremism.

Pakistani authorities are embracing strengthening religious belief among the population to bring the country closer together. But it’s doing just the opposite, creating intolerance and opening up space for a creeping resurgence in militancy, said Mohammad Amir Rana, executive director of the independent Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.

“Unfortunately, instead of helping to inculcate better ethics and integrity, this phenomenon is encouraging a tunnel vision” that encourages violence, intolerance and hate, he wrote recently in a local newspaper. “Religiosity has begun to define the Pakistani citizenry.”

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Militant violence in Pakistan has spiked: In the past week alone, four vocational school instructors who advocated for women’s rights were traveling together when they were gunned down in a Pakistan border region. A Twitter death threat against Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai attracted an avalanche of trolls. They heaped abuse on the young champion of girls education, who survived a Pakistani Taliban bullet to the head. A couple of men on a motorcycle opened fire on a police check-post not far from the Afghan border killing a young police constable.

In recent weeks, at least a dozen military and paramilitary men have been killed in ambushes, attacks and operations against militant hideouts, mostly in the western border regions.

A military spokesman this week said the rising violence is a response to an aggressive military assault on militant hideouts in regions bordering Afghanistan and the reunification of splintered and deeply violent anti-Pakistan terrorist groups, led by the Tehreek-e-Taliban. The group is driven by a radical religious ideology that espouses violence to enforce its extreme views.

Gen. Babar Ifitkar said the reunified Pakistani Taliban have found a headquarters in eastern Afghanistan. He also accused hostile neighbor India of financing and outfitting a reunified Taliban, providing them with equipment like night vision goggles, improvised explosive devises and small weapons.

India and Pakistan routinely trade allegations that the other is using militants to undermine stability and security at home.

Security analyst and fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Asfandyar Mir, said the reunification of a splintered militancy is dangerous news for Pakistan.

“The reunification of various splinters into the (Tehreek-e-Taliban) central organization is a major development, which makes the group very dangerous,” said Mir.

The TTP claimed responsibility for the 2012 shooting of Yousafzai. Its former spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, who mysteriously escaped Pakistan military custody to flee to the country, tweeted a promise that the Taliban would kill her if she returned home.

Iftikar, in a briefing of foreign journalists this week, said Pakistani military personnel aided Ehsan’s escape, without elaborating. He said the soldiers involved had been punished and efforts were being made to return Ehsan to custody.

The government reached out to Twitter to shut down Ehsan’s account after he threatened Yousafzai, although the military and government at first suggested it was a fake account.

But Rana, the commentator, said the official silence that greeted the threatening tweet encouraged religious intolerance to echo in Pakistani society unchecked.

“The problem is religiosity has very negative expression in Pakistan,” he said in an interview late Friday. “It hasn’t been utilized to promote the positive, inclusive tolerant religion.”

Instead, successive Pakistani governments as well as its security establishments have exploited extreme religious ideologies to garner votes, appease political religious groups, or target enemies, he said.

The 2018 general elections that brought cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan to power was mired in allegations of support from the powerful military for hard-line religious groups.

Those groups include the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, whose single-point agenda is maintaining and propagating the country’s deeply controversial blasphemy law. That law calls for the death penalty for anyone insulting Islam and is most often used to settle disputes. It often targets minorities, mostly Shiite Muslims, who makeup up about 15% of mostly Sunni Pakistan’s 220 million people.

Mir, the analyst, said the rise in militancy has benefited from state policies that have been either supportive or ambivalent toward militancy as well as from sustained exposure of the region to violence. Most notable are the protracted war in neighboring Afghanistan and the simmering tensions between hostile neighbors India and Pakistan, two countries that possess a nuclear weapons’ arsenal.

“More than extreme religious thought, the sustained exposure of the region to political violence, the power of militant organizations in the region, state policy which is either supportive or ambivalent towards various forms of militancy … and the influence of the politics of Afghanistan incubate militancy in the region,” he said.

Mir and Rana both pointed to the Pakistani government’s failure to draw radical thinkers away from militant organizations, as groups that seemed at least briefly to eschew a violent path have returned to violence and rejoined the TTP.

Iftikar said the military has stepped up assaults on the reunited Pakistani Taliban, pushing the militants to respond, but only targets they can manage, which are soft targets.

But Mir said the reunited militants pose a greater threat.

“With the addition of these powerful units, the TTP has major strength for operations across the former tribal areas, Swat, Baluchistan, and some in Punjab,” he said. “Taken together, they improve TTP’s ability to mount insurgent and mass-casualty attacks.”

Afghan peace talks resume, but path is anything but certain

Afghan peace talks resume, but path is anything but certain

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FILE – In this Sept. 12, 2020, file photo, Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, bottom right, speaks at the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. After more than a month … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

ISLAMABAD (AP) – With violence spiking, Afghanistan’s warring sides have returned to the negotiation table, ending more than a month of delays amid hopes that the two sides can agree on a reduction of violence – and eventually, an outright ceasefire.

Taliban spokesman Dr. Mohammad Naeem tweeted Monday night that talks had resumed in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar, where the insurgent movement maintains a political office. There were no details other than the atmosphere was “cordial”, a commitment that negotiations should continue and an announcement that the first item of business will be setting the agenda.

When talks ended abruptly in January, just days after beginning, both sides submitted their wish lists for agendas. The task now is for the two sides to sift through the respective wish lists, agree on items to negotiate and the order in which they will be tackled.

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The priority for the Afghan government, Washington and NATO is a serious reduction in violence leading to a cease fire. The Taliban have said it is negotiable, but until now have resisted any immediate cease fire.

Washington is reviewing the February 2020 peace deal the previous Trump administration signed with the Taliban that calls for the final withdrawal of international forces by May 1. The Taliban have resisted suggestions of even a brief extension, but a consensus is mounting in Washington for a delay in the withdrawal deadline.

There is even a suggestion of a smaller intelligence – based force staying behind that would focus almost exclusively on counter-terrorism and an increasingly active and deadly Islamic State affiliate, headquartered in eastern Afghanistan.

But neither Washington nor NATO has yet to announce a decision on the fate of an estimated 10,000 troops, including 2,500 American soldiers, still in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has emphasized a political solution to the protracted Afghan conflict, retained Zalmay Khalilzad, the man who negotiated the U.S. peace deal with the Taliban and until now avoided any definitive statements about the road forward.

The resumption in talks in Doha follows on the heels of a blizzard of diplomatic activity including a steady stream of officials to Pakistan and its powerful Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. Pakistan is seen as critical to getting the Taliban back to the table but also to pressing the insurgent movement __ whose leadership is headquartered in Pakistan __ to reduce violence in Afghanistan .

Just this past week the U.S. Central Command head Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie was in Islamabad, as was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Afghan envoy, Zamir Kabulov and Qatar’s foreign ministry’s special envoy Dr Mutlaq Bin Majed Al Qahtani. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s special envoy Umar Daudzai is expected in Islamabad on Wednesday.

While details of the meetings have been sketchy, Afghanistan featured prominently and officials familiar with the talks said a reduction of violence and eventual cease fire dominated discussions.

Pakistan, which also still hosts 1.5 million Afghan refugees has repeatedly said the only solution in Afghanistan is political and has previously been credited with getting the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The latest diplomatic activity in Islamabad also coincidentally comes as Pakistan is being discussed at a meeting underway this week in Paris of the Financial Action Task Force probing terrorism financing and money laundering. Pakistan is currently on a so-called grey list, the last step before a black listing which would seriously erode the country’s ability to borrow money.

Few analysts expect Pakistan to be blacklisted, which so far includes only Iran and North Korea, but Islamabad is pressing hard to be removed from the grey list. While Pakistan has allies, like China, among the 37-member countries that make up FATF, Russian and U.S. support is critical to being removed from the grey list.

Still the issues ahead for Taliban and Afghan government are thorny ones and it isn’t immediately clear whether any country has sufficient influence with either side to force a peace deal that will last.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has flatly refused an interim administration, and his critics accuse him of wanting to hold on to power. Meanwhile, a Taliban official says they want a “new Islamic government” that would not include Ghani, but refused to give details of this government and whether it would even include elections. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

In an open letter to the American people last week, the Taliban‘s lead negotiator in the U.S./Taliban deal, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar urged compliance with the deal, promised rights for men and women “based on Islamic law” without stipulating, vowed not to interfere in any other nation, and also vowed to end the world’s largest crop of poppies, which produces opium used in the production of heroin.

________

Associated Press Writer Tameem Akhgar in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report

Afghan police: 3 separate Kabul explosions kill 5, wound 2

Afghan police: 3 separate Kabul explosions kill 5, wound 2

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Security personnel inspect the site of a bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. Three separate explosions in the capital Kabul on Saturday killed and wounded numerous people an Afghan official said. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul) more >

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By TAMEEM AKHGAR

Associated Press

Saturday, February 20, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Three sticky bomb attacks in the Afghan capital Kabul on Saturday killed at least five people and wounded two others, a police official said, amid a surge in violence in the war-torn country.

Kabul police spokesman Ferdaws Faramarz said two explosions caused by sticky bombs attached to vehicles took place 15 minutes apart and a third targeting a police vehicle exploded about two hours later.

No group immediately claimed responsibility.

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The majority of bomb attacks in the capital Kabul in recent months have been sticky bombs – explosive devices with magnets that are attached to vehicles and detonated by remote control or timer.

The second explosion targeted a car in a northwestern Kabul neighborhood in which national army soldiers were traveling, killing two soldiers. A civilian passerby was also killed.

The third explosion destroyed a police car in western Kabul killing two police officers. Meanwhile, the first blast targeted a civilian car wounding both travelers inside the vehicle.

Kabul police said investigations were underway.

The Islamic State group’s local affiliate has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, but many go unclaimed, with the government putting the blame on the Taliban. The insurgents have denied responsibility for most of the attacks.

Afghanistan has seen a nationwide spike in bombings, targeted killings and violence on the battlefield as peace negotiations in Qatar between the Taliban and the Afghan government have stalled. It’s been over a month since the sides last met to discuss how to proceed.

Meanwhile, the new U.S. administration is reviewing the U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed Feb. 29 last year. A major part of the agreement was Washington’s commitment to a May 1 withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Russia has stepped up efforts to try and find a way forward, visiting with regional players and officials and senior Taliban figures.

Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Afghanistan, met with Pakistani officials, including army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, on Friday to discuss the peace process. Pakistan is seen as a key player in the Afghanistan peace process since Taliban leadership maintains homes and headquarters in Pakistan,

___

Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon contributed to this story.

UN envoy meets east-based Libya commander in push for unity

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FILE – In this July 13, 2014 file photo, Jan Kubis, United Nation representative for Afghanistan speaks during a joint press conference at the Independent Election Commission office in Kabul, Afghanistan. Kubis, the U.N. special envoy to Libya on Friday, … more >

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By NOHA ELHENNAWY

Associated Press

Friday, February 19, 2021

CAIRO (AP) – The U.N. special envoy to Libya on Friday met with the country’s east-based military commander as part of efforts to unite rival factions in the war-torn North African nation ahead of elections in December.

During their meeting in the eastern city of Benghazi, U.N. envoy Jan Kubis and the Libyan commander, Khalifa Hifter, agreed on the importance for all Libyan parties to commit to and facilitate the Dec. 24 balloting, according to a statement for the U.N. mission in Libya.

The elections were laid out under a U.N.-backed political roadmap for the fractured country.

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Kubis‘ visit follows a key development earlier this month at U.N.-backed talks in Switzerland, when Libyan delegates chose a transitional government, with a prime minister and a three-member presidential council, meant to lead Libya through the elections. The election was a major step toward unifying Libya and ending one of the most intractable conflicts left behind by the Arab Spring.

For years, Libya’s influential east-based military commander, Khalifa Hifter, has been a controversial figure. In 2019, he launched an offensive to capture the capital, Tripoli, a campaign that ultimately failed the following year.

Kubis and Hifter also discussed ways to expedite the implementation of a cease-fire agreement signed last year and the withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries. According to the U.N. mission’s statement, they also discussed the opening of a key Libyan artery – the coastal road along the Mediterranean Sea that links Tripoli, to the west, with Benghazi.

Since 2015, Libya has been divided between two rival administrations: a U.N.-backed, but weak government in Tripoli – a city largely controlled by an array of armed factions – and an eastern-based government backed Hifter. Each is backed by different foreign governments.

This is Kubis’ first visit to Libya since his appointment to the post in January. Earlier, the former Slovak foreign minister served as U.N. envoy to Lebanon. A day before meeting Hifter, Kubis held talks in Tripoli with the president of the newly elected, three-member presidential council, Mohamed Menefi, and other Libyan politicians.

Libya descended into chaos after the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. It has since also become a haven for Islamic militants and armed groups that survive on looting and human trafficking.

NATO ministers’ summit punts on Afghan troop decision

NATO ministers’ summit punts on Afghan troop decision

Trump's May 1 withdrawal date for U.S. uncertain now

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference, after a meeting of NATO defense ministers in video format, at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool) more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The U.S. and its NATO allies are deadlocked about their military future in Afghanistan, with a key May 1 withdrawal deadline fast approaching and no clear signals from either Washington or Brussels on the path forward.

Thursday’s meeting of NATO defense ministers, including new U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, was expected to offer some clues on how the Biden administration might handle one of its first major foreign policy decisions and whether it will abide by the terms of a historic deal former President Trump struck with the Taliban last year.

That pact calls for all U.S. troops to exit Afghanistan by May 1 if the Taliban fulfills its promises, including a permanent break from terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and tangible progress in direct peace talks with the Afghan government.

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While just 2,500 of the roughly 10,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan are Americans, Washington’s decision on whether to stick to the May 1 deadline will determine NATO’s fate as well. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and alliance defense chiefs seem to have received little clarity from the Pentagon on Thursday as to what Mr. Biden’s team intends to do.

“We are faced with many dilemmas and there are no easy options,” Mr. Stoltenberg said at a press conference immediately after the meeting. “At this stage, we have made no final decision on the future of our presence [in Afghanistan].”

A day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Mr. Austin told his fellow defense ministers Thursday that “the U.S. is conducting a thorough review of the conditions of the U.S.-Taliban agreement to determine whether all parties have adhered to those conditions.”

Mr. Biden as vice president expressed deep skepticism about the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, now entering its 20th year.

Now his options include following Mr. Trump’s lead despite continuing violence and instability in Kabul, or maintaining and even expanding the U.S. military footprint in one of his first major acts in office.

Much like his predecessor, Mr. Biden campaigned on stopping “forever wars” in the Middle East and bringing troops home — though the administration also has suggested it does not necessarily feel bound by the Trump deal and could keep troops in Afghanistan past May 1.

Foreign policy specialists say Thursday’s indecisive summit shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s clear the White House has yet to decide what to do and that Brussels is paralyzed until the U.S. acts.

“The danger here is that Biden, Blinken and [National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan] have no idea what to do but are setting the stage to simply blame the Trump plan should Afghanistan collapse,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “That might make good American politics, but it betrays an ally and is neither wise nor leadership.”

“NATO has zero options to diverge from the U.S.,” Mr. Rubin told The Washington Times. “They have essentially been window-dressing all along.”

The U.S.-led NATO mission is aimed at providing some semblance of security across the country while also training Afghan security forces, which would take on a significantly larger role in the absence of American troops.

Thursday brought yet another reminder of instability facing Afghanistan, with an explosion at Kabul University killing at least two university lecturers. Police in the Afghan capital said a bomb was attached to the vehicle of Mubasher Muslimyar and Marouf Rasikh, members of the university’s Islamic studies faculty, according to media reports.

No group has claimed responsibility for the assault. Over the past year, Taliban violence has mostly been directed at Afghan security forces, though other extremist groups — including the Islamic State — also operate inside the country and often carry out horrific attacks.

Meanwhile, few believe the Taliban has lived up to the commitments it made in its peace deal with the U.S.

Pentagon reports and international observers, for example, have said in recent months that the Taliban still associates with al Qaeda fighters. Taliban violence also remains unacceptably high.

The Taliban’s unwillingness or inability to fully live up to its end of the bargain has been a constant source of frustration for international leaders.

“I have many times made clear that the Taliban needs to negotiate in good faith, violence has to be reduced, and the Taliban has to stop cooperating with international terrorist groups that are planning terrorist attacks on our own countries, allied countries,” Mr. Stoltenberg said Thursday.