US to evacuate Afghans who helped troops

A suicide bomber killed at least 35 people and wounded dozens in a crowded market in the Sadr City neighbourhood of Baghdad on Monday, the eve of the Eid al-Adha festival, security and hospital sources said.

More than 60 people were wounded, a police source said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Senior leaders of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban have declared their commitment to accelerate negotiations towards an inclusive political settlement, as talks continue in advance of the American withdrawal from its longest war.

The Trump White House agreed to a troop withdrawal in a 2020 deal that included the Taliban but not the Afghan government. Trump promised to withdraw all U.S. forces by May 1, 2021, but President Joe Biden, having inherited the Trump deal, pushed the date back to the 20th anniversary of the September 11, attacks that preceded the Bush-era invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

For 20 years in Afghanistan, brave Afghan nationals lent assistance to the military operations led by American service personnel.

With operations in that country closing out by the end of August, the U.S. government is making plans to move those civilians and their families to other locations.

About 2,500 Afghans who worked for the U.S. government will be evacuated to a military base in Virginia along with their families pending approval of their visas, the Biden administration said Monday as the administration rapidly moves to complete the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

The United States urged the Taliban to protect Afghanistan’s infrastructure, protect civilians, and cooperate on humanitarian assistance.

The Afghan government was left out of the Trump agreement. So without a broader diplomatic deal to restrain Taliban fighters, the Afghan government’s control over key population areas, including the capital, Kabul, is likely to rapidly deteriorate, especially if the American pullout goes ahead, the Pentagon said.

The United States commended the leadership of the State of Qatar in bringing the parties together as well as the United Nations for the essential role it is playing in advancing the Afghanistan peace process and supporting the people there in achieving the just and lasting peace they deserve.

Despite those lofty words, peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government show few signs of progress. Taliban forces have increased attacks on the Afghan military and civilians, especially in the south in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

Members of Congress have expressed alarm about the fate of Afghans who worked for the U.S. over the past 20 years, particularly as the Taliban have stepped up military operations against the Afghan government, seizing control of major portions of the country as U.S. troops withdraw.

The Afghans will be temporarily housed at Fort Lee, a sprawling Army base south of Richmond starting next week, according to a Defense Department notice sent to Congress. The administration announced earlier this month that it would soon begin relocating Afghan visa seekers under an initiative known as “Operation Allies Refuge.”

As part of “Operation Allies Refuge,” by the end of the month the U.S. is expected to begin relocation flights for eligible Afghan nationals and their families who are currently within the Special Immigrant Visa program, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said during a briefing at the Pentagon.

Kirby said the Defense Department has not been asked, as of now, to provide military flights to support that relocation effort. Instead, he said, the department is involved in identifying potential relocation options for those Afghan nationals.

“The department’s role in Operation Allies Refuge will continue to be one of providing options and support to the interagency effort that’s being led by the State Department,” Kirby said. “To date, we have identified overseas locations and we’re still examining possibilities for overseas locations, to include some departmental installations that would be capable of supporting planned relocation efforts with appropriate temporary residences and associated support infrastructure.”

While Kirby didn’t name specific locations, he did say “all options” are being looked at, to include locations overseas and within the U.S.

“All options are being considered and that would include the potential for short-term use of CONUS-based U.S. installations,” he said. “We’re trying to provide as many options to the State Department-led effort as we can.”

As of now, he said, no final decisions have been made.

Kirby also said the department has stood up an internal action group that will, in part, work with the State Department to help better identify which Afghan nationals might be considered for relocation under the special immigrant visa program.

“We will do what we can to help the State Department in terms of the identification of those who should be validly considered as part of the SIV process,” Kirby said. “The department remains eager and committed to doing all that we can to support collective government efforts — U.S. government efforts — to help those who have helped us for so long.”

Beyond the rescue of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, nobody knows for certain what will happen in the war-ravaged country.

“If we withdraw and no deal was made with the Taliban, I think the government of Afghanistan is going to be in for a very stiff fight to retain possession” of towns and cities, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said in an interview Saturday after talks in Kabul.

The danger that Afghanistan could rapidly descend into deeper violence and chaos that would allow Al Qaeda to reemerge has led Biden to try to pull off a diplomatic breakthrough, though neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban seems eager to reach a deal.

The Taliban, which took power in 1996, was driven out of Kabul five years later when the United States invaded in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda, the militant group led by Osama bin Laden that had taken refuge in Afghanistan.

Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top American commander in Kabul, warned that a U.S. withdrawal would leave the Afghan armed forces without vital support, especially for its fledgling air force, which relies on contractors to maintain its planes and helicopters.

“When you start talking about removing our presence … certain things like air, air support and maintenance of that air support becomes more and more problematic,” Miller said in an interview.

All U.S. military personnel and thousands of contractors who help maintain equipment and supply Afghan troops would have to leave the country under the deal former President Trump made with the Taliban.

An additional 6,500 military personnel in Afghanistan from NATO and other allies would also probably depart.

In the intervening years, the United States suffered over 22,000 military casualties, including around 2,400 fatalities, in Afghanistan and Congress has appropriated about $144 billion for reconstruction and security forces there.

The conclusion of the Pentagon’s two-decade effort in Afghanistan lays bare the challenges facing U.S. diplomats and aid workers who remain behind, as a modest civilian force attempts to propel warring Afghans toward peace and protect advances for women without the support and reach provided by the military mission.

Current and former officials described an array of obstacles that a shrinking cadre of civilians in the bunkered U.S. Embassy in Kabul must navigate, with the coronavirus pandemic and the specter of a possible diplomatic evacuation compounding the significant difficulties inherent to working in Afghanistan.

“In the absence of a military complement in Kabul, the task of the U.S. Embassy is made infinitely more complex, dangerous and difficult,” said Hugo Llorens, who served as the top U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan under presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Biden this month defended his decision to leave the country, but also vowed that the United States would not abandon Afghanistan, making the diplomatic and aid mission — in particular, U.S. support for local security forces and the plight of women and girls — a central test of the president’s strategy.

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