China, Pakistan Urge Taliban to Reduce Violence, Start Talks

Under the US-Taliban peace agreement, 5,000 Taliban prisoners will be released from the Afghan government’s jails.

In a trilateral virtual meeting held between Afghanistan, Pakistan and China on Tuesday, the Pakistan and Chinese officials have reiterated the call on the Taliban to reduce violence to help pave the way for the start of intra-Afghan talks, the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday as violence continues across the country.

“On July 7, 2020, the 3rd round China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Vice Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue was held via video link. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui, Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Mirwais Nab and Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood co-chaired the dialogue,” Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

According to the statement, the three sides conducted in-depth discussions and reached consensus on cooperation against COVID-19, the Afghan peace and reconciliation process, and trilateral cooperation.

The statement also reads: China and Pakistan appreciated the efforts by the Afghanistan government and relevant parties in expediting the exchange of the prisoners to pave the way for the start of the Intra-Afghan Negotiations and call for violence reduction and humanitarian ceasefire. China and Pakistan will enhance cooperation with the Afghan government in support of the “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace reconciliation process, the launch of Intra-Afghan Negotiations at an early date, support the preservation of the gains since 2001, and looked forward to the early restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

“Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to further strengthen dialogue and work for continuous improvement of bilateral relations including through the effective implementation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS). China will continue to play a constructive role in improving Afghanistan-Pakistan relations,” the statement said.

“The Afghan government should release the Taliban prisoners based on the peace agreement and avoid sabotaging the peace process,” said Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander.

The Afghan government expects that the intra-Afghan talks can start sometimes during the current month, but sources close to the Taliban have said that they do not see the prospect for such talks unless the Afghan government ensure the release of 5,000 prisoners demanded by the Taliban under the Doha peace agreement signed between the US and the Taliban on February 29.

“With consideration of the measures taken by the Afghan government, the hope is that these talks start during July,” said Geran Hewad, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“When the intra-Afghan talks started, it does not mean that the Taliban negotiate with the Afghan government as a government, also, the Taliban will not agree on a ceasefire on the start of the talks,” said Sami Yousufzai, freelance journalist in Doha.

Under the US-Taliban peace agreement, 5,000 Taliban prisoners will be released from the Afghan government’s jails.

So far the government has released 4015 of the inmates.

But, the Afghan government has said that it will not [release all] 597 Taliban prisoners.

The Afghan government on Sunday revealed one of the main reasons behind the delay in the intra-Afghan negotiations, saying it is not releasing 597 prisoners of the 5,000 inmates that were to be freed as part of the confidence-building measures established in the US-Taliban agreement signed in late February.

These individuals are accused of “crimes and moral issues” and are on a list that was given to the government by the Taliban, said Ahmad Rashid Totakhil, head of the prisoners’ release affairs.

“’Murderers’ are on the Taliban list and the government has resisted. It is a (victims’) rights issue and the law does not allow to release someone under the pretext of being a Taliban member, who is charged with murder or even moral crimes like rape,” Totakhil said.

The Taliban rejected this and said the list includes names of members of the group who have been arrested on charges of being a Taliban member.

China, Pakistan Urge Taliban to Reduce Violence, Start Talks
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Ghani Seeks Regional Support for Peace

President Ghani says regional and neighboring countries’ support will help Afghanistan to achieve its goals for peace.

President Ashraf Ghani on Monday afternoon spoke at the opening of an international meeting on “strengthening regional consensus for peace,” stressing the need for the support of neighboring and regional countries to participate in the reconciliation process in Afghanistan.

Representatives of 19 countries and international organizations attended the virtual meeting that was held at the Presidential Palace.

“We all are faced with the threat of terrorism, regional crime networks and extremism,” Ghani said. “The logic thought is that we stay together and Afghanistan as a roundabout of regional cooperation can play a good role in regional stability and prosperity.”

He said that international consensus to end the war is there, adding that “the support of regional and neighboring countries for regional consensus will help Afghanistan to achieve its goals on peace.”

On peace, Ghani said that “the peace process will face serious challenges if the Taliban continue the war.”

“Unfortunately, violence level is high compared to the last year. Recent reports by the UN showed that the Taliban is yet to implement their commitments– and maintain their ties with terrorist networks,” Ghani said.

Ghani said that the Afghan government has made big steps with the prisoner release, and the Taliban should quit violence and release the Afghan prisoners.

Kabul-Hosted Intl Conference on Peace Process Begins

Representatives of 19 countries and international organizations will take part in the meeting, officials said.

Kabul is hosting a meeting of 19 representatives from nations as well as international organizations today in a virtual event organized by the Presidential Palace to discuss peace and to build consensus on the reconciliation process in the country.

Representatives from the United States, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries in the region are expected to attend the meeting.

The meeting will be hosted by acting Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar. President Ghani announced the meeting last week.

Presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi on Sunday said the government is committed to starting the intra-Afghan negotiations as soon as possible to ensure peace, stability and an end to the war in the country.

But the peace process still faces significant obstacles.

On Sunday, the Afghan government revealed that one of the main reasons behind the delay in the intra-Afghan negotiations was its refusal to release 597 prisoners out of the 5,000 inmates that were to be freed as part of the US-Taliban agreement signed in late February.

These individuals are accused of serious “moral crimes,” and are on a list that was given to the government by the Taliban, said Ahmad Rashid Totakhil, who heads up the prisoner release process.

According to the Afghan government, so far 4,015 Taliban prisoners have been released and the process will continue this week.

 

Ghani Seeks Regional Support for Peace
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Withdraw first, ask questions later America is rapidly pulling troops from Afghanistan

The future of the country they are leaving behind is more uncertain than ever

The Economist
Jul 4th 2020 edition

Faiza ibrahimi is too young to remember when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan as a theocracy. She can scarcely believe her parents’ stories about it. She is a radio presenter in the western city of Herat. The idea that gun-toting zealots from the countryside used to forbid women to leave home unless fully veiled and accompanied by a male relative seems almost inconceivable: “My mother was unable to work and find bread. I couldn’t imagine that time again.”

It was only in 2001 that American forces toppled the Taliban regime, when the mullahs who led the movement refused to hand over Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. But nearly two-thirds of the population is less than 25 years old, and so has little or no memory of the Taliban’s rule. They are having to brush up on their history, however, as they contemplate the prospect of the Taliban returning to power in some form. The American troops that have propped up the Afghan government and held the Taliban at bay for the past 19 years are on their way out. Over the past four months the number of American soldiers in the country has fallen by a third, from around 13,000 to 8,600. The administration of President Donald Trump has pledged to reduce their strength still further, as part of a deal it signed with the Taliban on February 29th. In exchange the Taliban are supposed to cease providing shelter to foreign militants and—an element of the peace plan that is proceeding much less smoothly—enter into talks with the Afghan government.

“Intra-Afghan talks”, in which the government, the Taliban, opposition politicians and representatives of civil society were to discuss the country’s future, had been due to start within days of the signing of the accord. But the process immediately bogged down. First, the government and the Taliban bickered over a prisoner exchange outlined in the deal. America had promised that the Afghan government, which was not party to the agreement, would release “up to” 5,000 Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. The Taliban, in return, were to free 1,000 policemen and soldiers it held captive. Ashraf Ghani, the president, said 5,000 was too many, but the Taliban were adamant. Months passed.

Another sticking point has been the Taliban’s continuing attacks on soldiers and civilians. Although the insurgents observed something close to a ceasefire in late February, to pave the way for the signing of the deal, they reverted to their old ways soon afterwards. The government says they carried out 422 attacks in a single week in June. This breaks a promise to reduce violence, the American and Afghan authorities say. But if the Taliban made such a pledge, it was only in private: the text of the deal did not spell out any truce.

The Taliban did at least cut back on attacks during the Eid holiday in late May. That seems to have spurred Mr Ghani to release most of the required prisoners, even though violence subsequently increased again. There is lingering disagreement, too, over 200-odd people the Taliban want freed, some of whom are accused of terrible atrocities. Nonetheless, diplomats believe the way may at last be clear for talks to begin within weeks, probably back in Qatar, where the original accord was signed.

These discussions, should they go ahead, will give Afghans a glimpse of how much the Taliban have changed their spots since the 1990s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have not been clear what they want for the country, beyond the departure of American troops. Their statements speak vaguely of Islamic government. When asked whether their attitudes to women have changed, they say only that women’s rights will be protected in accordance with Islamic teachings. Although they claim no longer to oppose girls going to school, for instance, girls do not seem to be allowed to remain in education past puberty in the rural areas controlled by the Taliban, according to a report published this week by Human Rights Watch, a pressure group.

Some Afghans believe that the Taliban’s refusal to elaborate on their stances is a sign that they are not serious about negotiations, and plan to attempt to seize power by force once the Americans are gone. Others assume that divisions within the organisation make it hard to stake out clear positions. Although the talks with America suggested an element of pragmatism, the Taliban still insisted on referring to themselves as leading an “Islamic emirate”, just as they did when they ruled the country in the 1990s. “If this thing moves forward, the day’s going to come where they can’t just say, ‘We will settle that later’,” says Andrew Watkins of International Crisis Group.

The government, for its part, has said it wants to preserve “a sovereign, democratic and united republic”. It will definitely resist the re-creation of a doctrinaire Islamist regime. In a speech by video-link to an American think-tank on June 24th Abdullah Abdullah, in effect the government’s chief negotiator, said, “We cannot achieve peace with sacrificing the basic and fundamental rights of our people.” He has said he will include women in his negotiating team. But he also concedes that the government will have to compromise to win the Taliban over—without specifying how.

Yet more uncertainty surrounds America’s part in Afghanistan’s future. The only element of the peace plan going according to schedule is the withdrawal of American forces. “It is not the duty of us troops to solve ancient conflicts in far away lands that many people have never heard of,” Mr Trump told cadets at the us Military Academy at West Point on June 13th. Claims that Russia paid a bounty to the Taliban for every American soldier they killed are causing him embarrassment (see article). Joe Biden, his rival in November’s election, has long been sceptical about state-building in Afghanistan. How forcefully either man would push to preserve Afghan democracy is unclear. Many doubt that either would send troops back in should the Taliban come close to toppling the elected government.

Covid-19 has made all these questions more fraught. The disease is said to be barrelling through the Afghan security services. The American troops who remain in Afghanistan are providing less training to the Afghan army in part to avoid catching it from their Afghan comrades. Attempts to contain the spread of the virus have also hit the already sputtering Afghan economy. Nation-building, under any government, is looking harder than ever.

Afghans like Miss Ibrahimi anxiously await the start of talks. She wants to remain working in Afghanistan to justify her parents’ sacrifices. But she doubts that the gun-toting zealots her mother told her about have changed much. “If the Taliban come with that ideology that they had before 2001, then it won’t be a change for peace, or better security or a better country,” she says grimly. 

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Withdraw first, ask questions later”

Withdraw first, ask questions later America is rapidly pulling troops from Afghanistan
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Russia Denies Paying Bounties, but Some Say the U.S. Had It Coming

Russia’s grievances against what it sees as American bullying and expansion into its own zones of influence have been stacking up for decades.

American military personnel in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, last year.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

MOSCOW — Three years into a grinding war in eastern Ukraine, the Trump administration, in a sharp break with Obama-era policy, proposed providing the Ukrainian army with potent American weapons, Javelin anti-tank missiles, to aid its struggle with Russian-backed separatists.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia responded with an ominous warning, saying weapons in the separatist regions could easily be sent “to other zones of conflict” — which many took to mean Afghanistan.

Russia’s grievances against what it sees as American bullying and expansion into its own zones of influence have been stacking up for decades, starting with the C.I.A.’s role in arming mujahedin fighters who, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, delivered a fatal blow not only to the invading Red Army but the entire Soviet Union.

A deep well of bitterness created by past and current conflicts in Afghanistan, Ukraine and more recently Syria, where U.S. forces killed scores of Russian mercenaries in 2018, help explain why Russia, according to U.S. intelligence officials, has become so closely entangled with the Taliban. In Ukraine, the Trump administration did send Javelins but with the stipulation that they not be used in the war.

Soldiers in eastern Ukraine last year.
Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Russian officials and commentators reacted with fury to a report last week in The New York Times that American intelligence officials had concluded that Russia’s military intelligence agency had gone so far as to pay bounties to the Taliban and criminal elements linked to it to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Intercepted electronic data showed large financial transfers from Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the G.R.U., to a Taliban-linked account, according to American officials. Officials also identified an Afghan contractor as a key middleman between the G.R.U. and militants linked to the Taliban who carried out the attacks.

Russian officials have scoffed at the idea they would hire killers from a radical Islamist group that is banned in Russia as a “terrorist” outfit and that shares many views of the Afghan fighters who killed so many Red Army soldiers, and those of Islamic militants who caused Moscow so much pain in Chechnya during two wars there.

In remarks to a state news agency on Monday, Zamir Kabulov, Mr. Putin’s special envoy for Afghanistan and a former ambassador in Kabul, dismissed the Taliban bounties report as “outright lies” generated by “forces in the United States who don’t want to leave Afghanistan and want to justify their own failures.”

Speaking during a talk show on state television dominated by conspiracy theories about plots by President Trump’s Democratic rivals, Aleksei Zhuravlyov, a member of the Russian Parliament, reminded viewers that as far as Russia was concerned, the United States has long had it coming.

Recalling Operation Cyclone, the C.I.A.’s secret program to arm Moscow’s enemies in Afghanistan during the 1980s, Mr. Zhuravlyov said the United States had spent billions of dollars on weapons that“killed thousands and thousands” of Russians. “This is a medical fact.”

While dismissing reports of Russian bounties for American scalps as “fake news,” he said, “Let’s suppose we paid” the Taliban, and then asked how many Americans had perhaps been killed as a result. “At most 22,” he responded.

There is no evidence to date that Mr. Putin signed off on any program to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even independent experts say they strongly doubt he would have done so.

Yet, Russia under Mr. Putin has for years throbbed with real and imagined pain from hurt inflicted by the United States, notably the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a desire to make it pay.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia leaving after the Victory Day Parade in Moscow in June.
Credit…Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

All the same, he said, Russia has been preparing for an eventual pullout by cultivating ties to the Taliban as well as to various Afghan warlords. It has done this with money and other inducements in the hope of shaping future Afghan events and securing a useful instrument to poke Washington.

The Taliban, like many other Afghan groups, he added, has a long record of running protection rackets and taking cash from foreigners, including Russians, Americans and Chinese. “This is what they do,” he said. “They are Afghanistan’s most successful business.”

Russia, he said, “decided that if we can create lots of problems for Americans in Afghanistan, they will create fewer problems for us in Ukraine and Syria.”

Moscow has been reaching out to the Taliban for years, starting in 1995 when Mr. Kabulov traveled to Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold in the south, to negotiate the release of Russian pilots who had been taken hostage.

The pilots eventually got away with their aircraft in what was described at the time as a daring escape. But what really happened is unclear. One thing that seems certain, however, is that this first Russian negotiation with the Taliban revolved around money.

“Everything was based on money,” Vasily Kravtsov, a former K.G.B. officer during the Soviet war and until 2018 a Russian diplomat in Kabul, recalled of the hostage talks.

Mr. Kravtsov denied that Russia had since paid the Taliban bounties for the deaths of coalition soldiers, even as he recalled that Soviet soldiers had been killed in large numbers by American arms supplied to the mujahedin. He said he himself had been wounded twice by weapons “bought with American funds.”

Igor Yerin, who fought in Afghanistan as a young Red Army conscript in the 1980s, said he never saw any Americans on the battlefield but “they were everywhere because of their Stingers.”

Stingers were antiaircraft missiles provided to mujahedin fighters by the United States as part of a covert C.I.A. program. They enabled the mujahedin to shoot down hundreds of Soviet planes and helicopters, turning the tide in the decade-long war.Image

Soviet troops crossing the border into Uzbekistan as they withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.
Credit…Sovfoto/UIG, via Getty Images

Now the curator of a small museum in Moscow commemorating the inglorious Afghan war, Mr. Yerin showed off a display of land mines and other weapons sent to kill Russians as part of the C.I.A. program.

Mr. Putin has for years played on this and other sources of Russian pain.

Soon after coming to power two decades ago, he pledged support for former President George W. Bush in his “with or against us” war on terrorism in 2001, and cooperated with America’s drive to oust the Taliban. But he quickly soured on the idea that Washington could be a reliable partner and began blaming it for most of the world’s problems.

Bristling with wounded pride, Mr. Putin in a fiery speech in Munich in 2007 denounced what he said was a “world of one master, one sovereign” and complained that the “United States has overstepped its national borders, in every area.”

He has been settling scores ever since, often with help from the G.R.U., which even before Mr. Putin took power had won its spurs putting the United States in its place. Since he took office, the military intelligence agency has been accused of involvement in widespread mischief-making, from a bungled 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro aimed at preventing the Balkan nation’s entry into NATO, to meddling the same year in the U.S. presidential election.

In a rare recent interview, the former head of the G.R.U., Valentin Korabelnikov, told state television how his officers had in 1999 organized a frantic dash by Russian troops and armor to Kosovo to occupy the airport in the capital, Pristina — just hours before the arrival of NATO forces.

The stunt, he said, was “about the prestige of our state” and showing that Russia could not be ignored.

Speaking in his former office at the headquarters of the G.R.U. in Moscow, Mr. Korabelnikov said that his agency had organized many other secret operations but that those could not be revealed.

“The vast majority of operations carried out both by us and our brothers,” he said, referring to Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and the Federal Security Service, known as the F.S.B. and headed in the late 1990s by Mr. Putin, “are completely closed, and only the small tip of the iceberg sometimes appears.”

Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security apparatus who wrote a doctorate on Moscow’s disastrous Afghan war, said “some old war horses” in the G.R.U. could have hatched a scheme to kill Americans as payback for Russians killed with American weapons in Afghanistan. But he said he doubted that such a plan would have been approved by the Russian leadership or executed without approval as a “maverick operation.”

Even Mr. Yerin, the former conscript — who lost friends in Afghanistan — recalled that during his tour there, spent mostly near the northern city of Kunduz, he never believed political commissars in his unit who explained the 1979 Soviet invasion was necessary to keep the United States from moving into Russia’s back yard.

“Today, I believe them,” Mr. Yerin said. “Afghanistan is our next-door neighbor,” he said, stabbing with his finger the southern border of the former Soviet Union on a big wall map, “What happens here is our business, not the Americans’.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.

Andrew Higgins is the Moscow bureau chief. He was on the team awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting, and led a team that won the same prize in 1999 while he was Moscow bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. 

Andrew E. Kramer is a reporter based in the Moscow bureau. He was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a series on Russia’s covert projection of power.

Russia Denies Paying Bounties, but Some Say the U.S. Had It Coming
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White House tentatively agrees to leave some troops in Afghanistan past U.S. election

Currently, the US has approximately 8,600 soldiers in Afghanistan, according to the latest reports.

“Top US commanders believe they have tentative White House approval to leave just over 4,000 US troops in Afghanistan beyond November, delaying a full American pullout until after the presidential election,” says a report by the Los Angeles Times, citing unnamed US officials.

“The plan, worked out at a meeting between Pentagon and White House officials late last month, would represent an about-face for President Trump. He has pushed for a complete withdrawal of the 8,600 troops now in Afghanistan by the election, seeing a pullout as a much-needed foreign policy achievement as his reelection prospects have deteriorated,” the report said.

There are advocates in Washington for a sustained presence.

Liz Cheney, a member Congress in the US House of Representatives has said that the US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan shouldn’t impact the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

“We need to make sure that we are denying terrorists safe havens, we need to make sure that we are able to continue counter-terrorism activity. Al Qaeda, ISIS, number of those same terrorist groups continue to operation in Afghanistan,” said congresswoman Liz Cheney.

A number of Afghan military experts have also said that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan before a peace agreement would be dangerous.

“Such a move will create major problems for the United States and they will attack on their own soil,” said Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, the former deputy minister of interior for security affairs.

Currently, the US has approximately 8,600 soldiers in Afghanistan, according to the latest reports.

Last month, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Central Command, said the United States has reduced its troop level to 8,600 in Afghanistan, fulfilling the first phase of the planned withdrawal specified in the US-Taliban deal signed in Doha in February.

The withdrawal of the US forces is a key part of the US-Taliban agreement, but US officials have emphasized that the troop pullout will be dependent on conditions on the ground.

The US-Taliban agreement also calls for the full withdrawal of the US military from the country by May 2021 if the Taliban meets the conditions of the deal, including severing ties with terrorist groups.

Based on the agreement, the US would reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 within 135 days of signing the deal, which is mid-July. Now it seems that the target has been reached almost 25 days ahead of the agreed date.

Gen. McKenzie said the full withdrawal is an “aspirational” commitment and that “conditions would have to be met that satisfy us that attacks against our homeland are not going to be generated from Afghanistan.”

The Taliban committed in the agreement to cut their ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

“It can have severe political and security impacts for the future of Afghanistan, therefore, there are expectations that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan should be a responsible withdrawal,” said Jawed Jawed, a military analyst in Kabul.

White House tentatively agrees to leave some troops in Afghanistan past U.S. election
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Pentagon report: less violence but lagging Afghan progress

Todd South

Militart Times

1 July 2020

The most recent U.S. security snapshot and Afghanistan progress report shows a reduction in violence and attacks on coalition forces but also notes that Afghans are not meeting goals for troop retention, training and taking their share of the load for the nation’s security.

The U.S. Taliban agreement and US Afghanistan joint declaration was announced on Feb. 29, 2020.

That held to a phased withdrawal over 14 months. First phase, reduction to 8,600 troops by July 2020 was completed before the report published this week.

Afghan forces maintain control of Kabul, provincial capitals, major population centers, most district centers and most major ground lines of communications.

The semiannual, “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” report showed a picture of the country’s progress and continued lagging from December to May. The data cutoff was April 30, so did not include recent allegations that Russia had offered bounties to Taliban members for U.S. troop deaths.

But the report does address long-standing Russian influence there, noting that, “Russia has politically supported the Taliban to cultivate influence with the group, limit the Western military presence, and encourage counter-ISIS operations, although Russia publicly denies their involvement.”

U.S. Central Command did not have any additional comments or statements on the report. U.S. Forces Afghanistan did not immediately respond to Military Times requests for comment.

The Taliban contested several portions of those lines of communications, threatened district centers and in late March, overtook Yamgan District in Badakhshan Province. In April, ANDSF seized districts of Khamyab and Qargin in Jowzjan Province.

Since February, the Taliban has sustained high levels of violence against Afghan National Security Defense Forces checkpoints and convoys. But avoided attacks against coalition forces and provincial capitals.

Operation Freedom’s Sentinel has 8,600 U.S. military personnel in-country to train, advise and assist the Afghan forces.

The United States maintains base presence mostly in Kabul and Bagram with regional hubs in Laghman and Nangarhar, Kandahar, Herat Province, Helmand, Paktia and Balkh provinces.

Once the training of the last cohort of Afghan Air Force A-29 pilots concludes at Moody Air Force Base, the buildup of the AAF aerial fires capability under the 2016 modernization program will be complete.

President’s fiscal year 2021 budget request sought 27 percent less funding than the previous year. This is primarily due to a smaller force level. Troop numbers have been reduced by about 5,400 from last year’s level of about 14,000.

The Army’s 3rd Security Forces Assistance Brigade was used by U.S. Forces Afghanistan as an advisor force for the 201st ANA Corps. Subordinate units worked with Ministry of Defense and Ministry of the Interior units across Afghanistan from the Corps to battalion level.

Of the nearly 40 nations providing personnel for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, the United States led with a contribution of 8,000 troops during the period. Germany followed with 1,300 and the United Kingdom contributed 1,100.

The reporting period saw the impact of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 strike the world. In Afghanistan, as of May 31, there was an estimate of 14,525 confirmed cases in Afghanistan, 40 of those in the presidential palace. Nearly 250 COVID deaths were reported.

Between December and April, violence levels fluctuated.

Before the February Reduction In Violence period during the peace process, the Taliban increased operations, above their historic norms.

During the weeklong RIV from Feb. 22 to 28 the Taliban “demonstrated the ability to control the levels of violence.”

After the agreement, Feb. 29 to June 1, levels of violence increased, again above norms. But lethal results were lower than the norm.

Authors wrote that increased violence may have been an attempt to gain leverage during prisoner release discussions. Several provincial centers were attacked, but there were no attacks on coalition forces.

From the start of the conflict in October 2001 to April, a reported 1,919 U.S. military personnel were killed in action and 20,719 had been wounded in action.

During the report’s period, 75 U.S. troops were wounded. Five died in hostile actions.

One insider attack killed two U.S. troops and one Afghan.

As of March 1, an estimated 108 civilians were killed in 2019, according to the report.

Of the 183 civilians killed or injured as a result of military operations in Afghanistan in 2019, 53 were children. Of those children, 37 were killed, 16 injured.

Overall civilian casualties caused by all parties decreased by 9 percent during the reporting period when compared to the same period last year.

Of the 2,801 civilians who were killed or injured between November 2019 and April 30, 2020, 34 killed and 13 injured were attributed to actions by U.S. Forces Afghanistan.

Between January and April 1, basic warrior training graduated 5,400 trainees over six cycles, averaging 900 trainees per class and a 96 percent graduation rate.

There are nearly 180,000 Ministry of Defense personnel in the Afghan ranks.

But, “attrition continues to degrade the force and outpace recruitment and retention,” according to the report. The main driver? A large number of soldiers going AWOL for more than 30 consecutive days.

ANA recovery mechanics recovered more than 7,000 vehicles in 2019, conducting 42 percent of the work. The goal for ANA share of the work was raised from 55 percent last year to 70 percent this year.

They did not meet that goal.

Instead, ANA forces managed to contribute between 47 and 50 percent of the work.

In the same vein, the Ministry of the Interior and Afghan National Police had a goal of doing 25 percent of the work for their respective areas and managed between 13 and 24 percent, mostly less than 20 percent for the period.

The Afghan Security Forces fund has received $81.3 billion since the fiscal year 2005.

Afghanistan contributed between $387 million and $448 million to its own security from 2016 to last year. Its goal of self-sufficiency by 2024, “does not appear realistic,” according to the report authors.

Todd South is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War. He has written about crime, courts, government and military issues for multiple publications since 2004. In 2014, he was named a Pulitzer finalist for local reporting on a project he co-wrote about witness problems in gang criminal cases. Todd covers ground combat for Military Times.

 

Pentagon report: less violence but lagging Afghan progress
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Outrage mounts over report Russia offered bounties to Afghanistan militants for killing US soldiers

The Guardian

27 June 2020

Fierce response from top Democrats after US intelligence finding was reportedly briefed to Trump in March, but the White House has yet to act

US troops in Afghanistan in 2009.
 US troops in Afghanistan in 2009. Photograph: Manpreet Romana/AFP via Getty Images

Outrage has greeted media reports that American officials believe a Russian intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, including targeting Americans.

The story first appeared in the New York Times, citing its sources as unnamed officials briefed on the matter, and followed up by the Washington Post. The reports said that the US had come to the conclusion about the operation several months ago and that Russia had offered rewards for successful attacks last year.

The Times wrote: “The intelligence finding was briefed to Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March.” White House officials apparently drew up several possible options to retaliate against the Kremlin, ranging from a diplomatic reprimand right through to fresh sanctions. However, the White House has so far not taken any action.

It is not clear if bounties were ever paid out for successfully killing American soldiers. The White House denied that either Trump or the vice-president, Mike Pence, were briefed on such a matter.

As the news broke it triggered a fierce response from top Democrats, especially those who have long pointed to what they say is Trump’s overly close relationship to Russia’s autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin.

Virginia senator Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, said: “Trump was cozying up to Putin and inviting him to the G7 all while his administration reportedly knew Russia was trying to kill US troops in Afghanistan and derail peace talks with the Taliban.”

Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia and a professor of political science at Stanford University, said: “I hope the American people will be as outraged as I am over Trump’s complacency. After he knew about these Putin-ordered contracts to kill US soldiers, Trump invited Putin to the G7.”

John Weaver, a Republican political consultant who helped found the anti-Trump Lincoln Project group, also expressed outrage.

The news comes after the US reached an initial peace deal with the Taliban, which aimed for the full withdrawal of the US military from the war-torn country within just over a year. The pact was supposed to kickstart talks between the rebels and the Afghan government but they have not materialized.

The unit that US officials have reportedly identified as responsible for the bounties has also been linked to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, in Britain in 2018, which triggered a huge diplomatic dispute between Moscow and London.

Trump’s relationship with Russia has been the source of much scandal and frustration with US allies, especially in Europe.

Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 US election were part of the basis of the Robert Mueller investigation that dogged much of Trump’s time in office. He has repeatedly flown in the face of his own intelligence briefings to say that he believes Russian denials of meddling in US affairs, and has touted his close relationship with Putin as a benefit to the US. He has also pushed for Russia to be allowed back into the G7 group of major industrial powers, while at the same questioning the role of Nato.

Outrage mounts over report Russia offered bounties to Afghanistan militants for killing US soldiers
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Afghan Deaths Pile Up in Uncertainty Over U.S. Deal With Taliban

By 

The New York Times

Targeted killings and widespread attacks across Afghanistan have sapped brief optimism as peace talks remain stalled.
Afghan soldiers leaving a health facility after an attack in Kabul in May. The Taliban agreed not to attack U.S. targets, but refused a cease-fire with Afghan forces.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Two employees of Afghanistan’s human rights commission were killed in Kabul on Saturday as a bomb attached to their vehicle exploded, the latest in a rising number of targeted killings in the Afghan capital.

From assassinations of religious scholars and assaults against cultural figures to widespread Taliban attacks across the country, the rise in violence is sapping the brief optimism from an American agreement with the Taliban. Under that deal, the United States would withdraw its troops, paving the way for direct negotiations between the Afghan sides to end the war in a hoped-for political settlement.

The peace deal has hit a wall over a prisoner exchange that was supposed to enable direct talks. Instead, the violence has intensified.

In a statement, Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights commission said one of its vehicles was struck by a magnetic bomb on Saturday morning, killing two employees who were on their way to work.

The victims were identified as Fatima Natasha Khalil, 24, a donor coordinator for the commission who had recently completed a degree from the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, and Jawid Folad, a longtime driver at the commission.

“So far no group has claimed responsibility, and the perpetrators of this brutal attack are not clear,” the statement said.

Afghan and American officials say the war has entered a complicated period of uncertainty, with an emboldened insurgency aided by regional powers exerting pressure on a struggling government by cranking up bloody attacks often without claiming them.

In a sign of the complexity of the war zone, U.S. intelligence recently concluded that the Taliban were receiving bounty money from Russian intelligence for targeting American and coalition forces last year even as they negotiating peace with the United States.

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The deal, signed in February, included the exchange of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 Afghan forces within 10 days of its signing. That exchange, which was met with resistance from the Afghan government, is only now nearing completion with the release of nearly 4,000 Taliban prisoners.

The Taliban agreed not to attack American targets, but refused a cease-fire with Afghan government forces, leaving that to direct negotiations between the Afghan sides. However, American officials said there was an informal understanding with the insurgents that they would reduce their attacks by 80 percent. Afghans have been increasingly frustrated that they haven’t seen that reduction in violence, and the United States, focused on President Trump’s urgency to get out of the war, has done little to hold the Taliban to it.

The Afghan National Security Council said June had the deadliest week of the war, with 291 Afghan soldiers killed in Taliban attacks in one week. Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the Taliban attacks in the past three months rose nearly 40 percent compared with the same period last year.

“We have had deep concern since the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban was signed,” said Haidar Afzaly, the head of the Afghan Parliament’s Defense Committee. “The only group that has benefited from that is the Taliban, who are seeing their prisoners released.”

Taliban prisoners at the Bagram military base before being released last month.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

He said the Taliban, who were set back by frequent airstrikes in 2019, “are emboldened now” and “have expanded their attacks.”

Officials say the Taliban are also exploiting the gray areas of the battlefield complicated by remnants of a weakening Islamic State and the rising presence of criminal networks as the coronavirus outbreak further damages the country’s struggling economy.

In a sign of the conflict’s complexity, among the latest victims targeted for assassinations were five prosecutors with the Afghan attorney general’s office who were fatally shot on their way to the Bagram prison to help release Taliban prisoners.

The killings added to a long list of assassinations, including two of the most prominent religious scholars in Kabul, who were killed by explosions inside their mosques. Another explosion struck the family of the renowned Afghan writer and poet Assadullah Walwaliji, killing his wife Anisa and teenage daughter Alteen.

“The investigation into the killing of one scholar hadn’t been completed when they martyred a second one,” said Mawlawi Habibullah Hasam, the head of an Afghan religious scholars’ union.

“We have told the government very clearly — if, God forbid, another scholar is martyred, then we have no other choice but to directly blame the government as the murderer.”

“They are responsible for security,” Mr. Hasam said. “You can’t just put up a Facebook statement and say this group did it. What are you here for then?”

Najim Rahim, Fatima Faizi and Fahim Abed contributed reporting.

Afghan Deaths Pile Up in Uncertainty Over U.S. Deal With Taliban
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Spies and Commandos Warned Months Ago of Russian Bounties on U.S. Troops

By Eric SchmittAdam Goldman and 

The New York Times

The recovery of large amounts of American cash at a Taliban outpost in Afghanistan helped tip off U.S. officials. It is believed that at least one U.S. troop death was the result of the bounties.

A car bomb killed American soldiers at this site near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in April 2019.
Credit…Mohammad Ismail/Reuters 

WASHINGTON — United States intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, according to officials briefed on the matter. They believed at least one U.S. troop death was the result of the bounties, two of the officials said.

The crucial information that led the spies and commandos to focus on the bounties included the recovery of a large amount of American cash from a raid on a Taliban outpost that prompted suspicions. Interrogations of captured militants and criminals played a central role in making the intelligence community confident in its assessment that the Russians had offered and paid bounties in 2019, another official has said.

Armed with this information, military and intelligence officials have been reviewing American and other coalition combat casualties over the past 18 months to determine whether any were victims of the plot. Four Americans were killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban have not attacked American positions since a February agreement to end the long-running war in Afghanistan.

The details added to the picture of the classified intelligence assessment, which The New York Times reported Friday has been under discussion inside the Trump administration since at least March, and emerged as the White House confronted a growing chorus of criticism on Sunday over its apparent failure to authorize a response to Russia.

Mr. Trump defended himself by denying the Times report that he had been briefed on the intelligence, expanding on a similar White House rebuttal a day earlier. But leading congressional Democrats and some Republicans demanded a response to Russia that, according to officials, the administration has yet to authorize.

The president “needs to immediately expose and handle this, and stop Russia’s shadow war,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Twitter.

Appearing on the ABC program “This Week,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had not been briefed on the intelligence assessment and had asked for an immediate report to Congress. She accused Mr. Trump of wanting “to ignore” any charges against Russia.

“Russia has never gotten over the humiliation they suffered in Afghanistan, and now they are taking it out on us, our troops,” she said of the Soviet Union’s bloody war there in the 1980s. “This is totally outrageous. You would think that the minute the president heard of it, he would want to know more instead of denying that he knew anything.”

Spokespeople for the C.I.A., the director of national intelligence and the Pentagon declined to comment on the new findings. A National Security Council spokesman, John L. Ullyot, said in a statement on Sunday night, “The veracity of the underlying allegations continues to be evaluated.”

Mr. Trump said Sunday night on Twitter that “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP.” One senior administration official offered a similar explanation, saying that Mr. Trump was not briefed because the intelligence agencies had come to no consensus on the findings.

But another official said there was broad agreement that the intelligence assessment was accurate, with some complexities because different aspects of the intelligence — including interrogations and surveillance data — resulted in some differences among agencies in how much confidence to put in each type.

Though the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, claimed on Saturday that Mr. Trump had not been briefed about the intelligence report, one American official had told The Times that the report was briefed to the highest levels of the White House. Another said it was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a compendium of foreign policy and national security intelligence compiled for Mr. Trump to read.

Ms. McEnany did not challenge The Times’s reporting on the existence of the intelligence assessment, a National Security Council interagency meeting about it in late March and the White House’s inaction. Multiple other news organizations also subsequently reported on the assessment, and The Washington Post first reported on Sunday that the bounties were believed to have resulted in the death of at least one American service member.

The officials briefed on the matter said that the assessment had been treated as a closely held secret but that the administration expanded briefings about it over the last week — including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces were among those said to have been targeted.

Republicans in Congress demanded more information from the Trump administration about what happened and how the White House planned to respond.

Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, said in a Twitter post on Sunday: “If reporting about Russian bounties on U.S. forces is true, the White House must explain: 1. Why weren’t the president or vice president briefed? Was the info in the PDB? 2. Who did know and when? 3. What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?”

Multiple Republicans retweeted Ms. Cheney’s post. Representative Daniel Crenshaw, Republican of Texas and a former member of the Navy SEALs, amplified her message, tweeting, “We need answers.”

In a statement in response to questions, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said he had long warned about Russia’s work to undermine American interests in the Middle East and southwest Asia and noted that he wrote an amendment last year rebuking Mr. Trump’s withdrawal of forces from Syria and Afghanistan.

“The United States needs to prioritize defense resources, maintain a sufficient regional military presence and continue to impose serious consequences on those who threaten us and our allies — like our strikes in Syria and Afghanistan against ISIS, the Taliban and Russian mercenary forces that threatened our partners,” Mr. McConnell said.

Aides for other top Republicans either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday, including Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the top House Republican; Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee; and Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In addition to saying he was never “briefed or told” about the intelligence report — a formulation that went beyond the White House denial of any formal briefing — Mr. Trump also cast doubt on the assessment’s credibility, which statements from his subordinates had not.

Specifically, he described the intelligence report as being about “so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians”; the report described bounties paid to Taliban militants by Russian military intelligence officers, not direct attacks. Mr. Trump also suggested that the developments could be a “hoax” and questioned whether The Times’s sources — government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity — existed.

Mr. Trump then pivoted to attack former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who criticized the president on Saturday for failing to punish Russia for offering bounties to the Taliban, as well as Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, who is the target of unsubstantiated claims that he helped a Ukrainian energy firm curry favor with the Obama administration when his father was vice president.

Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “With Corrupt Joe Biden & Obama, Russia had a field day, taking over important parts of Ukraine — Where’s Hunter?”

American officials said the Russian plot to pay bounties to Taliban fighters came into focus over the past several months after intelligence analysts and Special Operations forces put together key pieces of evidence.

One official said the seizure of a large amount of American cash at one Taliban site got “everybody’s attention” in Afghanistan. It was not clear when the money was recovered.

Two officials said the information about the bounty hunting was “well known” among the intelligence community in Afghanistan, including the C.I.A.’s chief of station and other top officials there, like the military commandos hunting the Taliban. The information was distributed in intelligence reports and highlighted in some of them.

The assessment was compiled and sent up the chain of command to senior military and intelligence officials, eventually landing at the highest levels of the White House. The Security Council meeting in March came at a delicate time, as the coronavirus pandemic was becoming a crisis and prompting shutdowns around the country.

A former American official said the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, and the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, would have been involved in any decision to brief Mr. Trump on Russia’s activities, as would have the intelligence analyst who briefs the president.. The director of the C.I.A., Gina Haspel, might have also weighed in, the former official said.

Ms. McEnany cited those three senior officials in her statement saying the president had not been briefed.

National security officials have tracked Russia’s relationship with the Taliban for years and determined that Moscow has provided financial and material support to senior and regional Taliban leaders.

While Russia has at times cooperated with the United States and appeared interested in Afghan stability, it often seems to work at crosscurrents with its own national interest if the result is damage to American national interests, said a former senior Trump White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security assessments.

Revenge is also a factor in Russia’s support for the Taliban, the official said. Russia has been keen to even the scales after a bloody confrontation in 2018 in Syria, when a massive U.S. counterattack killed hundreds of Syrian forces along with Russian mercenaries nominally supported by the Kremlin.

“They are keeping a score sheet, and they want to punish us for that incident,” the official said.

Both Russia and the Taliban have denied the American intelligence assessment.

Ms. Pelosi said that if the president had not, in fact, been briefed, then the country should be concerned that his administration was afraid to share with him information regarding Russia.

Ms. Pelosi said that the episode underscored Mr. Trump’s accommodating stance toward Russia and that with him, “all roads lead to Putin.”

“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score, denies being briefed,” she said. “Whether he is or not, his administration knows, and some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan have been briefed and accept this report.”

John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, said on “This Week” that he was not aware of the intelligence assessment, but he questioned Mr. Trump’s response on Twitter.

“What would motivate the president to do that, because it looks bad if Russians are paying to kill Americans and we’re not doing anything about it?” Mr. Bolton said. “The presidential reaction is to say: ‘It’s not my responsibility. Nobody told me about it.’ And therefore to duck any complaints that he hasn’t acted effectively.”

Mr. Bolton said this summed up Mr. Trump’s decision-making on national security issues. “It’s just unconnected to the reality he’s dealing with.”

Reporting was contributed by Julian E. Barnes, Charlie Savage, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Michael Schwirtz and Michael D. Shear.

_____________________________________________________

Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says

By Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt and Michaeesl Schwirtz

The New York Times
June 27, 2020

The Trump administration has been deliberating for months about what to do about a stunning intelligence assessment.

American troops in Afghanistan have been the target of some Taliban operations backed by Russia, intelligence officials found.
American troops in Afghanistan have been the target of some Taliban operations backed by Russia, intelligence officials found.Credit…

WASHINGTON — American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.

Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear which killings were under suspicion.

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.

An operation to incentivize the killing of American and other NATO troops would be a significant and provocative escalation of what American and Afghan officials have said is Russian support for the Taliban, and it would be the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated attacks on Western troops.

Any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American troops would also be a huge escalation of Russia’s so-called hybrid war against the United States, a strategy of destabilizing adversaries through a combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news and covert and deniable military operations.

The Kremlin had not been made aware of the accusations, said Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “If someone makes them, we’ll respond,” Mr. Peskov said.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied that the insurgents have “any such relations with any intelligence agency” and called the report an attempt to defame them.

“These kinds of deals with the Russian intelligence agency are baseless — our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we did it on our own resources,” he said. “That changed after our deal with the Americans, and their lives are secure and we don’t attack them.”

Spokespeople at the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and the C.I.A. declined to comment.

The officials familiar with the intelligence did not explain the White House delay in deciding how to respond to the intelligence about Russia.

While some of his closest advisers, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have counseled more hawkish policies toward Russia, Mr. Trump has adopted an accommodating stance toward Moscow.

At a summit in 2018 in Helsinki, Finland, Mr. Trump strongly suggested that he believed Mr. Putin’s denial that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 presidential election, despite broad agreement within the American intelligence establishment that it did. Mr. Trump criticized a bill imposing sanctions on Russia when he signed it into law after Congress passed it by veto-proof majorities. And he has repeatedly made statements that undermined the NATO alliance as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Europe.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the delicate intelligence and internal deliberations. They said the intelligence had been treated as a closely held secret, but the administration expanded briefings about it this week — including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces are among those said to have been targeted.

ImagePresident Trump has suggested he believed a denial by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia of Kremlin interference in the 2016 election.
President Trump has suggested he believed a denial by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia of Kremlin interference in the 2016 election.Credit…Kirill Kallinikov/Host Photo Agency, via Getty Images
The intelligence assessment is said to be based at least in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals. The officials did not describe the mechanics of the Russian operation, such as how targets were picked or how money changed hands. It is also not clear whether Russian operatives had deployed inside Afghanistan or met with their Taliban counterparts elsewhere.

revelations came into focus inside the Trump administration at a delicate and distracted time. Although officials collected the intelligence earlier in the year, the interagency meeting at the White House took place as the coronavirus pandemic was becoming a crisis and parts of the country were shutting down.

Moreover, as Mr. Trump seeks re-election in November, he wants to strike a peace deal with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan war.

Both American and Afghan officials have previously accused Russia of providing small arms and other support to the Taliban that amounts to destabilizing activity, although Russian government officials have dismissed such claims as “idle gossip” and baseless.

“We share some interests with Russia in Afghanistan, and clearly they’re acting to undermine our interests as well,” Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of American forces in Afghanistan at the time, said in a 2018 interview with the BBC.

Though coalition troops suffered a spate of combat casualties last summer and early fall, only a few have since been killed. Four Americans were killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban have not attacked American positions since a February agreement.

American troops have also sharply reduced their movement outside military bases because of the coronavirus, reducing their exposure to attack.

While officials were said to be confident about the intelligence that Russian operatives offered and paid bounties to Afghan militants for killing Americans, they have greater uncertainty about how high in the Russian government the covert operation was authorized and what its aim may be.
Some officials have theorized that the Russians may be seeking revenge on NATO forces for a 2018 battle in Syria in which the American military killed several hundred pro-Syrian forces, including numerous Russian mercenaries, as they advanced on an American outpost. Officials have also suggested that the Russians may have been trying to derail peace talks to keep the United States bogged down in Afghanistan. But the motivation remains murky.

The officials briefed on the matter said the government had assessed the operation to be the handiwork of Unit 29155, an arm of Russia’s military intelligence agency, known widely as the G.R.U. The unit is linked to the March 2018 nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury, England, of Sergei Skripal, a former G.R.U. officer who had worked for British intelligence and then defected, and his daughter.

Western intelligence officials say the unit, which has operated for more than a decade, has been charged by the Kremlin with carrying out a campaign to destabilize the West through subversion, sabotage and assassination. In addition to the 2018 poisoning, the unit was behind an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016 and the poisoning of an arms manufacturer in Bulgaria a year earlier.

American intelligence officials say the G.R.U. was at the center of Moscow’s covert efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In the months before that election, American officials say, two G.R.U. cyberunits, known as 26165 and 74455, hacked into Democratic Party servers and then used WikiLeaks to publish embarrassing internal communications.

In part because those efforts were aimed at helping tilt the election in Mr. Trump’s favor, his handling of issues related to Russia and Mr. Putin has come under particular scrutiny. The special counsel investigation found that the Trump campaign welcomed Russia’s intervention and expected to benefit from it, but found insufficient evidence to establish that his associates had engaged in any criminal conspiracy with Moscow.

Operations involving Unit 29155 tend to be much more violent than those involving the cyberunits. Its officers are often decorated military veterans with years of service, in some cases dating to the Soviet Union’s failed war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Never before has the unit been accused of orchestrating attacks on Western soldiers, but officials briefed on its operations say it has been active in Afghanistan for many years.

Though Russia declared the Taliban a terrorist organization in 2003, relations between them have been warming in recent years. Taliban officials have traveled to Moscow for peace talks with other prominent Afghans, including the former president, Hamid Karzai. The talks have excluded representatives from the current Afghan government as well as anyone from the United States, and at times they have seemed to work at crosscurrents with American efforts to bring an end to the conflict.
The disclosure comes at a time when Mr. Trump has said he would invite Mr. Putin to an expanded meeting of the Group of 7 nations, but tensions between American and Russian militaries are running high.

In several recent episodes, in international territory and airspace from off th

e coast of Alaska to the Black and Mediterranean Seas, combat planes from each country have scrambled to intercept military aircraft from the other.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Spies and Commandos Warned Months Ago of Russian Bounties on U.S. Troops
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Watchdog Seeks Assessment of Ex-Officials Corruption Cases

The SIGAR chief called on the Afghan government to take action against important cases of corruption.

John Sopko, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has strongly criticized a move by the Afghan government to appoint one of the key masterminds behind the collapse of the old Kabul Bank to take charge of a government agency.

On June 1st, President Ashraf Ghani in a decree appointed Mahmoud Karzai as acting minister of urban development and land

“One of the masterminds behind the failure of the largest Afghan bank—Kabul Bank–is now currently under consideration to oversee a major Afghan government agency, if that is true, it seems that we are taking a step back and Afghanistan is step backwards, not step forward,” said John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

The SIGAR chief called on the Afghan government to take action against important cases of corruption.

“…but some practical examples that we hope to see in the Afghan government’s efforts when we do this report (new SIGAR report on corruption) would include addressing the backlog of important corruption cases that the Afghan government is aware of, but has not done anything about it—and I would say just one example there has been on case sitting for over six years dealings with hundreds of millions of dollars lost of the US and Afghan government,” he said.

SIGAR also criticized the Afghan government for not taking practical action on 6,500 cases of corruption that have not been assessed.

“We hope we will see that the arrest, trial and imprisonment of powerful individuals engaging in corruption occurs on a regular basis,” Sopko said.

Seven months have passed since the former acting minister of housing Jawad Paikar was dismissed from his job over reports of misusing his official authority, but the presidential Palace so far has not said anything about the progress on his case.

SIGAR has frequently said that corruption poses serious threats to the efforts of the US and the international community for Afghanistan.

According to SIGAR, the Afghan government’s anti-graft policy has been only on paper.

“The lack of political will and the serious weakness that exists in terms of freedom of the legal and judicial institutions has blocked the way for the investigation of cases related to the ministers over the past ten years,” said Naser Taimoori, a researcher of Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA).

“Corruption has been institutionalized within the structure, it means that we cant summarize it within the working area of a minister or deputy minister, if we are supposed to investigate this issue, then we have to bring lots of these networks to justice,” said Mahdi Rasekh, a member of parliament.

The Attorney General of Afghanistan has so far not provided any details about the progress on corruption cases involving cabinet ministers.

The UN mission in Afghanistan has also raised concerns over corruption in Afghanistan.

Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, on Thursday briefed the UN Security Council on the situation in Afghanistan and described corruption as a major challenge for the country.

The UN envoy said that the impunity of well-connected political figures remains a major obstacle to fighting corruption in Afghanistan.

“Like so many countries, Afghanistan continues to be plagued by corruption, which corrodes the confidence of the population and the donor community, and fuels the ongoing conflict. In spite of progress made in previous years in anti-corruption reforms, this progress has slowed in the past year, with key institutional reforms being neglected, including the establishment of the all-too-important independent anti-corruption commission. Apparent impunity of well-connected political figures remains a major issue. Additional progress in the fight against corruption is therefore crucial as the 2020 Pledging Conference on Afghanistan approaches,” she said.

President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly stated in the past that fighting corruption is among his top priorities.

________________________________________

President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly stated in the past that fighting corruption is among his top priorities.

Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, on Thursday briefed the UN Security Council on the situation in Afghanistan and described corruption as a major challenge for the country.

The UN envoy said that the impunity of well-connected political figures remains a major obstacle to fighting corruption in Afghanistan.

“Like so many countries, Afghanistan continues to be plagued by corruption, which corrodes the confidence of the population and the donor community, and fuels the ongoing conflict. In spite of progress made in previous years in anti-corruption reforms, this progress has slowed in the past year, with key institutional reforms being neglected, including the establishment of the all-too-important independent anti-corruption commission. Apparent impunity of well-connected political figures remains a major issue. Additional progress in the fight against corruption is therefore crucial as the 2020 Pledging Conference on Afghanistan approaches,” she said.

President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly stated in the past that fighting corruption is among his top priorities.

Meanwhile, Warren L. Coats, the former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has expressed shock over the suspension of Qasim Rahimi, the deputy head of the Central Bank of Afghanistan.

He said that the dismissal has posed serious threats to gains the bank the made over the past two decades.

“I am shocked to learn yesterday that Mr. Rahimi has been fired from his position, it is illegally executed dismissal. This is a shocking setback for Central Bank’s dramatic progress over these years, I hope that the parliament and the judicial system will scrutinize this step and hopefully reverse it,” said Coats.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Council of the Rule of Law and Governance, led by President Ghani, has said that in the future no one will be hired within the Ministry of Finance unless the candidates pass an exam of the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission.

“If this process is transferred to the Administrative Reforms Commission–and there is no intervention–we will support this process fully,” said Shafi Samim, an economic expert in Kabul.

“The Finance Ministry over the past five years had better privileges than other ministries; unfortunately the government was supporting this in the Finance Ministry,” said Yarbaz Hamidi, a member of parliament.

Last week NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also described corruption as a major issue in Afghanistan.

Watchdog Seeks Assessment of Ex-Officials Corruption Cases
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