Pentagon chief says removal of all contractors from Afghanistan under way

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday the process of removing all contractors from Afghanistan working with the United States was under way as part of President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of forces from the country.

The remarks are the clearest indication yet that Biden’s April order to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 extended to U.S.-funded contractors.

Asked whether the Pentagon had issued orders to withdraw not just American troops but also contractors, Austin said: “We’re going to responsibly retrograde all of our capabilities that we are responsible for and the contractors fall in that realm as well.”

Speaking with reporters, Austin said the contractors could, however, renegotiate their contracts in the future.

As of April, there were nearly 17,000 Pentagon contractors, including about 6,150 Americans, 4,300 Afghans and 6,400 from other countries.

The departure of thousands of contractors, especially those serving the Afghan security forces, has raised concerns among some U.S. officials about the ability of the Afghan government and military to sustain critical functions.

‘NOT A FOREGONE CONCLUSION’

Austin said the drawdown was going according to plan so far.

But Afghan security forces are locked in daily combat with the Taliban, which has waged war to overthrow the foreign-backed government since it was ousted from power in Kabul in 2001.

In just two days, the Taliban captured a second district in the northern province of Baghlan on Thursday.

The Afghan government says the Taliban have killed and wounded more than 50 troops in attacks in at least 26 provinces during the last 24 hours, while its forces killed dozens of Taliban over the same period.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said there had been sustained levels of violent attacks against Afghan security forces but none against U.S. and coalition forces since May 1.

Milley, in the same news conference, said it was too early to speculate on how Afghanistan would turn out after the withdrawal of U.S. forces given that Afghanistan had a significantly sized military and police force and the Afghan government was still cohesive.

“It is not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls or any of those dire predictions,” Milley said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in WashingtonEditing by Marguerita Choy and Matthew Lewis)

Taliban launches major Afghan offensive after deadline for U.S. pullou

By Zainullah Stanekzai

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) -Afghan security forces fought back a major Taliban offensive in southern Helmand province in the last 24 hours, officials and residents said on Tuesday, as militants launched assaults around the country after a missed U.S. deadline to withdraw troops.

Although the United States did not meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline agreed in talks with the Taliban last year, its pull-out has begun, with President Joe Biden announcing all troops will be out by Sept. 11. Critics of the decision to withdraw say the Islamist militants will try to sweep back into power.

“There was a thunderstorm of heavy weapons and blasts in the city and the sound of small arms was like someone was making popcorn,” Mulah Jan, a resident of a suburb of the Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah, told Reuters.

“I took all my family members to the corner of the room, hearing the heavy blasts and bursts of gunfire as if it was happening behind our walls,” he said. Families that could afford to leave had fled, but he had been unable to go, waiting with his family in fear before the Taliban were pushed back.

Attaullah Afghan, the head of Helmand’s provincial council, said the Taliban had launched their offensive on Monday from multiple directions, attacking checkpoints around the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, taking over some of them.

Afghan security forces had carried out air strikes and deployed elite commando forces to the area. The insurgents had been pushed back but fighting was continuing on Tuesday and hundreds of families had been displaced, he added.

RESONANCE

A Taliban surge in Helmand would have particular resonance, as the opium-growing desert province was where U.S. and British forces suffered the bulk of their losses during the 20-year war.

As part of the pullout, U.S. forces handed over a base in Helmand to Afghan government troops two days ago.

In Washington, the U.S. military said that about two to six percent of the withdrawal process had been completed so far.

United States Central Command said that the equivalent of about 60 C-17 aircraft worth of material had been moved out of Afghanistan and more than 1,300 pieces of equipment had been handed over to be destroyed.

The Afghan defense ministry said that in addition to Helmand, security forces have been responding to attacks by the Taliban in at least six other provinces, including southeastern Ghazni and southern Kandahar in the past 24 hours.

The defense ministry said just over 100 Taliban fighters had been killed in Helmand. It did not provide details on casualties among Afghan security forces. The Taliban did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The May 1 deadline for U.S. troops to pull out was agreed last year under then-President Donald Trump. The Taliban rejected Biden’s announcement that troops would stay on past it but withdraw over the next four-and-a-half months.

The deadline has been met with a surge in violence, with a car bomb in Logar province killing almost 30 people on Friday evening. On Monday, at least seven Afghan military personnel were killed when the Taliban set off explosives smuggled through a tunnel they had dug into an army outpost in southwestern Farah province.

(Reporting by Zainullah Stanekzai and Kabul newsroom. Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington.Writing by Charlotte GreenfieldEditing by Peter Graff/Mark Heinrich)

Exclusive-As U.S. prepared exit, Taliban protected foreign bases, but killed Afghans

By Rupam Jain, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL (Reuters) – Taliban fighters have protected western military bases in Afghanistan from attacks by rival, or rogue Islamist groups for over a year under a secret annex to a pact for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by May 1, three Western officials with knowledge of the agreement told Reuters.

The U.S. State Department gave no immediate response to Reuters over the existence of any such document. Nor did it have any immediate comment on what the three officials described as a “Taliban ring of protection”.

Since United States struck a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, paving the way for America to end its longest war, there have been no U.S. combat deaths, and there have been only isolated attacks on U.S. bases.

Instead, the Taliban intensified attacks on Afghan government forces, and civilian casualties have spiraled.

Peace talks between the militants and the government, begun in September, have made no significant progress, and a U.N. report said civilian casualties were up 45% in the last three months of 2020 from a year earlier.

Testing Taliban patience, U.S. President Joe Biden served notice that the U.S. withdrawal would overshoot the May 1 deadline agreed by the previous U.S. administration, while giving an assurance that it would be completed by Sept. 11 – the 20th anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

When the deadline passes on Saturday, around 2,000 U.S. troops will still be in Afghanistan, according to a western security official in Kabul. The commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General Scott Miller earlier this week said an orderly withdrawal and the handing over of military bases and equipment to Afghan forces had begun.

Afghan soldiers left manning those bases could need plenty of firepower to resist any offensive by Taliban fighters who have been occupying strategic positions in surrounding areas.

In the past two weeks alone, the militants have killed more than 100 Afghan security personnel in a surge of attacks that followed Biden’s announcement that a U.S. withdrawal would take a few months more.

Two of the Western officials said Washington had accepted the Taliban’s offer to shield the western military bases from attacks by the likes of Islamic State.

The officials said the Taliban had wanted to demonstrate good faith by meeting a commitment to ensure Afghan soil was not used for attacks on U.S. interests – a key U.S. demand in the February agreement.

“They provided a layer of cover, almost like a buffer and ordered their fighters to not injure or kill any foreign soldier in this period,” said one western diplomat involved in the process.

The western officials said it was also important for the Taliban to show its ability to control the more recalcitrant factions in its movement, like the Haqqani network, which has often followed its own agenda, though its leader Sirajuddin Haqqani is the second-highest ranking commander in the Taliban.

A Kabul-based western security official said that militants had kept their side of the bargain.

“The Taliban swiftly responded to even minor attacks conducted by the Haqqani network and Islamic State fighters around the bases,” he said.

DEADLINE SATURDAY

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declined to comment on the so-called “ring of protection” agreement.

More broadly, he said no security guarantee has been given to the United States beyond Saturday’s deadline, but talks were underway among the group’s leadership and with the U.S. side.

“So far our commitment of not attacking the foreign forces is until May 1, after that whether we will attack or not is an issue under discussion,” said Mujahid.

Mullah Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy political chief, held talks with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to discuss the peace process on Thursday, another militant spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said in a Twitter post.

Clearly having the militants holding positions around Western bases presents a danger if no understanding is reached.

“They’ve definitely moved ever closer to a lot of Afghan and foreign bases,” said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think-tank.

“Encircling U.S., NATO, and Afghan bases seems like the Taliban strategy to poise themselves to take over when foreign forces leave.”

Afghan defense ministry spokesman Fawad Aman said the Taliban had ramped up violence against the Afghan people and their government, while holding fire against foreign forces.

More than 3,000 Afghan civilians were killed and almost 5,800 were wounded in 2020, according to a United Nation report.

“By not attacking the foreign forces but continuously targeting the Afghan security forces and civilians, the Taliban have shown that they are fighting against the people of Afghanistan,” Aman said.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, sympathized with that view, saying: “they have every right to lambaste a U.S.-Taliban agreement for failing to bring a semblance of relief to Afghans themselves.”

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad and Rupam Jain in Panjim, India; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Analysis: U.S. announcement of pullout from Afghanistan undermines chances of peace

By Hamid Shalizi, Charlotte Greenfield and Jibran Ahmad

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s announced pullout of troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 has jeopardized Washington’s push for peace with Taliban Islamists and increased the chances of an upsurge in violence, sources say.

Biden announced the withdrawal, pushed back from a May 1 deadline agreed with the Taliban, without buy-in from the insurgents, sources involved in the discussions told Reuters.

The decision was signaled just hours after Turkey announced dates for a crucial peace summit on April 24, which the Taliban had also not yet agreed on.

The Taliban then announced they were shunning the summit while troops remained, throwing the process into disarray.

“Biden’s announcement decreases any leverage the international community has left over them, and helps the Taliban justify refusing to attend,” said Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

One official whose country is involved in the peace process said the Taliban’s negotiating position had become much stronger and chances of progress were slim.

“What do the Taliban get out of the Turkey summit? They need something tangible,” he said. “It’s difficult to bring them to a negotiation table where they know they will have to make painful compromises.”

Tribal elders and Taliban members in Afghanistan’s Taliban-controlled areas described jubilation at the U.S. announcement.

“Of course we won and America lost the long…war,” said Quraishi, a Taliban commander in eastern Logar province. “There is no bigger happiness than hearing that the invaders are packing their bags.”

In recent weeks, Washington raced to get agreement on a ceasefire and an interim government, and to get the Taliban onboard with a deadline extension, officials said.

Biden’s decision on the extension and the Taliban’s reaction have sparked more frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations.

The sources said Washington was urging Qatar and Pakistan, which have long-standing ties within the Taliban, to pressure the militants to come back to the table.

Taliban sources described intense pressure from Pakistan.

“When our leadership refused to go (to Turkey), then Pakistani authorities asked us to send Mullah Yaqoob. When he refused, they proposed Sirajuddin Haqqani but he too is unwilling,” one source said, referring to the Taliban’s military chief and their deputy leader.

Pakistan’s foreign office and Qatar’s government did not respond to requests for comment.

Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem denied there was any pressure.

In a statement on Thursday, Pakistan said it would “continue to work together with the international community in efforts for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said: “We continue to put the full weight of our government behind diplomatic efforts to reach a peace agreement…and encourage Afghanistan’s neighbors and countries in the region to do the same.”

But a senior Afghan official told Reuters Washington had also lost leverage with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“The withdrawal announcement will certainly embolden the Taliban to increase attacks but it will also embolden President Ghani’s position not to step down,” the official said of the proposal to replace Ghani’s administration with an interim government.

READY FOR WAR

Security and diplomatic officials warned that violence would escalate if talks fell apart. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 when they were ousted by U.S.-led forces, but they still control wide areas.

A senior Western official in Kabul said military bases were being revamped and air strikes had been conducted by the Afghan Air Force in recent days to put pressure on the Taliban.

Four Taliban military and political leaders said they too had already prepared for war, realizing that foreign forces were unlikely to leave.

Though many experts and officials warned the U.S. stance undermined the chance of a peace settlement, some concede that Washington had done all it could.

“The Biden announcement didn’t help, but the Turkey effort already looked to be falling apart,” said ODI’s Jackson.

Two diplomatic sources said a stalemate had become apparent when the Taliban refused to join an interim administration headed by Ghani, who in turn refused to step down without holding elections, a suggestion the insurgents reject.

The U.S. State Department did not comment on the interim government but said any solution must be Afghan-led and owned.

Two sources said discussions have revolved around the set-up of an Islamic jurisprudence council whose decisions by religious scholars could bind the president.

Other concessions discussed, one source added, were whether the Taliban could nominate a president, whether to remove Taliban leaders from international sanctions lists, prisoner releases, and their fighters having status equal to Afghan security forces, without joining them.

Naeem did not confirm or deny discussions over an interim government. He said the release of prisoners and removal from sanctions lists was necessary under their 2020 deal.

Officials say the challenge to get both sides in an interim government was revealed at a conference in Moscow last month.

Deep hostilities became apparent when the delegations gathered. On one occasion, a Taliban leader hissed “traitor” at a politician and former warlord who had once held him captive, people in the room said.

Since the Moscow meeting and as Washington tried to negotiate a troop withdrawal extension, one source said, the Taliban had toughened their stance.

“Their proposals (now) are more like almost a takeover,” said the official whose country is involved in the peace process.

Though the Taliban learned of Biden’s withdrawal decision through media on Tuesday, a Taliban leader said, Washington had already discussed a six-month extension with them, which they had rejected.

“We told them you should call back all your troops and then start shifting logistics later and we guaranteed them of providing protection to their belongings,” another Taliban leader said. “They damaged our trust and now we wouldn’t believe them…until they fulfil their commitment.”

But Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani diplomat, said there was hope and the Taliban did not want to lose international recognition.

“Missing the Turkey conference would be a huge mistake,” he said. “It’s the last big effort for peace and stability in Afghanistan and it must not be allowed to fail.”

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad, Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Rupam Jain in Panjim, India, and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul and Jonathan Landay and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie)

NATO allies to leave Afghanistan along with U.S.

By Robin Emmott and Sabine Siebold

BRUSSELS/BERLIN (Reuters) – Foreign troops under NATO command will withdraw from Afghanistan in coordination with a U.S. pull-out by Sept. 11, NATO allies agreed on Wednesday, pledging to mirror American plans to start removing troops on May 1 after two decades of war.

Around 7,000 non-U.S. forces from mainly NATO countries, also from Australia, New Zealand and Georgia, outnumber the 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but still rely on American air support, planning and leadership for their training mission.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking alongside U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, said the decision was tough.

“This is not an easy decision, and it entails risks. As I said for many months, we face a dilemma. Because the alternative to leaving in an orderly fashion is to be prepared for a long-term, open-ended military commitment with potentially more NATO troops,” Stoltenberg told a news conference.

Biden gave a speech on Wednesday in Washington announcing the U.S. withdrawal, saying that “it’s time to end the forever war.”

An integral part of NATO’s current mission, Resolute Support, is to train and equip Afghan security forces fighting the Islamist Taliban, which was ousted from power by a U.S. invasion in 2001 and has since waged an insurgency.

With non-U.S. troop numbers reaching as high as 40,000 in 2008, Europe, Canada and Australia have moved in tandem with the United States in a mission also providing long-term funding to rebuild Afghanistan despite the resurgence of Taliban-led violence and endemic official corruption in the country.

“This is not the end of our relationship with Afghanistan but rather the start of a new chapter. NATO allies will continue to stand with the Afghan people but it is now for the Afghan people to build a sustainable peace that puts an end to violence,” Stoltenberg said.

Germany and Bulgaria were two of the 36 countries involved in Resolute Support to immediate announce withdrawal plans. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Biden discussed in a phone call the NATO military presence in Afghanistan and agreed to closely coordinate future steps, a German government spokesman said.

Sept. 11 is a highly symbolic date as it will be 20 years since al Qaeda attacked the United States with hijacked airliners, triggering military intervention in Afghanistan.

After withdrawing, the United States and NATO aim to rely on Afghan military and police forces, which they have developed with billions of dollars in funding, to maintain security, though peace talks are struggling and the insurgency is resilient.

A key reason for a coordinated withdrawal is the fact that NATO relies on U.S. airlift capabilities and shipping to move valuable equipment back home out of landlocked Afghanistan. NATO also wants to avoid any hardware falling into the hands of militants, as happened after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Will Dunham)

‘Time to end the forever war’: Biden to start U.S. Afghanistan pullout on May 1

By Phil Stewart and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden said on Wednesday he will begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan on May 1 to end America’s longest war, rejecting calls for U.S. forces to stay to ensure a peaceful resolution to that country’s internal conflict.

In a White House speech, Biden set a goal of withdrawing all 2,500 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan by Sept. 11. By pulling out without a clear victory, the United States opens itself to criticism that a withdrawal represents a de facto admission of failure for American military strategy.

“It was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking. We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives,” Biden said, noting that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces in 2011 and saying that organization has been “degraded” in Afghanistan. “And it’s time to end the forever war.”

Sept. 11 is a highly symbolic date, coming 20 years to the day of al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States that prompted then-President George W. Bush to launch the conflict. The war has cost the lives of 2,400 American service members and consumed an estimated $2 trillion. U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan peaked at more than 100,000 in 2011.

The Democratic president had faced a May 1 withdrawal deadline, set by his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, who tried but failed to pull the troops out before he left office.

Instead, Biden said the final withdrawal would start on May 1 and end by Sept. 11.

“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”

“It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home,” he said.

Meeting NATO officials in Brussels earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said foreign troops under NATO command in Afghanistan will leave the country in coordination with the U.S. withdrawal by Sept. 11, after Germany said it would match American plans.

Blinken also spoke by phone with Pakistan’s army chief on Wednesday and discussed the peace process, according to a statement from the media wing of Pakistan’s military.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wrote on Twitter that he has spoken with Biden and he respects the U.S. decision. Ghani added that “we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition” and “we will continue to work with our US/NATO partners in the ongoing peace efforts.”

There is a summit planned about Afghanistan starting on April 24 in Istanbul that is due to include the United Nations and Qatar.

The Taliban, ousted from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces, said it would not take part in any meetings that would make decisions about Afghanistan until all foreign forces had left the country. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Wednesday called on the United States to adhere to the deal the group reached with Trump’s administration.

“If the agreement is committed to, the remaining problems will also be solved,” Mujahid wrote on Twitter. “If the agreement is not committed to … the problems will certainly increase.”

Biden rejected the idea that U.S. troops could provide the leverage needed for peace, saying: “We gave that argument a decade. It has never proven effective.”

“American troops shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip between warring parties in other countries,” he said.

‘FIND A WAY TO COEXIST’

In Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul, officials said they would carry on with peace talks and their forces defending the country.

“Now that there is an announcement on foreign troops withdrawal within several months, we need to find a way to coexist,” said Abdullah Abdullah, a top peace official and former presidential candidate. “We believe that there is no winner in Afghan conflicts and we hope the Taliban realize that too.”

U.S. officials can claim to have decimated al Qaeda’s core leadership in the region years ago, including tracking down and killing the group’s leader bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan in 2011. But ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda elements persist and peace and security remain elusive.

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

There is concern over the impact a withdrawal would have on human rights in Afghanistan given the gains, particularly for women and girls, during the past two decades.

“I am worried about my future,” said Wida Saghar, a writer and women’s rights activist in Kabul. “An unknown future awaits us, when foreign forces leave and the civil war intensifies … then who will think about women’s rights? Who will care about us?”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Steve Holland in Washington and Hamid Shalizi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul; Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad; Editing by Mary Milliken, Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)

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

By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Steve Holland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘ABANDON THE FIGHT’

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

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

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

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

Officials in Afghanistan are bracing for the withdrawal.

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

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

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

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

“There is no easy answer,” Reed said.

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

Taliban insist on Islamic system for Afghanistan and sticking to troop withdrawal deadline

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Taliban on Friday pushed back against major regional players at a conference in Moscow who said Afghanistan should not return to being an Islamic emirate, and it warned the United States against keeping troops in Afghanistan beyond their agreed withdrawal date.

At a summit in Moscow on Thursday, six weeks ahead of a deadline set last year for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan called on the warring Afghan sides to agree on an immediate ceasefire.

In a joint statement they added that they “did not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate.”

But Taliban political spokesman Mohammad Naeem, speaking to media in Moscow on Friday, said that it was up to the Afghan sides to decide their system of governance and that it should be an Islamic system.

“What is stated in the declaration is against all principles and is not acceptable,” he said.

A member of the Taliban’s political office, Suhail Shaheen, said negotiations should be sped up and said Washington should not keep troops in the country beyond their agreed withdrawal date.

“After that, it will be a violation of the agreement. That violation will not be from our side but it will be from their side. So in that case if there is action, of course, there will be reaction,” he said.

The Moscow conference aimed to shake up the largely stalled negotiations which have been held between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar’s capital Doha.

“We expressed our readiness to accelerate the (peace) process,” Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, told Russia’s RIA news agency.

The conference will be followed by another summit in Turkey next month.

“We encouraged delegations representing the Islamic Republic and the Taliban…to prepare for and attend a leaders’ meeting in Istanbul in early April, the next critical milestone in the peace process,” U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad wrote on Twitter, adding that Thursday’s meeting had been “productive diplomacy.”

The Moscow conference was the first time the United States had sent a senior representative to talks on Afghanistan under a format launched by Russia in 2017.

Washington agreed last year with the Taliban to withdraw its troops by May 1 after nearly two decades, but President Joe Biden’s administration is reviewing its plans for Afghanistan and says all options remain on the table.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Andrew Osborn and Hameed Farzad; Writing by Gabrielle TĂ©trault-Farber and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Tom Balmforth, Peter Graff and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Tajikistan quake shakes north India, Pakistan, no major damage

By Neha Arora

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – A strong earthquake struck Tajikistan on Friday and the tremors were felt as far away as north India and Pakistan, witnesses said. Many residents ran out of their homes, but no major damage was reported.

The U.S Geological Survey put the quake’s magnitude at 5.9 and centered 35 km (55 miles) west of Murghob in Tajikistan, central Asia.

The Tajikistan Emergency Situations Ministry said the epicenter was 420 km (260 miles) east of the Tajik capital Dushanbe near the border with China.

The seismic service of the country’s Academy of Sciences told Russia’s RIA Novosti that the quake’s intensity was measured at 6.1. The news agency said there were no casualties or damage, citing the Committee on Emergency Situations.

Monitoring agencies in the region pegged the quake as being a bit more severe. India’s National Center for Seismology said its magnitude was 6.3, while the National Seismic Monitoring Center in Pakistan measured it at 6.4.

Tremors were felt in Dushanbe but the epicenter was in a sparsely populated area.

Cracks were reported in some homes in northern Kashmir, the Indian Meteorological Department said. A witness also reported a wall collapse near the northern Indian city of Amritsar, but there were no reports of casualties.

A resident in Indian Kashmir’s Baramulla district said it felt like a strong wind had lashed his house. “My whole house shook and cracks appeared in a corner of one of the rooms,” Firdous Ahmad Khan said.

Tremors were felt across Pakistan including the capital, Islamabad, and northwestern Peshawar, and even as far as the eastern city of Lahore, which borders India.

In Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, where a 2005 earthquake wreaked serious destruction, there was panic, according to witnesses, and many people rushed out of their homes in fear.

“I thought it’s the same like what had hit us in 2005. My children started crying,” said Asif Maqbool, a resident in Madina Market, a neighborhood of Muzaffarabad that was almost flattened in the 2005 quake.

Saima Khalid, a resident of the Khawaja Muhalla district of Muzaffarabad, said everyone in the neighborhood came out onto the streets.

The quake was also felt in northern Afghanistan but there were no reports of casualties or damage.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Nazarali Pirnazarov in Tajikistan Fayaz Bukari in Srinagar, Rupam Jain, Charlotte Greenfield and Umar Farooq in Islamabad, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Abu Arqam Naqash in Muzaffarabad, Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore ; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Giles Elgood)

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

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

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

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