Taliban Aim To Sign Deal With US By End Of January – Report

 

The Taliban are aiming to reach a withdrawal agreement with the US by the end of January and are prepared to “scale down” military operations ahead of signing the deal, according to their chief spokesman.

The statement by Suhail Shaheen to Pakistani daily Dawn comes as the group and the US held discussions in Doha this week after insurgent sources told AFP they had offered to initiate a brief ceasefire.

“We have agreed to scale down military operations in days leading up to the signing of the peace agreement with the United States,” Shaheen told Dawn in a report published Saturday.

He added that the Taliban were “optimistic” a deal with Washington could be signed before the end of the month and that the reduction in fighting across the country would also include the targeting of Afghan forces.

“It’s now a matter of days,” said the spokesman.

Washington has for weeks been calling on the militants to reduce violence, posing it as a condition for resuming formal negotiations on an agreement that would see US troops begin to leave the country in return for security guarantees, after a near two-decade fight.

The Taliban and the US had been negotiating the deal for a year and were on the brink of an announcement in September 2019 when President Donald Trump abruptly declared the process “dead”, citing Taliban violence.

Talks were later restarted between the two sides in December in Qatar but were paused again following an attack near the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, which is run by the US.

Any agreement with the Taliban is expected to have two main pillars — an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a commitment by the insurgents not to offer sanctuary to jihadists — and would ultimately have to be given final approval by Trump.

The Taliban’s relationship with Al-Qaeda was the main reason cited for the US invasion more than 18 years ago.

A deal would hopefully pave the way for intra-Afghan talks.

Many observers agree that the war can no longer be won militarily and that the only route to a lasting peace in Afghanistan is for an agreement between the Taliban and the US-backed government in Kabul.

The Taliban have until now refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate regime, raising fears that fighting will continue regardless of any deal ironed out with the Americans.

Roadside Bomb Hits US Army Vehicle In Afghanistan

 

A Taliban roadside bomb ripped through a US army vehicle in southern Afghanistan on Saturday, officials said, with no immediate details of casualties.

The incident took place in Dand district of southern Kandahar province, where a bomb hit a US armoured vehicle, provincial police spokesman Jamal Nasir Barkzai told AFP.

“Foreign forces were patrolling near the Kandahar airport when they were hit by a blast. We don’t have the details of the casualties because they have cordoned off the area,” he said.

A NATO Resolute Support spokesman in southern Afghanistan confirmed the incident and said the situation was being assessed.

READ ALSO: Iran Missile Operator Had 10 Seconds To Decide After ‘Communication Jam’: Guards

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid saying on Twitter that the blast destroyed the vehicle, killing all on board.

Violence in Afghanistan usually recedes as the cold winter sets in but this year the Taliban have pushed forward with their operations despite heavy snowfall in the mountains — and despite their negotiations with the US for a deal that would see American troops leave the country.

According to parts of the deal made public so far, the Pentagon would pull about 5,000 of its 13,000 or so troops from five bases across Afghanistan, provided the Taliban sticks to its security pledges.

The insurgents have said they will renounce Al-Qaeda, fight the Islamic State group and stop jihadists using Afghanistan as a safe haven.

Last year was the deadliest for US forces in Afghanistan since combat operations officially finished at the end of 2014, highlighting the challenging security situation that persists.

More than 2,400 US troops have been killed in combat in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in October 2001.

AFP

US Strike Kills Taliban Splinter Commander In Herat

 

A US airstrike killed a Taliban splinter-group commander and several other fighters in the western Afghan province of Herat, Afghan and military sources said Thursday.

The commander, named as Mullah Nangyalay, was killed in Shindand district, close to the border with Iran, said Herat provincial governor’s spokesman Jailani Farhad.

Nangyalay split from the main branch of the Taliban after the 2013 death of founder Mullah Omar and joined a smaller breakaway faction led by a commander known as Mullah Rasool.

READ ALSO: Iran Civil Aviation Boss ‘Certain’ Ukraine Plane Not Hit By Missile

A senior provincial police source said the airstrike had been carried out by a US drone.

A spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan confirmed they had launched “a defensive air strike in support of Afghan forces”.

The main Taliban group has been negotiating with Washington for more than a year over the withdrawal of US troops in exchange for security guarantees from the militants that could pave the way to intra-Afghan peace talks.

23 Killed As Taliban Attacks Afghan Checkpoints

 

At least 23 Afghan security forces were killed in a series of Taliban attacks across the country, officials said Wednesday, despite winter snowfall that usually leads to a lull in violence.

The assaults targeted vulnerable checkpoints in at least three northern provinces.

In Balkh, militants stormed a checkpoint early Wednesday and killed at least seven policemen, according to provincial police chief Ajmal Fayez.

He said reinforcements had been dispatched to the post, which is located on the strategic highway connecting Balkh to neighbouring Jawezjan province.

A Taliban spokesman claimed 11 policemen died in the attack, but Afzal Hadid — a member of the provincial council — put the death toll at nine, adding four others were missing.

“We are not sure whether these four police helped the Taliban in the attack or have been captured by them,” he said.

Separate assaults by the Taliban killed at least nine members of Afghan security forces in northeastern Kunduz, and seven in neighbouring Takhar province, officials said.

The provincial spokesman for Takhar said that at least 11 militants were killed as they attacked a security checkpoint in Darqad, close to the border with Tajikistan.

10 Afghan Soldiers Killed In Taliban Attack On Military Base

This photo taken on November 27, 2019 shows an Afghan soldier walking by the ruins of Soviet-era buildings on the outskirts of Herat province. 
HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP

 

Ten Afghan soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack on a military base in the southern province of Helmand on Saturday, officials said.

The Taliban dug a tunnel into the base in volatile Sangin district and then blew it up before their fighters could attack the compound, Nawab Zadran a spokesman for 215 Maiwand Army Corps in southern Afghanistan told AFP.

“There were 18 soldiers in the base at the time of the attack providing security for the people of Sangin. Four soldiers were wounded and four repelled the Taliban attack bravely,” he said.

READ ALSO: Update: Car Bomb Leaves At Least 76 Dead In Somali Capital Mogadishu

Provincial spokesman Omar Zawak confirmed the attack and said the soldiers were killed by the powerful blast inside the base.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement sent to media claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attack in Helmand comes as local and international forces brace for another deadly winter amid US-Taliban talks to end the violence in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, seven Afghan soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack on a base in the northern province of Balkh.

Winter once marked a slowdown in the so-called “fighting season”, with Taliban fighters returning to their villages while snow and ice made attacks more difficult to pull off.

But in recent years, the distinction between seasons has all but vanished.

Deadly violence continues to grip Afghanistan even as the US and the Taliban negotiate on-off talks aimed at reducing America’s military footprint in the country in return for the insurgents ensuring an improved security situation.

AFP

Woman Killed, 73 Injured In US Military Base Attack

 

Taliban suicide bombers targeted a key US military base in Afghanistan Wednesday in a major attack that wounded more than 70 civilians, officials said, amid renewed peace talks between the United States and the militants.

The early morning assault began when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-packed vehicle outside a hospital building near Bagram military base in Parwan province, north of the capital Kabul, according to local officials.

Seven more gunmen, some wearing suicide vests are believed to have then entered the building — which was under construction and not operational — in order to use it as a launching pad for attacks against the nearby US base, local officials said.

Almost 10 hours into the attack, an Afghan interior ministry spokesman said at least three militants were still holed up inside the hospital compound, fighting Afghan and foreign forces.

“Three attackers are still inside the building resisting, while three more have been killed and one arrested,” Nasrat Rahimi told AFP.

At least two Afghan civilians, including one woman, were killed while 73 others were wounded in the explosion that damaged houses up to 300 metres (yards) away, Rahimi said.

A Taliban spokesman later claimed responsibility for the attack, claiming that “tens” of US and Afghan soldiers had been killed or wounded.

In a WhatsApp message Zabihullah Mujahid said the militants had detonated a truck bomb outside Bagram base, but denied Taliban fighters had taken up positions inside a hospital.

Afghan and US officials could not immediately confirm if a truck bomb had been used in the attack.

“The attack was quickly contained and repelled … but the future medical facility was badly damaged,” NATO’s Resolute Support mission said in a statement.

It said there were no US or coalition casualties but Georgia’s defence ministry said five of its soldiers received minor injuries in the attack.

The assault comes as Washington resumed talks with the Taliban on Saturday, three months after President Donald Trump abruptly cancelled them after a Taliban suicide attack killed 12 people including a US soldier, in Kabul.

Trump made a surprise visit to Bagram on November 28 to celebrate Thanksgiving with his troops and meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“The Taliban wants to make a deal and we’re meeting with them and we’re saying it has to be a ceasefire,” he told reporters, confirming the resumption of the stalled talks.

It was not immediately clear if the Taliban’s targeting of the US’s largest Afghan military base would affect the renewed talks between the two sides.

On Monday the Washington Post reported on thousands of US government documents which showed that senior American officials had insisted progress was being made in Afghanistan despite clear evidence the war had become unwinnable.

AFP

Taliban Release US, Australian Professors In ‘Prisoner Swap’ Deal

 

The Taliban released two Western hostages in southern Afghanistan Tuesday, handing them over to US forces more than three years after they were abducted in Kabul, insurgent sources and police told AFP.

The release of American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, both professors at the American University in Kabul, comes one week after President Ashraf Ghani announced that Afghanistan would free three high-ranking Taliban prisoners in an apparent swap that he hoped would help jumpstart peace talks.

“This morning at around 10:00 am two American University professors were released in Nawbahar district of Zabul province. They were flown out of Zabul by American helicopters,” a local police source said.

Three Taliban sources in the province also said the hostages had been released, with one saying they have been brought there by car.

“We released the professors and are now expecting the Kabul government and Americans to release our three prisoners as soon as possible,” one of them told AFP.

There was no immediate comment from the US embassy in Afghanistan. Afghan officials in Kabul said they would release a statement shortly.

The American University in Kabul said it “shares the relief of the families” of the hostages.

“The AUAF community, our students, faculty, and staff, have keenly felt the absence of our two colleagues even as we have continually urged their release over these past three years,” a statement from the university said.

King and Weeks were kidnapped by gunmen wearing military uniforms in the heart of Kabul in August 2016.

They later appeared looking haggard in a Taliban hostage video, with the insurgents going on to say that King was in poor health.

Ghani said Tuesday that the pair’s health had been “deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists”.

Ghani had first announced the exchange on November 12, saying the Taliban prisoners held at Bagram prison north of Kabul would be “conditionally” released.

They include Anas Haqqani, who was seized in 2014 and whose older brother is the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani network, a notorious Taliban affiliate.

Afghan authorities accuse Anas of being a high-level player in the network. The Taliban has long demanded his release, insisting he is a student.

The other two Taliban prisoners to be released are Haji Mali Khan, believed to be the uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Abdul Rashid, said to be the brother of Mohammad Nabi Omari, a member of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar.

It was not clear when and where they would be freed.

In his statement, Ghani had hinted they could be released outside the country. On Saturday an Afghan government spokesman said there had been a “delay” in the exchange.

Ghani had said he hoped the swap would “pave the way” for the start of unofficial direct talks between his government and the Taliban, who have long refused to negotiate with the Kabul administration.

Afghanistan Announces Delay In Taliban-For-Hostages Exchange

 

The exchange of three senior Taliban prisoners for two foreign hostages announced by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been delayed, a spokesman said Saturday.

The Taliban prisoners “are still being held by the Afghan government. The inability of the Taliban to meet the conditions has caused a delay in the exchange,” Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi wrote on Twitter.

The government “will review the exchange process in light of Afghanistan’s national interests,” he said, without providing further details.

Ghani announced the exchange on Tuesday, saying the Taliban prisoners held at Bagram prison would be “conditionally” released.

They include Anas Haqqani, who was seized in 2014 and whose older brother is the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani network, a notorious Taliban affiliate.

The two foreign hostages — American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — were kidnapped by gunmen wearing military uniforms in Kabul in August 2016.

Ghani said that “their health has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists”.

He added that the release of the two men, both professors, would “pave the way” for the start of unofficial direct talks between his government and the Taliban, who long have refused to negotiate with Ghani’s administration.

Death Toll In Blast Near Afghan Presidential Rally Rises To 26

 

A Taliban suicide bomber killed at least 26 people and wounded dozens near a campaign rally for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday, with the insurgents warning of more violence ahead of elections.

About an hour after the attack, another blast also claimed by the Taliban rocked central Kabul near the US embassy.

It was not immediately clear if the second blast claimed any lives, but an AFP journalist at nearby Wazir Akbar Khan hospital saw around a dozen wounded victims, and a witness told AFP he had seen bodies in the street.

The explosions came after US President Donald Trump abruptly ended talks with the Taliban on September 10 over a deal that would have allowed the US to begin withdrawing troops from its longest war.

In a statement sent to media claiming responsibility for both blasts, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the attack near Ghani’s rally was deliberately aimed at disrupting the September 28 elections.

“We already warned people not to attend election rallies, if they suffer any losses that is their own responsibility,” the statement said.

The bomber near Ghani’s rally — in Parwan province, about an hour’s drive north of Kabul — had been on a motorbike and had detonated his device at a checkpoint leading to the event, according to interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi.

An AFP image from the scene showed the remains of a burnt motorcycle, with a body on top covered by a blanket, next to a badly damaged police car.

Women and children were among the causalities, Parwan hospital director Abdul Qasim Sangin told AFP, adding 42 people were injured as well as the 26 dead.

The president, who was speaking to his supporters at the time of the blast, was unhurt but later condemned the attack, saying the incident proved the Taliban had no real interest in reconciliation.

“As the Taliban continue their crimes, they once again prove that they are not interested in peace and stability in Afghanistan,” said Ghani in a statement.

The UN offices in Afghanistan also slammed the Taliban, accusing the insurgents of showing “despicable disregard for civilian life & fundamental human right to participate in democratic process”.

– Talks ‘dead’ –
Sixty kilometres (40 miles) away in Kabul, a shopkeeper, Rahimullah, said he had been sitting inside his shop when the second blast came.

“The wave broke all the windows,” he told AFP.

“I rushed outside and saw several bodies just across the street. This is the second time in less than a month that a blast has broken our windows. I just fixed them a week ago.”

The elections will see Ghani face off against his own Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, and more than a dozen other candidates, including former warlords, ex-spies, and onetime members of the country’s former communist regime.

For weeks, the election had been sidelined by the US-Taliban talks, with many Afghans and observers expecting the vote to be cancelled if a deal was agreed. Even candidates did little in the way of campaigning.

But with the deal off, Ghani and his rivals have begun the race.

Ghani is seeking a clear mandate they can use to negotiate with the insurgents on a lasting peace in Afghanistan.

Trump’s declaration that the US-Taliban talks were “dead” spurred the insurgents to declare last week that the only other option was more fighting.

“We had two ways to end occupation in Afghanistan, one was jihad and fighting, the other was talks and negotiations,” Mujahid told AFP last week.

“If Trump wants to stop talks, we will take the first way and they will soon regret it.”

Observers had warned the Taliban, who hope to weaken the future president, will do anything they can to upend the election.

On the first day of campaigning in July, suicide attackers and gunmen targeted the Kabul office of Ghani’s running mate, Amrullah Saleh. At least 20 people died in those attacks.

Turnout in the elections is set to be low, with experts citing fear of violence and a loss of hope among voters following widespread fraud allegations during the 2014 election.

Afghan Taliban Rescind Ban On Red Cross

 

The Afghan Taliban rescinded a months-long ban on the International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC) working in areas under their control Sunday and restored security guarantees for those working for the organisation.

The militants and the ICRC “consented to following the old agreement on top of new promises in humanitarian aid leading to the Islamic Emirate granting ICRC permission of resuming their activities,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement.

Taliban fighters were instructed to “pave the way for ICRC activities and be mindful of security to this committee’s workers and equipment,” it added.

“We welcome the acknowledgment of our humanitarian principles and renewal of security guarantees to enable us (to) work in #Afghanistan in favour of people affected by the armed conflict,” Schaerer Juan-Pedro, head of ICRC in Kabul said on Twitter.

In April the insurgents banned both the ICRC and World Health Organization (WHO) from carrying out relief activities in areas under their control and revoked security guarantees.

The Taliban did not mention the WHO in the announcement, which it said came following talks with ICRC in Doha.

In August last year, the Taliban temporarily withdrew safety guarantees for the ICRC, accusing the international group of failing to meet its mission obligations to monitor detention conditions in Afghan jails and provide medical aid to Taliban prisoners.

As fears of increased violence soar with presidential elections approaching later this month, Afghan troops and Taliban insurgents have been engaged in heavy exchanges across Afghanistan, with several militant-controlled districts in the far north falling to government forces.

The Taliban continue to strike Afghan installations at will after the militants issued their own vow to continue fighting after US President Donald Trump abruptly cancelled negotiations that aimed to pave the way for an American withdrawal from Afghanistan following 18 years of war.

Taliban Says US ‘Will Be Harmed More Than Anyone’ After Trump Halts Talks

 

The Taliban said the US “will be harmed more than anyone” but left the door open for future negotiations Sunday after President Donald Trump abruptly announced that he had called off year-long talks to end America’s longest war.

“We still… believe that the American side will come back to this position… Our fight for the past 18 years should have proven to the Americans that we will not be satisfied until we witness the complete end of the occupation,” the group said in a statement released on Twitter by spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

The statement said the insurgents had “finalised” a deal with the US that had been expected to allow Washington to begin withdrawing troops in exchange for security promises from the Taliban.

It added that both sides had been preparing for the deal to be announced and signed when Trump tweeted late Saturday that he had “called off peace negotiations”.

Trump had cited a Taliban attack in Kabul on Thursday which killed 12 people including a US soldier as his reason for calling off the talks, including a secret meeting with the insurgents at Camp David in Maryland planned for this weekend.

But the Taliban dismissed his reasoning in their statement, saying it showed “neither experience nor patience”, and accused the US of killing “hundreds of Afghans” in the fighting.

“Americans will be harmed more than any other,” by Trump’s decision, the statement said, adding that the US’s “credibility will be harmed, their anti-peace stance will become more visible to the world, their casualties and financial losses will increase, and the US role in international political interaction will be discredited even further.”

US, Taliban Push For Peace At Doha Talks

In this file photo taken on July 08, 2019 US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad attends the Intra Afghan Dialogue talks in the Qatari capital Doha. KARIM JAAFAR / AFP

 

US and Taliban representatives held negotiations in Doha on Sunday, an American source close to the process said, as potentially decisive talks to enable Washington to drawdown its military in Afghanistan stretched into the evening.

“Talks resumed late morning today,” the US source said.

The third day of the two sides’ ninth round of dialogue, which continued until after 1900 GMT an AFP correspondent said, was described as promising by a Taliban source.

The insurgent group had earlier said that it was finalising technical points of an agreement with Washington at the talks being held in a luxury members’ club in the Qatari capital Doha.

“The agreement will be completed after we agree on these points,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP on Saturday.

Any deal would be announced before the media as well as representatives from neighbouring countries and China, Russia, and the United Nations, he added.

The United States, which invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban from power in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, wants to withdraw thousands of troops but only in return for the group renouncing Al-Qaeda and curbing attacks.

Washington is hoping to strike an agreement with the Taliban by September 1 — ahead of Afghan polls due the same month, and US presidential polls next year.

The Doha talks are being held against a backdrop of persistent violence in Afghanistan.

The Taliban claimed on Saturday to have killed seven members of the US military in an attack on a convoy near Bagram airfield north of Kabul. American officials dismissed the claims as “lies”.

On Wednesday, two US soldiers were killed by small arms fire in Faryab province in northern Afghanistan, the Pentagon said.

Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman, had said the deaths should have a “positive” impact on the talks in Doha.