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US may increase troop numbers before full withdrawal: Pentagon

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(Last Updated On: April 17, 2021)

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Friday there could be an increase in the number of troops in Afghanistan in order to complete a safe withdrawal of all foreign forces by September 11.

Addressing a press conference Friday, Kirby said: “It is not out of the realm the possibility that for a short period of time, there will have to be some additional enabling capabilities added to Afghanistan, to help effect a safe, orderly, and deliberately planned drawdown of everybody by the president’s deadline, early September.”

Kirby did not however elaborate on the nature of the increase in US troops. “I can’t speak today with exactly what that would look like, how many, when they would be going in. But as we transitioned out of Iraq, of course, it’s logical to assume that you may need some logistics help, maybe some engineering help.”

“You may have to add some force protection capabilities, temporarily, just to make sure that the drawdown goes in a safe, orderly, and effective way. Again, we’ll know more as we get closer, but that would not be out of the realm of possibility,” Kirby said.

Responding to a question, Kirby said that the Department of Defense is still working out what the future bilateral security relationship is going to be with Afghanistan.

“We’re going to transition to a bilateral relationship, a military relationship that’s more akin to the kinds of relationships we have with other countries,” he said.

“It will not include a US military footprint on the ground in Afghanistan with the exception of what’s going to be required to support the diplomatic mission there. All that’s still being worked out. So, I can’t speak with specificity today about what contract support the Afghan security forces are going to need going forward,” he said.

The United States, he said, will maintain counterterrorism capabilities to continue to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the US.

“We have a vast range of capabilities available to us and we’re not going to speak to the details of exactly how we’re going to maintain those capabilities and utilise those capabilities,” he said.

On Wednesday US President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that a full withdrawal of troops would start from May 1 and end by September 11 – the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the United States.

The Taliban did not however welcome the decision and said on Thursday the US was in breach of its agreement with the group, signed in February last year that called for full withdrawal by May 1.

Responding to the announcement, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid threatened retaliation and said on Twitter: “If the agreement is breached and foreign forces fail to exit our country on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded and those (who) failed to comply with the agreement will be held liable.”

Kirby meanwhile acknowledged the danger and responded with a warning.

“We’ve seen their threats, and it would be imprudent for us not to take those threats seriously,” Kirby said.

“It would also be imprudent for the Taliban to not take seriously what the president and what (Defense) Secretary (Lloyd) Austin both made clear, that any attack on our drawdown, on our forces or our allies and partners as they draw down, will be met very forcefully.”

Kirby also insisted that even though American forces will be leaving, “it doesn’t mean that we’re walking away from our Afghan partners.”

U.S. officials have promised to continue paying the salaries of Afghan security force members and to financially support the Afghan Air Force.

Kirby said that going forward, the U.S. will continue to support the Afghan military.

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Afghan envoy to UN cancels speech amid uncertainty over seat

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(Last Updated On: September 28, 2021)

Afghanistan did not have a representative addressing the annual high-level United Nations General Assembly in New York, after Ghulam Isaczai, the UN envoy under the former government, withdrew on Sunday.

According to UN officials, Isaczai was due to speak on Monday.

Isaczai had been scheduled to address the final day of the general assembly.

Afghanistan’s UN mission in New York posted on Twitter that Isaczai decided not to speak “to preserve the national interests, preserve the seat of Afghanistan in the United Nations and to continue long-term cooperation with United Nations and Security Council on main issues.”

It added that Isaczai would continue “activities as usual” at the global body.

IEA Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi last week asked to address the gathering of world leaders and nominated their Doha-based spokesman Suhail Shaheen as Afghanistan’s new ambassador to the UN.

But Muttaqi was not permitted to do so as the credentials committee has not yet met to discuss the issue.

When the IEA last ruled between 1996 and 2001, the ambassador of the Afghan government they toppled remained the UN representative after the credentials committee deferred its decision on rival claims to the seat.

Eventual UN acceptance of the ambassador of the IEA would be an important step in their bid for international recognition, which could help unlock badly needed funds for the cash-strapped Afghan economy.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said that the IEA’s desire for international recognition is the only leverage other countries have to press for inclusive government and respect for rights, particularly for women, in Afghanistan.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that international recognition of the IEA was not currently under consideration.

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Pilgrims from around the world gather in Kerbala for Arbaeen

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(Last Updated On: September 28, 2021)

Masses gathered in Kerbala on Tuesday for the religious pilgrimage of Arbaeen and visited the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas.

In a normal year, up to 20 million mostly Shi’ite Muslims take part in the Arbaeen pilgrimage in the holy city of Kerbala to commemorate Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was slain in battle in 680 by the Muslim Caliph of the day.

In 2020 and due to the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, Iraqi authorities had barred entry to most foreign pilgrims, including some three million Iranians.

“Last year we were prevented from performing the pilgrimage. But now thank God, it was granted to us”, an Iranian pilgrim, Hamid Muqaddam said in Kerbala.

This year, Iraqi authorities allowed a limited number of pilgrims from abroad to enter Iraq and attend Arbaeen.

On Monday, Iraqi authorities recorded 2,447 new cases of coronavirus infections and 32 deaths.

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Pentagon leaders to face Afghanistan reckoning in Congress

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(Last Updated On: September 28, 2021)

President Joe Biden’s top military leaders are expected to face some of the most contentious hearings in memory this week over the chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan, which cost the lives of U.S. troops and civilians and left the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) back in power.

The Senate and House committees overseeing the U.S. military will hold hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, where Republicans are hoping to zero in on mistakes that Biden’s administration made toward the end of the two-decade-old war.

That will follow similar questioning two weeks ago that saw U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken staunchly defending the administration, even as he faced calls for his resignation.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to praise American personnel who helped airlift 124,000 Afghans out of the country, an operation that also cost the lives of 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghans in a suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport.

Austin is expected to “be frank about the things we could have done better,” a U.S. official told Reuters.

That will also certainly include the U.S. military’s last drone strike before withdrawing, which the Pentagon acknowledges killed 10 civilians, most of them children – and not the Daesh (ISIS-K) militants it thought it was attacking.

Ahead of the hearing, Senator James Inhofe, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, wrote to Austin with a long list of requests for information, including on the August 26 airport bombing, equipment left behind and the administration’s future counter-terrorism plans.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, said lawmakers would also press about “a lack of coordination and a real plan for how we were going to get all the Afghans who helped us out of the country.”

“I don’t know if we’ll get answers. But questions will be raised again about why we got to the point that we did in Afghanistan,” she told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Many of the hardest questions may fall to the two senior U.S. military commanders testifying: Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command.

McKenzie called the drone strike a “tragic mistake,” one that critics say raises hard questions about America’s ability to properly identify counter-terrorism targets in Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal.

But McKenzie and other U.S. officials will be under pressure to defend the Biden administration’s plans to address future counter-terrorism threats from groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State by flying in drones or commandos from overseas.

Republicans have accused the Biden administration of downplaying the risks associated with that so-called “over the horizon” capability.

Separately, Milley could face intense questioning over an account in a new book alleging he bypassed civilian leaders to place secret calls to his Chinese counterpart over concerns about former President Donald Trump.

Milley’s office pushed back against the report in the book, saying the calls he made were coordinated within the Pentagon and across the U.S. government.

Senator Marco Rubio has called for his resignation. Senator Rand Paul said he should be prosecuted if the account in the book was true. But some of the greatest concern has come from lawmakers in the House, where Milley will testify on Wednesday.

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