A USA team led by 11-time NBA All-Star Kevin Durant were beaten 83-76 by France in a huge Olympic basketball upset on Sunday.
The French, with a team containing NBA players including Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier, inflicted the Americans’ first defeat at an Olympics since the 2004 Athens Games.
Durant was held to just 10 points in the first-round game and was unable to inspire his team as the French came from behind to take control in the final quarter.
The Americans had looked rusty in the build-up to Tokyo, losing to Nigeria in a warm-up game, and the defeat will underline Durant’s fears expressed before the Games that his side will not face a “cakewalk” in Japan.
Fournier was sensational for France, top-scoring with 28 points. Although the Boston Celtics player only scored four from 12 from beyond the three-point line, he found his range when it mattered to help the French stun the Americans.
“I tried to be aggressive. As an NBA player I know the players we were facing. We had to show the team how to attack them,” Fournier said.
France clawed back from a 10-point deficit to set up a breathless final quarter and as the USA failed to find any rhythm, the French smelled victory in the Saitama arena, where spectators were absent because of coronavirus measures.
Fournier’s three-pointer with 57 seconds remaining put his team ahead 76-74 and when Durant hit the rim with a three-pointer himself the French closed out the game with a succession of free throws.
When Jayson Tatum fouled Nicolas Batum, the French veteran NBA forward hit both from the line to seal a famous victory.
Utah Jazz centre Gobert played down the French victory.
“I mean it’s great, but until we have what we want to have around our neck, it doesn’t really matter,” Gobert said.
“Every single guy that came in the game brought us something,” he added.
“It’s really the team that we want to be and it’s exciting for the rest of the tournament.”
The USA face Iran in their next game on Wednesday when France take on the Czech Republic.
The United States announced Friday it is shipping 25 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to Africa, starting with Burkina Faso, Djibouti, and Ethiopia.
Shipments to the first three countries will go out within days, with a total of 49 African nations receiving doses of Johnson & Johnson, Moderna or Pfizer vaccines in the next few weeks, officials told AFP.
Djibouti and Burkina Faso will receive 151,200 doses of Johnson & Johnson, while Ethiopia will receive 453,600 doses, a senior Biden administration official said.
The surge in vaccine doses to the continent is being coordinated with multilateral bodies including the African Union and Covax — the distributor backed by the World Health Organization and the Gavi vaccine alliance.
It comes as the world faces an intensifying impact from the virulent Delta strain of the coronavirus, with new outbreaks appearing from Australia to the United States and Africa.
Overall, coronavirus-linked deaths in Africa increased by 43 percent in the space of week, driven by a lack of intensive-care beds and oxygen, the WHO said Thursday.
“In partnership with the African Union and Covax, the United States is proud to donate 25 million Covid-19 vaccines,” said Gayle Smith, US State Department coordinator for Covid-19 and global health.
“The Biden administration is committed to leading the global response to the pandemic.”
Strive Masiyiwa, special envoy for the African Union, said the vaccines would give another push to the AU’s goal of vaccinating 60 percent of the population on the continent, “especially at this moment when we are witnessing the third wave in a number of African countries.”
Benedict Oramah, president of Afreximbank, which is also helping coordinate the aid, called the US donations “a welcome, significant gesture.”
Together with other measures, there is “reason to be optimistic that the African Union’s goal of at least 60 percent vaccination coverage will be achieved,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has seen yawning gaps in vaccine distribution around the world, with poorer regions getting few doses while the United States and other wealthy nations have rolled out large-scale domestic inoculation programs.
That has subsequently led to so-called vaccine diplomacy in which geopolitical powerhouses and vaccine producers China and Russia were accused of using their jabs to promote their strategic footprints.
The United States denies it is competing against its rivals, but Biden has made a priority of maneuvering the United States to the center of international efforts to extinguish the global crisis.
He has pledged to allocate an initial 80 million doses for international distribution.
In addition, the Biden administration has committed to donating $2 billion to Covax.
It is also purchasing 500 million Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for the African Union and 92 poorer countries. At the recent G7 summit in Britain, US partners agreed to donate another 500 million doses.
In total, the United States has so far delivered about 40 million doses to countries as far apart as South Korea and Honduras, the White House says.
US Justice Department said Wednesday it had seized 33 Iranian government-controlled media websites, as well as three of the Iraqi group Kataeb Hezbollah, which it said were hosted on US-owned domains in violation of sanctions.
Visitors to leading Iranian media sites like Press TV and Al-Alam, the country’s main English language and Arabic language broadcasters, as well as the Al-Masirah TV channel of Yemen’s Huthis, were met with single-page statements declaring the website “has been seized by the United States Government” accompanied by the seals of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Commerce Department.
The 33 websites were held by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), itself controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC).
Both IRTVU and IRGC have been placed on the US sanctions blacklist, making it illegal for Americans, US companies, and foreign or non-American companies with US subsidiaries to have business with them or their subsidiaries.
Kataeb Hezbollah, the Iraqi group which owned three sites that were seized, is a hardline military faction with close ties to Tehran that Washington has formally designated a terror group.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the immediate parent of Al-Alam, reported that other web domains, including Palestine-Al Youm, a Palestinian-directed broadcaster, and an Arabic-language religious and cultural channel were among those seized.
Bahrain’s LuaLua TV, a channel run by opposition groups with offices in London and Beirut, was also frozen by the United States, according to an AFP correspondent in the region.
IRIB accused the United States of repressing freedom of expression and joining forces with Israel and Saudi Arabia “to block pro-resistance media outlets exposing the crimes of US allies in the region.”
On the website of their political wing, the Huthi branded the action “American piracy and copyright confiscation.”
“The government of the United States of America is banning the Al-Masirah website without any justification or even prior notice,” they said.
A-Masirah quickly established a new website, using its name but swapping the .net domain for .com.
Meanwhile, LuaLua and Al-Masirah continued to broadcast new programs, AFP journalists said.
IRTVU was designated for sanctions last year for “brazen attempts to sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading U.S. voters,” the Justice Department said.
“IRTVU and others like it, disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations,” the department said in a statement.
US officials meanwhile have tied Kataeb Hezbollah to rocket and other attacks on sites in Iraq where American soldiers and diplomats reside, and say that the groups is supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Justice Department did not identify the US company or companies which owned the domains that hosted the websites, or explain how they had been able to host them contrary to sanctions.
The US action came as Washington seeks to restore the 2015 agreement between Tehran and six major countries to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions.
In 2018 then-president Donald Trump ordered the United States to withdraw from the agreement, alleging that Iran was not adhering to its commitments, though independent nuclear inspectors said it was.
Upon taking office this year, President Joe Biden committed to rejoining the agreement and talks with Iran on what both sides would do to resume the pact have gone on for weeks.
EU negotiator Enrique Mora said on Sunday that those involved in the talks were “closer” to saving the Iran nuclear deal but that sticking points remain.
The US action also came just after Iranians chose ultraconservative cleric Ibrahim Raisi as president in an election the US State Department characterized as neither free nor fair.
The US Supreme Court ruled Monday that America’s top university athletics body cannot block student-athletes from getting extra benefits, eroding its power over the multi-billion-dollar college sports industry.
The high court sided unanimously with student-athletes in a narrow case focused on whether they can receive limited cash or non-cash benefits from their schools related to their education, which the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) currently forbids.
While it did not weigh in on whether student-athletes should be able to cash in completely on their performances, the Supreme Court made it clear it did not accept the NCAA’s claim that its strict ban on their earning any money, to retain “amateur” status, was important to the business.
The court called the NCAA an effective monopoly in its control over the lucrative industry of college sports.
“Put simply, this suit involves admitted horizontal price fixing in a market where the defendants exercise monopoly control,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the opinion.
“No one disputes that the NCAA’s restrictions in fact decrease the compensation that student-athletes receive compared to what a competitive market would yield.”
The long-brewing case, NCAA v. Alston et al, did not address the hottest topic of college sports: whether athletes, like universities and the NCAA, should benefit from endorsements or monetization of their personal images, such as sales of shirts bearing their names.
But the court said the NCAA could not prove that athletes keeping their amateur status was important to what Gorsuch called its “massive business.”
“Those who run this enterprise profit in a different way than the student-athletes whose activities they oversee,” he said.
“The president of the NCAA earns nearly $4 million per year. Commissioners of the top conferences take home between $2 to $5 million… And annual salaries for top Division I college football coaches approach $11 million.”
The ruling appeared to open the gate for a broader challenge to the NCAA’s control on how student-athletes can earn money, or share in the profits the NCAA and universities rake in.
“Price-fixing labor is price-fixing labor,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion.
“The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America,” he said.
“All of the restaurants in a region cannot come together to cut cooks’ wages on the theory that ‘customers prefer’ to eat food from low-paid cooks.”
The White House applauded the ruling, while the NCAA said the court had reaffirmed its authority to adopt “reasonable rules” and that it remained free to judge what constitutes “truly educational benefits.”
Individual states will implement new laws on July 1 that give student-athletes the right to profit from endorsements, so-called “name, image and likeness” (NIL) benefits.
Currently, the NCAA bans them from profiting from social media, sales of shirts bearing their names, video games using their likenesses and apparel deals arranged by their schools.
But the much smaller National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, authorized NIL benefits last year.
The NCAA has stalled on the issue, leading to Congress now debating legislation.
The council for NCAA’s powerful Division I, representing the largest and richest schools, will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday and could discuss the issue.
“The NCAA remains committed to supporting NIL benefits for student-athletes,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement.
“Additionally, we remain committed to working with Congress to chart a path forward, which is a point the Supreme Court expressly stated in its ruling.”
With marches, music and speeches, Americans on Saturday celebrated “Juneteenth,” the newly declared national holiday that marks the end of slavery and which comes a year after George Floyd’s murder sparked anti-racism protests.
Hundreds of events were held across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, and most notably in Galveston, Texas, the symbolic heart of the Juneteenth commemoration.
For on June 19, 1865, it was in that Texas coastal area that the Union army — victorious after the bitterly fought Civil War — announced to African Americans that, even if some in Texas were trying to ignore it, enslaved people were now free.
Slavery was formally abolished in December 1865, with the adoption of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, but Juneteenth has remained the emblematic date marking the freeing of enslaved Americans.
This year’s Juneteenth celebrations are all the more celebratory, coming just days after President Joe Biden signed legislation making June 19 a national holiday, and at a time when pandemic-imposed restrictions on public gatherings are steadily being eased.
“I feel wonderful, I feel proud, I feel a sense of accomplishment for the struggle,” Sharonda Newby said at a rally in Galveston, where she grew up. “I feel like they’ve given us some momentum, some resilience to continue to push forward.”
“It was a long time coming,” said 68-year-old Cheryl Green, who was attending the unveiling in the New York City borough of Brooklyn of a bust of George Floyd, the Black man killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis in May 2020.
“It’s good that people get to recognize what happened,” said Green, an African-American resident of Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. “Changes are being made slowly, but surely we’ll get there.”
In Washington, hundreds celebrated on Black Lives Matter Plaza, a section of a main road near the White House that was renamed by the city amid the huge anti-racism protests galvanized by Floyd’s death.
Kevin Blanks, a 29-year-old Black man, said he had come to denounce the racism that is “still very much embedded in the DNA of this country.”
He wore a T-shirt that paid tribute to Black leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman.
Danique McGuire, a 51-year-old Black woman, said that by signing the Juneteenth legislation into law, “President Biden has recognized the importance of Black Americans.”
She added, however, that “the fight is still long” for equality.
Floyd’s killing touched off global protests against racism and police violence toward minorities.
That movement helped raise the visibility of Juneteenth — a date that many Americans, including many African Americans, had not heard of even two years ago.
An opinion survey published Tuesday by the Gallup institute found that 28 percent of Americans knew “nothing at all” about the anniversary.
“I didn’t learn about Juneteenth until I got to high school,” said Farah Louis, a Black city official in New York, who was attending the Floyd unveiling in Brooklyn.
She said Juneteenth should be used to “educate our young people” about the treatment of Black people through American history.
Celebrating Juneteenth now seems “a bit surreal” at a time many Republican-led states are passing laws that limit voting options in ways that “most acutely affect communities of color,” tweeted Sharif Street, a Black state legislator from Pennsylvania.
From January through May, 14 states, notably Georgia and Florida, passed laws limiting opportunities to vote — measures seen as aimed at reducing the influence of minority voters, particularly African-Americans.
To Street, it is “a reminder that our wins are not permanent.”
Draft legislation to protect voting rights is currently being debated in the US Senate, but with many Republicans opposing it, its fate appears uncertain.
To Louis, the Juneteenth proclamation together with the impetus from the George Floyd movement present an opportunity.
“You have to strike while the iron is hot,” she said, citing among other issues the idea of government-paid reparations to compensate descendants of enslaved people.
On Friday, the mayors of 11 American cities, including Los Angeles and Denver, vowed to pursue the question of how best to carry out reparations. They invited the Congress and the US government to follow their example.
“We see change” in the country, said Terrence Floyd at the Brooklyn unveiling of the bust honoring his brother George.
Terrence Floyd, who lives in New York, recently created a group called “We Are Floyd” to help “keep the change going,” he told AFP.
“Because right now, it’s not a moment. It’s a movement.
A rocket on Sunday targeted an Iraqi air base hosting American troops, a security source told AFP, the latest in a series of attacks the US blames on Iran-linked militias.
The assault on the Ain Al-Assad base came as pro-Tehran groups hailed the election of Iranian ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi as the new president of the Islamic republic, with some saying it reflected the “failure” of America’s “pawns” in the region.
The attack also comes 10 days after the United States offered a reward of up to $3 million for information on strikes against its citizens in Iraq.
US interests in Iraq have come under repeated attack since October 2019, including with rockets, with Washington routinely blaming them on Iran-backed factions.
Since the beginning of the year, a total of 43 attacks have targeted the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraqi bases housing US troops or Iraqi convoys carrying logistical support.
Pro-Iran groups in Iraq are campaigning for the departure of the remaining 2,500 US troops deployed in the country as part of an international coalition to fight the Islamic State group. The Iraqi government declared that fight won in late 2017.
On June 10 the US Department of State’s Rewards for Justice programme urged Iraqis with any information concerning anti-American attacks to come forward.
“Faithful people of Iraq, cowardly terrorists are attacking US diplomatic missions in Iraq, then they are fleeing to hide among civilians,” it said in a statement in Arabic on Twitter.
“America is offering a reward of up to $3 million for information on planned attacks or past ones against American diplomatic installations,” it added.
Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday that Joe Biden should have met him before the US president’s first summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin as they could resolve nothing on Ukraine without Kiev’s involvement.
Zelensky spoke as the US and Russian leaders prepare to meet in Geneva on Wednesday.
Earlier this month Biden reaffirmed US support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and invited Zelensky to the White House in July.
“It would be better to have this meeting before the summit,” Zelensky, 43, said in an interview with three international news agencies, including AFP.
Zelensky said he did not expect Putin and Biden to come up with a solution to Ukraine’s conflict at the summit.
“It is not possible to decide for Ukraine,” he said. “So there won’t be a concrete result.”
Zelensky is seeking Washington’s support for Ukraine’s seven-year war with Russian-backed separatists.
On Friday, the Pentagon announced a new $150 million (124 million euro) package of military assistance for Kiev.
After a lull last year, fighting escalated at the start of 2021 and in April Russia amassed 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and in Crimea, prompting warnings from NATO.
Russia later announced a pullback, but both Washington and Kiev say that the withdrawal has been limited.
Zelensky estimated that more than 90,000 Russian troops remained along Ukraine’s borders and said tensions could still escalate.
“Any escalation could lead to a conflict,” he said. “If the number of troops near our borders has increased this could result in a massive war.”
The conflict in eastern Ukraine — including the escalation of tensions over the past few months — is expected to be high on the agenda in Geneva.
– ‘Not nice’ – Speaking in Russian and Ukrainian during the hour-long interview, Zelensky said his country was ready to join NATO.
“We are fighting a war. This is proof we are ready to join.
“We are proving every day that we are ready to be in the alliance more than most of the EU countries.”
The Ukrainian president also accused the West of being unwilling to discuss in detail Ukraine’s aspirations for NATO and EU membership.
“I believe this is not nice,” he said.
“When you bang your head against the wall for seven years, saying ‘well, you see that there’s a war, can you support us?’ and you get an answer ‘we support the desire, but…’, you can get unwillingness in a few years,” Zelensky said.
Ukraine, which applied to join the US-led alliance in 2008, is pressing Western powers for more support as it seeks to deter any new aggression from Moscow.
But NATO members remain reluctant to embrace Ukraine as they want to avoid ratcheting up tensions with Russia.
Kiev has already criticised the bloc’s decision not to invite Ukraine to a NATO summit in Brussels on Monday.
Zelensky expressed his disappointment in the “tiredness” of Kiev’s Western allies with his country’s problems, accusing them of being “unfair” to Ukraine, when it comes to questions of joining the EU, the distribution of vaccines against the coronavirus or financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund.
Instead of constantly demanding reforms as a condition of support, “everyone must be more flexible and understand that we are at war and that we are protecting democracy in Europe”, he said.
Zelensky also accused Russia of delaying his proposed meeting with Putin to discuss the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“I believe that today — I don’t know the reasons for it — they are delaying this meeting,” the Ukrainian leader said, expressing hope that a date would be set soon.
“I believe that a meeting with the Russian president is unavoidable.”
Beijing accused the United States of “suppressing” Chinese firms and issued veiled threats of a retaliation Friday, after President Joe Biden expanded a blacklist of companies Americans are barred from investing in.
Biden on Thursday widened a list to 59 Chinese companies that are off-limits to American investors over their links to Beijing’s “military-industrial complex”, as he maintains a campaign of pressure on the Asian superpower.
His predecessor Donald Trump in November issued a list of 31 Chinese companies that were deemed to be supplying or supporting China’s military and security apparatus, adding more firms earlier this year.
But after legal challenges put the sanctions in doubt, Biden’s team reviewed the blacklist, removing some names and ultimately expanding it. Many are subsidiaries of companies already included.
The sanctions target companies involved in Chinese surveillance technology used to “facilitate repression or serious human rights abuses”, which “undermine the security or democratic values of the United States and our allies”, according to a White House statement.
China’s foreign ministry decried the move as a “violation of market law” and an attempt to “suppress” Chinese companies.
“Remove these so-called lists that suppress Chinese companies,” Wang Wenbin, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters, urging the US to be “fair, just and non-discriminatory” towards Chinese companies.
“China will take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies,” he added.
The initial list published under Trump included major telecoms, construction and technology firms such as China Mobile, China Telecom, video surveillance firm Hikvision, and China Railway Construction Corp.
China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) was added in January — causing S&P to remove it from its stock index — and remains on Biden’s list.
The investment ban takes effect on August 2 and current shareholders have a year to divest.
The move was among a series of measures by the White House aimed at Beijing that have left ties between the two sides severely strained.
Previously, the sanctions and choice of targets were tied to a congressionally mandated Defense Department report but will be managed by the Treasury Department.
While the Biden administration has pledged to take a more diplomatic approach with China following Trump’s exit, he has said he will keep to a tough line on several issues including defence and technology.
Biden has lamented that the United States is falling behind, saying China is “eating our lunch”.
However, his list was brushed off by investors, with shares of the firms that are listed in Hong Kong and mainland China broadly higher.
Among the standouts, Changsha Jingjia Microelectronics added 5.20 percent and Zhonghang Electronic Measuring Instruments Co. jumped more than four percent.
In Hong Kong, China Mobile climbed more than one percent and China Unicom jumped almost one percent, while CNOOC was only slightly lower.
A tough line on China has rare cross-party support in Congress, with lawmakers determined to keep a lid on its growing global clout.
Republican senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, alongside Democrats Gary Peters and Mark Kelly, published a bi-partisan letter earlier this week urging the administration to publish a new list.
“The US government must continue to act boldly in blocking the Chinese Communist Party’s economic predation against our industrial base,” they said.
US President Joe Biden on Tuesday honored the forgotten victims of a 1921 massacre in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the worst episodes of racist violence in US history.
“I come here to help fill the silence because in silence wounds deepen,” Biden told an audience that included survivors of the Tulsa race massacre and their families.
Biden was in Tulsa to mark the 100th anniversary of the violence, which began after a group of Black men went to the local courthouse to defend a young African American man accused of assaulting a white woman.
The next day, at dawn, white men looted and burned the neighborhood, at the time so prosperous it was called Black Wall Street. As many as 300 African American residents lost their lives.
President Joe Biden will propose a tax hike on investment gains of the wealthiest individuals to help pay for his massive infrastructure and jobs package, a top White House economist said Monday.
Biden is expected to lay out his plan this week for $2 trillion in investments to create millions of jobs, and has said higher taxes on the rich and corporations will offset the hefty price tag.
The increased tax on profits earned from sales of stocks and other assets will only impact those earning $1 million a year, a narrow sliver of American taxpayers — about 500,000 — said Brian Deese, head of the White House National Economic Council.
“This change will only apply to three tenths of a percent of taxpayers, which is not the top 1 percent, it’s not even the top one half of 1 percent,” he told reporters, citing 2018 tax filing data.
The change will help “to offset the long term cost of those investments by making reforms to our tax code that reward work and not just wealth,” Deese said.
He did not provide any details of the new higher tax, but media reports last week cited officials saying Biden will increase the capital gains tax rate to 39.6 percent from 20 percent.
Biden also proposed raising the official corporate tax rate to 28 percent from 21 percent, partially reversing former president Donald Trump’s 2017 corporate tax cut.
In addition, Biden’s plan would increase the minimum tax on businesses to 21 percent, “ending the ability of multinationals to shield income in tax havens from US taxes.”
The far-reaching infrastructure package unveiled late last month would shore up the nation’s highways, bridges and ports, as well as fund telecommunications upgrades plus research and development to boost competitiveness, especially compared to China.
But it also includes broadband internet, clean drinking water and upgraded childcare facilities and schools as part of the investments.
“It will be a plan that will provide critical support for children and families, and in by doing so, critical support for our economy,” Deese said.
Biden is due to address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night.
US President Joe Biden called systemic racism a “stain on our nation’s soul” in a televised address to the nation Tuesday after a white former police officer was convicted of murdering a Black man during an arrest.
Biden spoke out after a jury in the Midwestern city of Minneapolis found Derek Chauvin guilty of intentionally suffocating handcuffed George Floyd as he lay defenseless, with the officer’s knee pressing on his neck for more than nine minutes.
The president called for “confronting head-on systemic racism and the racial disparities that exist in policing and our criminal justice system” — but pleaded for protesters to steer clear of violence.
“There are those who will seek to exploit the raw emotions in the moment — agitators and extremists who have no interest in social justice,” he warned. “We can’t let them succeed.”
A jury deliberated less than 11 hours before finding the 45-year-old Chauvin guilty of all three charges against him — second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
The unanimous verdict came after a racially charged three-week trial that was seen as a pivotal test of police accountability in the United States.
Appearing alongside Biden, Kamala Harris, America’s first Black vice president, spoke first to articulate the “relief” the nation was feeling over justice being served but acknowledged that the result couldn’t “take away the pain” of Floyd’s murder.
“A measure of justice is not the same as equal justice. This verdict brings us a step closer. We still have work to do. We still have to reform the system,” she said.
President Joe Biden will withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan before this year’s 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, finally ending America’s longest war despite mounting fears of a Taliban victory, officials said Tuesday.
The drawdown delays only by around five months an agreement with the Taliban by former president Donald Trump to pull troops, amid a growing consensus in Washington that little more can be achieved.
The decision came as Turkey announced an international peace conference on Afghanistan in hopes of reaching an agreement that brings stability to a nation battered by nearly 40 years of war. But the Taliban, newly emboldened, said they would boycott the conference.
Biden, who will make an announcement Wednesday, had earlier mused about keeping a residual force to strike at Al-Qaeda or an emergent Islamic State extremist threat or making withdrawal contingent on progress on the ground or in slow-moving peace talks.
In the end, he decided to do neither and will order a complete withdrawal other than limited US personnel to guard the US installations including the imposing embassy in Kabul, a senior official said.
“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Under the Trump administration’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban, all US troops would leave by May 2021 in return for the insurgents’ promise not to back Al-Qaeda and other foreign extremists -– the original reason for the 2001 invasion.
The Biden official said the withdrawal would begin in May and that the delay was largely logistical, with troops possibly out of Afghanistan well before September 11.
The official warned the Taliban — who are observing a truce with US but not with Afghan forces — not to strike coalition forces as they leave, saying that in response to any attack “we will hit back hard.”
– Taliban ‘confident’ – Fighting will likely grind on. A threat assessment report published Tuesday by the director of national intelligence said the Taliban “is confident it can achieve military victory.”
While in control of cities, Afghan forces “have struggled to hold recaptured territory or re-establish a presence in areas abandoned in 2020,” it said.
Afghan civilians have long paid a disproportionate price in the fighting and the rise of the Taliban has raised particular fears among many Afghan women.
The Taliban, who enforce an austere brand of Sunni Islam, banned women from school, offices, music and most of daily life during their 1996-2001 rule over much of Afghanistan. Two decades later, 40 percent of schoolchildren are girls.
The Biden official said the United States would use non-military “tools at our disposal” to promote women’s rights including bolstering civilian assistance.
But Afghan women have been largely shut out of talks between the Taliban and Kabul on a lasting peace deal in the country, with activists arguing this could compromise their fragile, hard-won rights going forward.
– Peace effort in Turkey – Biden’s decision came as Turkey announced the dates of a US-backed peace conference that would bring together the Afghan government, the Taliban and international partners.
The April 24-May 4 conference will aim to lead to “a roadmap to a future political settlement and an end to the conflict,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.
But Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban office in Qatar, said the insurgents will not participate in any conference on Afghanistan’s future “until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland.”
Many observers believe that the Taliban think they have already effectively won and can wait out the US withdrawal, as little progress has come out of on-off talks in Qatar.
In a sign of the wide international concerns, diplomats said that all of Afghanistan’s neighbors had been invited to take part including Iran and China, which both have tense relations with the United States.
Also in attendance would be both Pakistan, the Taliban’s historic supporter, and its rival India, a staunch ally of the Kabul government which has strongly backed the US presence.
A decade ago, the United States had some 100,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a “surge” strategy by then president Barack Obama to defeat the Taliban.
The troop figure by the end of Trump’s presidency had gone down to 2,500 as support for military action waned.
Even onetime backers of the war have voiced concern about limited gains on the ground as well as infighting and corruption in Kabul and questioned whether the $2 trillion spent in Afghanistan could have had better uses at a time of growing alarm about China.
Senator Tim Kaine, an ally of Biden, said the United States accomplished a primary goal 10 years ago by killing Osama bin Laden and it was time to “refocus American national security on the most pressing challenges we face.”
But Representative Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was “shocked and appalled” by Biden’s decision.
The withdrawal means “abandoning our Afghan partners during critical peace negotiations and allowing the Taliban a total victory,” he said.