23 February 2019

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Friday February 15, 2019
Kabul (BNA) NATO defense ministers on Thursday weighed the future of the alliance’s operation in Afghanistan and debated how best to use its military presence to support political talks aimed at ending the conflict.
Frustrated with America’s longest war, U.S. President Donald Trump says he wants to pull out troops, raising doubts about NATO’s Afghan troop training operation in the strife-torn country. Around 14,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, just over half with NATO and the rest doing counter-terror and combat operations. Were U.S. troops to leave the NATO operation, allies like Germany wouldn’t be able to do their job as they rely on American air support.
“No decision has been taken about any withdrawal. But we strongly support the efforts to reach a political, peaceful settlement,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said before the talks.
The U.S. and NATO troops are mostly advising and training, but when requested they assist Afghan forces in battles with the Taliban, who carry out near-daily assaults on Afghan soldiers and police. More than 17 years after they were ousted by a U.S.-led coalition, the Taliban control, influence or hold sway over nearly half the country, and the conflict is at a stalemate.
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is meeting with the Taliban and others to try to end the conflict. He has briefed NATO ambassadors three times in recent weeks, including just before Thursday’s meeting. NATO is wary of setting any timeline for a possible withdrawal as the Taliban have been content to wait international forces out in the past.
“NATO allies went in together in Afghanistan. We will make decisions on our future posture in Afghanistan together, based on conditions determined together with the Afghans,” Stoltenberg said.
Still, the Western allies understand that an offer to leave could be a powerful bargaining chip with the insurgents, even if the U.S.-led forces would want guarantees, or be able to monitor future peace moves. What is clear is that the 29-country military alliance has no shared appetite to shift from training and mentoring to counter-terrorism operations.
For the moment though it is too early to tell. Upcoming elections in Afghanistan will further complicate the picture for NATO, as those polls decide what parties should be involved in peace moves.

Wednesday February 13, 2019

Kabul (BNA) Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan says there is no order to withdraw US forces from Afghanistanand the Afghan government should participate in peace talks with the Taliban, in remarks on a surprise trip to Afghanistan on Monday.
Shanahan met the US commander and troops and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the unannounced one-day visit, his first in his new role.
Reports that Donald Trump, president of the United States wants to withdraw about half of the estimated 14,000 US forces in Afghanistan, has raised concerns among Afghan and regional officials about the effect it might have on security in the country.
Afghan troops have been struggling to contain Taliban forces that control or contest about half of the country and a growing number of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
Shanahan said the US has "strong security interests in the region" which would determine what happened with US troop numbers.
"I have not been directed to step down our forces in Afghanistan," Shanahan said.
"I think the presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defence and supports regional stability."
Peace talks
He said the aim of his trip was to get an understanding of the situation on the ground from commanders and then brief Trump on his findings.
US officials, led by chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, have held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar and other countries in the region in the past eight months, in what is widely seen as the most serious bid yet for peace in Afghanistan since the Taliban were removed by US troops and US-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Ghani’s government has not been included in the talks. The Taliban has refused to meet the Afghan government calling it a "puppet" of the US.
Shanahan echoed what Washington had been saying for months, that any eventual peace deal would have to include the government.
"The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future. It's not about the US, it's about Afghanistan," Shanahan said.
"The US has significant - significant - investment in ensuring security, but the Afghans decide their future," he said.
Shanahan's meeting with Ghani covered a range of defence issues important to the bilateral relationship, Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson said.
That included "achieving a political settlement to the war that ensures Afghanistan is never again used as a safe haven from which terrorists can plan and launch terrorist attacks against the United States, our interests and our allies," Robertson said.
The Afghan government said the meeting showed the continued US commitment to Afghanistan.
"Both sides said that the peace process and the fight against terrorism will continue, and the military and security alliance between Afghanistan and US will continue until peace is achieved," the president's palace said in a statement after Ghani's meeting with Shanahan.
Khalilzad has expressed hope of finding a deal before Afghan presidential elections scheduled for July but has emphasised that any troop withdrawal would depend on conditions on the ground.
The next round of talks is due on Feb 25 in Qatar where the Taliban has its political office. Civilian casualties
Shanahan’s visit to Afghanistan came as the United Nations said it was investigating "credible" reports of Afghan civilian deaths and injuries from an air attack over the weekend in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold.   
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said late on Sunday it would share its findings once an inquiry into the "aerial operations" in Sangin district was completed.
The Taliban is responsible for about half of civilian casualties, with the remaining deaths and injuries attributed to ISIL and coalition attack, according to a UNAMA report.
But air attacks have stepped up and the UN has said civilians continue to pay a disproportionate price in the fighting.
The US dropped 7,362 weapons during air attacks in 2018 in Afghanistan - approaching double the number of 2017, US Air Forces Central Command figures show.

Wednesday February 13, 2019

Kabul (BNA) Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan and Head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Second Asia Department Zamir Kabulov will hold a meeting with US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad in the Turkish capital of Ankara on February 22, as he himself said. "The meeting will take place in Ankara on February 22," he said in response to a TASS question. According to Kabulov, the parties will particularly discuss preparations for the next round of the Moscow consultations on Afghanistan.
The Russian presidential envoy added that he would also hold consultations on the Afghan issue with Turkish diplomats during his visit to Ankara.
Russia would like representatives of the Taliban movement (outlawed in Russia) to take part in the presidential election in Afghanistan, their non-recognition of the election has an adverse effect on the situation in the country, he said. "I would like the Taliban to take part in that election. However, their approach is different. They do not fully recognize the current constitution of Afghanistan," he said. "The Taliban did not recognize the presidential elections in the past as well, and that will, of course, have an adverse effect on the situation. However, if the Taliban movement needs an acceptable partner willing to conduct negotiations, they will have to agree with that."
The Taliban movement may be controlling up to 70% of Afghanistan’s total area, he added.
"The Taliban members are controlling more than half of Afghanistan’s territory. Directly speaking, they may be controlling up to 70% of the country’s territory," he said.
Russia does not rule out the possibility of cooperation with representatives of the Taliban movement in the fight against the Islamic State (IS, terror group, outlawed in Russia). "Why not?" he said, adding that "the Taliban is fighting against the Islamic State in Afghanistan fairly successfully even without that cooperation."

Tuesday February 12, 2019

Kabul (BNA) President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani has received US acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan.
In the meeting held yesterday at presidential palace, President Ghani said that US strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia has had good results, but destroying safe havens of armed individuals in neighboring country that has been strategic goal have not been achieved so far. Both sides asserted that maintaining of lasting peace, peace process and counter terrorism would continue and military partnership between Afghanistan and US would continue till maintaining peace in the country. It was also recalled in the meeting that national peace consultative Jirga would be soon held in Kabul and would be attended by representatives of various classes and all provinces so that they could consult and express views in connection with various phases of peace. In the meantime, after the Jirga, the 3rd meeting of Kabul Process will be held and its main focus will be on peace process.

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