US defence secretary says Afghan forces ‘will play major role in stopping the Taliban’ as group steps up attacks.The current focus for US forces in Afghanistan and their NATO partners is the withdrawal of their troops, scheduled to be complete by September 11, then priority will shift to helping Afghan security forces from “over the horizon”, top US military officials said Thursday.
“The Afghan security forces will play the major role in stopping the Taliban and I know we, what we’re seeing unfold is what we expected to unfold – increased pressure,” said US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
There have been about 80-100 Taliban attacks against Afghan troops every day for the past year, while there has been none against US forces, General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said alongside Austin at a Pentagon briefing.
The US withdrawal is part of a deal signed by the administration of former US President Donald Trump and the Taliban in February 2020 that mandated foreign forces would leave Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees by the Taliban, and that the group would negotiate with the elected Afghan government.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, right, participate in a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Thursday, May 6, 2021 [Susan Walsh/AP Photo]US officials and the Afghan government have alleged the Taliban have not held up its part of the deal. According to the agreement, the withdrawal was supposed to be complete on May 1. Last month, US President Joe Biden abandoned a conditions-based approach to the conflict and ordered all military forces out by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on Washington and New York that initiated the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
So far, the US military has closed a base in Helmand province, the equivalent of 60 transport planes have departed the country and 1,300 pieces of equipment will be either destroyed or given to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), Milley said.
On Thursday, Taliban fighters captured a key dam in southern Kandahar province that provides irrigation, power and drinking water, the latest in a series of the group’s attacks, including an offensive in Helmand province, since May 1.
US contractors will also withdraw with the troops, which could hamper the fledgeling Afghan Air Force. Milley said it currently carries out 80-90 percent of all air raids in support of Afghan ground forces. The bulk of maintenance on its planes and helicopters is done by international contractors, and how to continue upkeep without them is “one of the key questions”, Milley said, “that’s going to be dependent on the conditions and security conditions on the ground.”
Handover ceremony at Camp Anthonic, from US Army, to Afghan Defense Forces in Helmand province, Afghanistan May 2, 2021 [Ministry of Defense Press Office/Handout via Reuters]“The intent is to keep the Afghan Air Force in the air, and to provide them with continuing maintenance,” Milley said.
He also said “dire predictions” of a Taliban win or that Kabul will fall are “not a foregone conclusion”.
Once the withdrawal is complete, the US will continue to support Afghan forces with funding and logistics based outside the country, Austin said.
“We will remain partners with the Afghan government, with the Afghan military, and certainly we hope through our continued support, the Afghan security forces can be effective. They have a pretty significant capability, but it’s going to, we expect that this will be a challenge,” Austin said.
Pakistan’s military says militants in Afghanistan fired across the border at troops in southwest Pakistan, killing at least four soldiers before fleeing
A bomb targeted a minibus carrying medical workers in the Afghan capital, killing one person
A new intelligence report says women’s rights will be threatened following US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.The Taliban “would roll back much” of the progress made in Afghan women’s rights if the fighting group regain national power, according to an assessment released on Tuesday by top US intelligence analysts.
The US National Intelligence Council report will likely reinforce fears that the Taliban will resume the harsh treatment that women and girls suffered under their 1996-2001 rule should the group prevail in a full-blown civil war.
“The Taliban remains broadly consistent in its restrictive approach to women’s rights and would roll back much of the past two decades of progress if the group regains national power,” said the US intelligence community’s top analytical body.
At the same time, the council’s “Sense of the Community Memorandum” said women’s rights would likely be threatened after the US-led military coalition withdraws, a finding reflecting the conservative nature of Afghanistan’s male-dominated society.
“Progress [in women’s rights] probably owes more to external pressure than domestic support, suggesting it would be at risk after coalition withdrawal, even without Taliban efforts to reverse it,” the assessment said.
US President Joe Biden’s decision last month to withdraw the last few thousand troops – triggering a pullout of other foreign forces – is raising fears Afghanistan could plunge into an all-out civil war that could bring the Taliban back to power.
Those concerns have been stoked by a deadlock in the US-backed peace talks, while the Taliban has intensified attacks on government forces after a missed May 1 deadline for the US troop departure.
Before being removed by the 2001 US-led invasion, the Taliban imposed a harsh version of the rule that included barring girls from school and women from working outside their homes and prohibiting them from being in public without a male relative.
Women who violated those rules often suffered humiliation and public beatings by the Taliban’s religious police.
The new report, however, noted that many of those practices have continued in government-controlled areas and “years of war have left millions of women maimed, widowed, impoverished and displaced”.
Gains made in women’s rights have been touted as a significant accomplishment during the 20 years that US-led forces have been deployed, although mostly in urban centres.
The Biden administration has pledged to continue civilian assistance after US troops depart, including to women’s programmes. But it has warned that Afghanistan would suffer isolation and sanctions if it backslides on human rights.
A February 2020 US-Taliban accord struck by the Donald Trump administration specified a May 1 deadline for completion of a US troop withdrawal from America’s longest war.
Biden, however, decided to complete the withdrawal before the anniversary of September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on the United States that triggered the US-led invasion.
The end of the US deployment could play into the Taliban’s hands, warns the former secretary of state.
A major fire broke out at a gas station north of the Afghan capital on Saturday, engulfing several fuel trucks and causing power outages in some parts of the city. The incident happened amid the rise of violence in the country.
The affected gas station was located in the Qala-e-Murad Bek area along the highway that connects Kabul with the country’s northern provinces, the Interior Ministry said.The blaze couldn’t be contained in time and spread onto a line of fuel trucks waiting to enter Kabul. The vehicles were being engulfed one after another, the Interior Ministry spokesman told Tolo News.Preliminary reports suggest gas station in north of Kabul has been set on fire earlier tonight. Horrible blaze caused power cut and the city went to total darkness. pic.twitter.com/ujdUCoGsH4— Khaama Press (KP) (@khaama) May 1, 2021The fire sent a huge plume of black smoke into the air and colored the night skies above the capital in red, providing for a truly apocalyptic site.Alarmed residents of Kabul posted photos of the blaze on social media, while trying to guess what might have caused it.There’s been no information about casualties so far, but the area around the gas station reportedly suffered significant damage.The disaster also affected power lines, which left some parts of the capital without electricity.Kabul’s skies are engulfed by pulsating red colors tonight – a frightening sight from my living room window. No idea what it may be. pic.twitter.com/RSHQhVkV1n— Sara Wahedi (@SaraWahedi) May 1, 2021The reasons for the blaze are currently unclear, but violence has been on the rise in Afghanistan in recent weeks. Oil tankers have caught fire in the Northern edge of Kabul. The flames and thick smoke could be seen rising to the dark sky, making the whole area visible. pic.twitter.com/49S7Qvn1yZ— Azzam Muhajir (@azzam_muhajir) May 1, 2021Attacks intensified after US President Joe Biden said American troops, who have been in the country for two decades, will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11. During peace talks with the Taliban in February 2020, Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, had promised that the pullout will be complete by May 1, with the new date reportedly angering the group.
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The United States’ special envoy for talks with the Taliban, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, has said he believes peace is still possible in Afghanistan as US has begun to withdraw its remaining troops and violence continues to escalate in the country.
Khalilzad testified to Congress on Tuesday, the same day the State Department advised US citizens “wishing to depart Afghanistan should leave as soon as possible” and ordered non-essential US embassy workers to leave the country, saying “travel to all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe.”
The envoy said keeping US forces in Afghanistan did not make sense, as the conflict could not be solved by continued fighting.
“The choice that the Afghans face is between a negotiated political settlement or a long war,” Khalilzad told sceptical US lawmakers in Congress.
“That opportunity is once again confronting them and it’s up to them,” Khalilzad said in his first public testimony since President Joe Biden announced a decision to withdraw all US forces by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the Al Qaeda-directed attacks on New York and Washington that prompted the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The US has about 3,500 troops in Afghanistan alongside about 7,000 NATO forces as well as about 16,000 contractors. Khalilzad said the deal he signed with the Taliban last year includes the agreement to withdraw US contractors supporting Afghan forces on the same timetable as the US troop exit. Khalilzad said the US is helping the Kabul government find contractors to replace the departing American ones.
Biden has pledged to continue US financial support for the government in Kabul and its military and police forces – reportedly about 300,000 but that number is believed to be lower.
Khalilzad said the terrorism threat that led to the 2001 attacks has now moved to other regions.
Khalilzad led 18-months of talks between the US and the Taliban in 2018-19 that resulted in the withdrawal agreement. It was also supposed to pave the way for direct talks between theTaliban and the Afghan government aimed at achieving a viable peace process, but none has emerged after a year of on-again, off-again talks.
An Afghan peace conference that was to be held in Turkey this month has been postponed, because of Taliban non-participation. The Turkish, Pakistani and Afghan foreign ministers on Friday urged the Taliban to reaffirm its commitment to negotiations and an end to violence.
US Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), talks about women in Afghanistan, including the seven pictured women who were killed in Afghanistan, as she questions Zalmay Khalilzad [Susan Walsh/Pool via Reuters]Leading members of Congress have offered mixed reactions to Biden’s announcement and Senate leaders said on Tuesday they are concerned Biden is rushing a US withdrawal.
“How we withdraw and what political arrangement is left in our wake matters deeply,” said Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat who has been critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the decision.
“If the Taliban were to come back to power, the reality for Afghanistan’s women and girls, I think, would be devastating,” said Menendez.
When they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001 the Taliban forbade education for girls and largely kept women out of the workforce and public life in general.
Khalilzad said any future support of a government that included the Taliban would be conditional. “If they do want US assistance, they want international acceptance … those things will be all affected by how they treat their own citizens, first and foremost the women of Afghanistan, children and minorities,” he told the senators.
Senator Jim Risch, the senior Republican, said the US military drawdown should proceed only with safeguards for the gains the US has made in Afghanistan.
An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint as people ride on a motorbike on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan April 21, 2021 [Mohammad Ismail, Reuters]“I have deep concerns about the administration’s rush for the exits in Afghanistan,” Risch said.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I’m concerned that the administration’s decision may result in a Taliban offensive that topples the government,” he said.
“I do not believe the government is going to collapse or the Taliban is going to take over,” Khalilzad said.
Biden has said the withdrawal is not conditions-based implying it will go ahead whatever happens in Afghanistan.
The 2019 agreement Khalilzad signed with the Taliban stipulated the group would break all ties with Al Qaeda, while the United Nations has said the two organizations remain closely linked – which the Taliban denies.
The agreement had also said all foreign forces including US troops and contractors would withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1 if the Taliban fulfilled its part of the deal. On April 14 Biden extended that deadline until September.
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