Read the article.]

“The I.S.I., with the help of America, defeated America.” Pakistan’s military stayed allied to both the Americans and Taliban. But now the country may face intensified extremism at home as a result of a perceived Taliban victory. [Read the article.]


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Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, Visits Afghanistan

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, less than a day after President Biden formally announced plans to withdraw all remaining troops from the country by Sept. 11. The trip was intended to signal continued cooperation amid the major shift in policy.

The withdrawal, which comes nearly 20 years after the United States first sent troops to Afghanistan, has raised profound questions within the country about its effect on Afghan civilians and the ability of the government and the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal.

Mr. Biden, laying out his plan in an address to the nation on Wednesday afternoon, said the country could no longer “continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan.”

Following the president’s announcement, NATO’s foreign and defense ministers agreed to begin withdrawing NATO forces on May 1 and finish “within a few months,” the alliance said in a statement.

Hours later, Mr. Blinken arrived in Kabul for the unannounced and brief trip, during which he visited the United States Embassy and then met with Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, and Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the Afghan government council that has led peace negotiations with the Taliban. By Thursday evening, Mr. Blinken had departed for Washington.

“I wanted to demonstrate with my visit the ongoing commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Blinken said before his meeting with Mr. Ghani began. “The partnership is changing, but the partnership is enduring.”

Mr. Ghani said the Afghan government respected the decision and was “adjusting our priorities.”

Mr. Blinken and Mr. Ghani “discussed the importance of preserving the gains of the last 20 years, especially in building a strong civil society and protecting the rights of women and girls,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the State Department.

The pair also spoke about counterterrorism cooperation and their shared commitment to ensuring that Al Qaeda does not regain a foothold in Afghanistan.

Mr. Blinken then met with Mr. Abdullah, who said he was grateful to the American people and the Biden administration.

“We have a new chapter, but it’s a new chapter that we’re writing together,” Mr. Abdullah added.

Mr. Blinken had traveled to Afghanistan from Brussels, where, alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, he briefed NATO officials on the decision to withdraw American troops.

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US Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan: What to Know

The reality of an imminent American withdrawal from Afghanistan differs from its long-anticipated likelihood. Already the anxiety engendered by this new certainty in the capital, Kabul, and other urban centers is making itself felt.

Afghans’ fear is multifaceted, evoked by the Taliban’s grim record, bitter and vivid memories of civil war and the widely acknowledged weakness of the current government. These conditions in turn push Afghan thinking in one direction: The country’s government and armed forces won’t survive without American support. Many American policymakers, security officials and diplomats concur with this gloomy view. Just this week, the U.S. intelligence assessment, presented to Congress, suggested as much: “The Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

During their five years in power, 1996-2001, the Taliban operated one of the world’s most oppressive and theocratic regimes, and there is little in their public posture and behavior during the group’s years of insurgency to suggest much has changed, at least ideologically.

In Afghanistan’s cities, the new middle-class society that emerged under the American security umbrella over the last 20 years dread a return to that era of rule.

some analysts say, there is some imperative to find political solutions to achieving their desired return to power.

And, most important, there are too many potential centers of armed resistance that will not go down quietly. And that in turn would lead to an intensification of the civil war that is already consuming much of the country.

With the Biden’s administration’s announcement on Wednesday of a complete withdrawal of American forces by Sept. 11, there are still several questions that will need to be answered between now and then.

believe they have already militarily won the war with Afghan forces, and they may be right.

Afghan soldiers and police have abandoned dozens of checkpoints, while others have been taken by force, while the attrition rate among security forces is considered unsustainable by Western and Afghan security officials.

Still, as long as Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani. can continue to maintain his elite special force of 20,000-30,000 men and pay them, thanks to the Americans, he may be able to maintain his hold on power, for a time. The Americans fund the Afghan military to the tune of $4 billion a year; if those funds are cut by a Congress unwilling to pay for somebody else’s war, Mr. Ghani is in trouble.

Also likely to be emboldened by the American withdrawal, and constituting a further threat to the Ghani government, are the forces controlled by the country’s numerous and potent regional leaders. These power brokers may now be tempted to cut deals with the side that clearly has the upper hand, the Taliban, or buckle down and try to secure their small portions of the country and again take up the mantle of warlords.

believe Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups pose an immediate threat to the United States from Afghanistan — although the congressionally mandated Afghan Study Group said earlier this year that withdrawal “could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland within 18 months to three years.”

Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan was militarily defeated their eastern stronghold in late 2019. But smaller and more amorphous elements continue to operate with low intensity in the region, including in Kabul, waiting to take advantage of whatever might happen in the coming months.

U.S. military and intelligence officials have suggested a limited timeline — a handful years at best.

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Afghans Wonder ‘What About Me?’ as US Troops Prepare to Withdraw

KABUL, Afghanistan — A female high school student in Kabul, Afghanistan’s war-scarred capital, is worried that she won’t be allowed to graduate. A pomegranate farmer in Kandahar wonders if his orchards will ever be clear of Taliban land mines. A government soldier in Ghazni fears he will never stop fighting.

Three Afghans from disparate walks of life, now each asking the same question: What will become of me when the Americans leave?

President Biden on Tuesday vowed to withdraw all American troops by Sept. 11, nearly 20 years after the first Americans arrived to drive out Al Qaeda following the 2001 terrorist attacks. The American withdrawal ends the longest war in United States history, but it is also likely to be the start of another difficult chapter for Afghanistan’s people.

reported that in the first three months of the year there were 573 civilians killed and 1,210 wounded, a 29 percent increase over the same period in 2020. More than 40,000 civilians have been killed since the start of the war.

Over two decades, the American mission evolved from hunting terrorists to helping the government build the institutions of a functioning government, dismantle the Taliban and empower women. But the U.S. and Afghan militaries were never able to effectively destroy the Taliban, allowing the insurgents to stage a comeback.

The Taliban never recognized Afghanistan’s democratic government. And they appear closer than ever to achieving the goal of their insurgency: to return to power and establish a government based on their extremist view of Islam.

Women would be most at risk under Taliban rule. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it banned women from taking most jobs or receiving educations and practically made them prisoners in their own homes.

“It is too early to comment on the subject. We need to know much more,” said Fatima Gailani, an Afghan government negotiator who is involved in the continuing peace talks with the Taliban. “One thing is certain: It is about time that we learn how to rely on ourselves. Women of Afghanistan are totally different now. They are a force in our country; no one can deny them their rights or status.”

Afghanistan’s shaky democracy — propped up by billions of American dollars — has given way to an educated urban class that includes women like Ms. Gailani. Many of them were born in Afghanistan in the 1990s and came of age during the U.S. occupation of the country. Now these women are journalists, part of civil society and members of government.

In the countryside, by contrast, fighting, poverty and oppression remain regular parts of life. Despite the challenges, residents found some comfort in knowing that Afghan forces, backed by the American military, were keeping the peace at least in some areas.

Haji Abdul Samad, 52, a pomegranate farmer from the Arghandab district of Kandahar Province, has been displaced from his home for two months because of the heavy fighting there.

“I am too tired of my life. We are now in a position to beg,” Mr. Samad said. “The Americans are responsible for the troubles, hardships that we are going through. Now they are going to leave with their troops, with no peace, no progress. They just want to leave their war behind.”

Fears about the future are as palpable in the presidential palace in Kabul as they are in far-flung corners of the country. And people across Afghanistan are confused about who will soon be in charge.

The Taliban have repeatedly called for President Ashraf Ghani to step down to make way for an interim government, or most likely, their own. Mr. Ghani has refused, instead pushing for elections but also opening the door to more fighting and a potential civil war. The peace talks in Qatar have faltered and the Taliban have all but backed out of proposed talks in Turkey.

“Ghani will be increasingly isolated. Power brokers see every one of his moves as designed to keep himself and his deputies at the helm,” said Torek Farhadi, an adviser to former President Hamid Karzai. “Reality is, free and fair elections are not possible in the country amid war. In fact, it could fuel more violence.”

As American troops prepare to leave and fractures form in the Afghan government, militias controlled by powerful local warlords are once more rising to prominence and attacking government forces.

The American withdrawal will undoubtedly be a massive blow to morale for the Afghan security forces, spread across the country at hundreds of checkpoints, inside bases and along violent front lines. For years, the U.S. presence has meant that American air power, if needed, was nearby. But since the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban, those airstrikes have become much less frequent, occurring only in the most dire of situations.

Without American military support, Afghan government troops are up against a Taliban enemy who is frequently more experienced and better equipped than the average foot soldier.

The history of Afghanistan has been one of foreign invasion and withdrawal: the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th. After each invasion, the country underwent a period of infighting and civil war.

“It is not the right time to withdraw their troops,” said Major Saifuddin Azizi, a commando commander in the southeastern province of Ghazni, where fighting has been especially brutal in recent days. “It is unreasonable, hasty and a betrayal to us. It pushes Afghanistan into another civil war. Afghanistan’s destiny will look like it did two decades ago.”

Reporting was contributed by Fahim Abed, Najim Rahim and Fatima Faizi from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar.

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Afghans Wonder ‘What About Me?’ as American Troops Prepare to Withdraw

KABUL, Afghanistan — A female high school student in Kabul, Afghanistan’s war-scarred capital, is worried that she won’t be allowed to graduate. A pomegranate farmer in Kandahar wonders if his orchards will ever be clear of Taliban land mines. A government soldier in Ghazni fears he will never stop fighting.

Three Afghans from disparate walks of life, now each asking the same question: What will become of me when the Americans leave?

President Biden on Tuesday vowed to withdraw all American troops by Sept. 11, nearly 20 years after the first Americans arrived to drive out Al Qaeda following the 2001 terrorist attacks. The American withdrawal ends the longest war in United States history, but it is also likely to be the start of another difficult chapter for Afghanistan’s people.

reported that in the first three months of the year there were 573 civilians killed and 1,210 wounded, a 29 percent increase over the same period in 2020. More than 40,000 civilians have been killed since the start of the war.

Over two decades, the American mission evolved from hunting terrorists to helping the government build the institutions of a functioning government, dismantle the Taliban and empower women. But the U.S. and Afghan militaries were never able to effectively destroy the Taliban, allowing the insurgents to stage a comeback.

The Taliban never recognized Afghanistan’s democratic government. And they appear closer than ever to achieving the goal of their insurgency: to return to power and establish a government based on their extremist view of Islam.

Women would be most at risk under Taliban rule. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it banned women from taking most jobs or receiving educations and practically made them prisoners in their own homes.

“It is too early to comment on the subject. We need to know much more,” said Fatima Gailani, an Afghan government negotiator who is involved in the continuing peace talks with the Taliban. “One thing is certain: It is about time that we learn how to rely on ourselves. Women of Afghanistan are totally different now. They are a force in our country; no one can deny them their rights or status.”

Afghanistan’s shaky democracy — propped up by billions of American dollars — has given way to an educated urban class that includes women like Ms. Gailani. Many of them were born in Afghanistan in the 1990s and came of age during the U.S. occupation of the country. Now these women are journalists, part of civil society and members of government.

In the countryside, by contrast, fighting, poverty and oppression remain regular parts of life. Despite the challenges, residents found some comfort in knowing that Afghan forces, backed by the American military, were keeping the peace at least in some areas.

Haji Abdul Samad, 52, a pomegranate farmer from the Arghandab district of Kandahar Province, has been displaced from his home for two months because of the heavy fighting there.

“I am too tired of my life. We are now in a position to beg,” Mr. Samad said. “The Americans are responsible for the troubles, hardships that we are going through. Now they are going to leave with their troops, with no peace, no progress. They just want to leave their war behind.”

Fears about the future are as palpable in the presidential palace in Kabul as they are in far-flung corners of the country. And people across Afghanistan are confused about who will soon be in charge.

The Taliban have repeatedly called for President Ashraf Ghani to step down to make way for an interim government, or most likely, their own. Mr. Ghani has refused, instead pushing for elections but also opening the door to more fighting and a potential civil war. The peace talks in Qatar have faltered and the Taliban have all but backed out of proposed talks in Turkey.

“Ghani will be increasingly isolated. Power brokers see every one of his moves as designed to keep himself and his deputies at the helm,” said Torek Farhadi, an adviser to former President Hamid Karzai. “Reality is, free and fair elections are not possible in the country amid war. In fact, it could fuel more violence.”

As American troops prepare to leave and fractures form in the Afghan government, militias controlled by powerful local warlords are once more rising to prominence and attacking government forces.

The American withdrawal will undoubtedly be a massive blow to morale for the Afghan security forces, spread across the country at hundreds of checkpoints, inside bases and along violent front lines. For years, the U.S. presence has meant that American air power, if needed, was nearby. But since the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban, those airstrikes have become much less frequent, occurring only in the most dire of situations.

Without American military support, Afghan government troops are up against a Taliban enemy who is frequently more experienced and better equipped than the average foot soldier.

The history of Afghanistan has been one of foreign invasion and withdrawal: the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th. After each invasion, the country underwent a period of infighting and civil war.

“It is not the right time to withdraw their troops,” said Major Saifuddin Azizi, a commando commander in the southeastern province of Ghazni, where fighting has been especially brutal in recent days. “It is unreasonable, hasty and a betrayal to us. It pushes Afghanistan into another civil war. Afghanistan’s destiny will look like it did two decades ago.”

Reporting was contributed by Fahim Abed, Najim Rahim and Fatima Faizi from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar.

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Biden to Withdraw Combat Troops From Afghanistan by Sept. 11

But Mr. Biden’s decision drew fire from Republicans.

“This is a reckless and dangerous decision,” said Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Arbitrary deadlines would likely put our troops in danger, jeopardize all the progress we’ve made, and lead to civil war in Afghanistan — and create a breeding ground for international terrorists.”

President Donald J. Trump had set a withdrawal deadline for May 1, but he was known for announcing, and reversing, a number of significant foreign policy decisions, and Pentagon officials continued to press for a delay. Mr. Biden, who has long been skeptical of the Afghan deployment, spent his first three months in office assessing that timeline.

The Afghan central government is unable to halt Taliban advances, and American officials offer a grim assessment of prospects for peace in the country. Still, American intelligence agencies say they do not believe Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups pose an immediate threat to strike the United States from Afghanistan. That assessment has been critical to the Biden administration as it decided to withdraw most of the remaining forces from the country.

A senior administration official said the troop withdrawal would begin before May 1 and conclude before the symbolic date of Sept. 11. Any attacks on withdrawing NATO troops, the official said, would be met with a forceful response.

Taliban leaders have long pledged that any breach of the deadline means that their forces will again begin attacking American and coalition troops. Under a withdrawal deal negotiated during the Trump administration, the Taliban mostly stopped those attacks — but in past weeks, they have rocketed American bases in Afghanistan’s south and east.

In public statements on Tuesday, Taliban leaders focused not on Mr. Biden’s decision for a full withdrawal — leaving behind a weak central government that has proved incapable of halting insurgent advances around the country — but rather on the fact that the administration was going to miss the May 1 deadline.

“We are not agreeing with delay after May 1,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said on local television. “Any delay after May 1 is not acceptable for us.”

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Biden to Withdraw All Combat Troops From Afghanistan by Sept. 11

But Mr. Biden’s decision drew fire from Republicans.

“This is a reckless and dangerous decision,” said Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Arbitrary deadlines would likely put our troops in danger, jeopardize all the progress we’ve made, and lead to civil war in Afghanistan — and create a breeding ground for international terrorists.”

President Donald J. Trump had set a withdrawal deadline for May 1, but he was known for announcing, and reversing, a number of significant foreign policy decisions, and Pentagon officials continued to press for a delay. Mr. Biden, who has long been skeptical of the Afghan deployment, spent his first three months in office assessing that timeline.

The Afghan central government is unable to halt Taliban advances, and American officials offer a grim assessment of prospects for peace in the country. Still, American intelligence agencies say they do not believe Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups pose an immediate threat to strike the United States from Afghanistan. That assessment has been critical to the Biden administration as it decided to withdraw most of the remaining forces from the country.

A senior administration official said the troop withdrawal would begin before May 1 and conclude before the symbolic date of Sept. 11. Any attacks on withdrawing NATO troops, the official said, would be met with a forceful response.

Taliban leaders have long pledged that any breach of the deadline means that their forces will again begin attacking American and coalition troops. Under a withdrawal deal negotiated during the Trump administration, the Taliban mostly stopped those attacks — but in past weeks, they have rocketed American bases in Afghanistan’s south and east.

In public statements on Tuesday, Taliban leaders focused not on Mr. Biden’s decision for a full withdrawal — leaving behind a weak central government that has proved incapable of halting insurgent advances around the country — but rather on the fact that the administration was going to miss the May 1 deadline.

“We are not agreeing with delay after May 1,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said on local television. “Any delay after May 1 is not acceptable for us.”

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Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s President, Has Little Sway Over Its Future

KABUL, Afghanistan — He attends international conferences, meets with diplomats, recently inaugurated a dam and delivers patriotic speeches vowing to defend his country against the Taliban.

But how much control President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has over his imperiled country’s future and his own has become a matter of debate among politicians, analysts and citizens. Or rather, the question has been largely resolved: not much.

From most vantage points, Mr. Ghani — well qualified for his job and deeply credentialed, with Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Columbia, the World Bank and the United Nations in his background — is thoroughly isolated. A serious author with a first-class intellect, he is dependent on the counsel of a handful, unwilling to even watch television news, those who know him say, and losing allies fast.

That spells trouble for a country where a hard-line Islamist insurgency has the upper hand militarily, where nearly half the population faces hunger at crisis levels, according to the United Nations, where the overwhelming balance of government money comes from abroad and where weak governance and widespread corruption are endemic.

recent letter to him from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was so harsh that even Afghans critical of Mr. Ghani found it insulting.

In language more likely to be used with an unruly schoolboy than a head of state, the letter repeated the phrase “I urge you” three times. “I must also make clear to you, Mr. President,” Mr. Blinken continued, “that as our policy process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any option.” The unspoken subtext was clear: Your influence is minimal.

“As an Afghan, a sense of humiliation comes over you,” said Hekmat Khalil Karzai, the head of an Afghan think tank and a cousin of the former president, Hamid Karzai. “But I also feel Ghani deserves it,” Mr. Karzai said. “He’s dealing with the kiss of death from his own closest partner.”

The Biden administration is banking on multinational talks, tentatively set for later this month in Istanbul, to establish a plan for moving forward. At the heart of the U.S. proposal is a temporary government to hold power until elections can be held.

In this interim body, the Taliban and the current government would share power, according to a leaked draft. Such a setup could require Mr. Ghani to step down, a move he has repeatedly refused to consider.

Mr. Ghani has come up with a counterproposal that he plans to release soon, which calls for a cease-fire, a temporary “government of peace” whose potential makeup remains unclear, and then early elections in which he promises not to run.

Both the American plan and Mr. Ghani’s could be non-starters, as the Taliban have never said they would agree to elections, nor have they indicated that they would go along with any sort of government plan or be content with power-sharing.

“From what we’re seeing, they want absolute power, and they are waiting to take power by force,” Mr. Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, said in an interview.

While Mr. Ghani is steadily losing political capital in Kabul and with international partners, the country’s military position is deteriorating. Each day brings news of security force members blown up or gunned down.

“They can’t keep doing that,” said a senior Western diplomat in Kabul, commenting on the steady attrition. “The toll on the government, and the credibility and legitimacy it has, it’s not sustainable.”

Visions of September 1996, when the Taliban rolled into Kabul virtually unopposed and proceeded to establish their harsh regime, haunt the capital.

Deep inside the presidential palace compound, an 83-acre parklike campus protected by seven layers of security, Mr. Ghani’s inner circle of close aides is small and shrinking. He fired his respected interior minister, an army general, after a military helicopter was shot down by one of the country’s numerous militias last month. His attorney general, who had a rare reputation for integrity, stepped down. He pushed out his short-tenured finance minister.

One senior former official argued that he was cut off from reality and what is going on on the ground.

Mr. Mohib, however, pushed back on this assessment. “This criticism comes from a political elite which thinks it has been marginalized,” he said.

Some former officials characterized Mr. Ghani as being compelled to micromanage, including involving himself in the details of military matters and personnel decisions even down to the local police chief level. “He likes that, because he feels he’s the only one,” said Mr. Karzai, meaning the only one competent to make serious decisions.

Mr. Mohib called the micromanagement accusation “a huge exaggeration,” saying that the president had not attended a security meeting “in weeks,” adding that “he is aware of the strategic picture.”

Mr. Ghani’s communications office did not agree to a request for an interview with the president. A senior aide did not respond to an interview request.

The consequences of Mr. Ghani’s isolation appear to be unfolding in real time. The president has a potent vision for the country, but selling it and making it work politically is not his strong suit, and it shows up in the nation’s divisions, said the senior Western diplomat in Kabul. That’s not good for Afghan unity, the diplomat argued.

These divisions echo out from Kabul into the country’s fractious regions, where independent militias and other longstanding power-brokers have either rearmed themselves or are preparing to do so.

In the center of the country, a low-intensity fight between government forces and the militia of a minority Shiite warlord has been smoldering for months, fueled by the downing of an Afghan forces helicopter in March. Mr. Ghani and his aides have taken an active role in managing the conflict, to the dismay of the Afghan military.

“This is what we wanted to avoid. We are already stretched,” said a senior Afghan security official. “And here, you want to start another war?”

The upcoming talks in Turkey could well end up like the recent ones in Moscow and Dushanbe, Tajikistan — with bland communiqués deploring violence and hoping for peace. The American idea — to substitute new talks in a new locale for the old talks in Qatar that have gone nowhere — is not necessarily a winning bet. Indeed, the early signs are not promising, with Mr. Ghani once again rejecting preliminary American proposals, and the Taliban aggressively noncommittal about the ideas currently on the table.

“If the U.S. pulls out, and there is no political agreement, then we are in deep trouble,” said the senior Afghan security official.

“Militarily, we don’t have much hope,” he said. “If we don’t get something, the Taliban are going to march. It’s going to be a severe battle.”

Fahim Abed contributed reporting.

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The Taliban Think They Have Already Won, Peace Deal or Not

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban’s swagger is unmistakable. From the recent bellicose speech of their deputy leader, boasting of “conquests,” to sneering references to the “foreign masters” of the “illegitimate” Kabul government, to the Taliban’s own website tally of “puppets” killed — Afghan soldiers — they are promoting a bold message:

We have already won the war.

And that belief, grounded in military and political reality, is shaping Afghanistan’s volatile present. On the eve of talks in Turkey next month over the country’s future, it is the elephant in the room: the half-acknowledged truth that the Taliban have the upper hand and are thus showing little outward interest in compromise, or of going along with the dominant American idea, power-sharing.

While the Taliban’s current rhetoric is also propaganda, the grim sense of Taliban supremacy is dictating the response of a desperate Afghan government and influencing Afghanistan’s anxious foreign interlocutors. It contributes to the abandonment of dozens of checkpoints and falling morale among the Afghan security forces, already hammered by a “not sustainable” casualty rate of perhaps 3,000 a month, a senior Western diplomat in Kabul said.

The group doesn’t hide its pride at having compelled its principal adversary for 20 years, the United States to negotiate with the Taliban and, last year, to sign an agreement to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to stop attacking foreign forces and to sever ties with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the American peace envoy — would merely be used by the Taliban as a “Trojan horse” for the seizure of power.

recent paper — though, he notes, this may be driven more by political imperative than a softening of ideology.

Elsewhere, the Taliban’s increasingly confident messaging has penetrated deep into its rank-and-file, in large part because events have borne it out.

People said that it is not possible to fire on U.S. forces,” said Muslim Mohabat, a former Taliban fighter from Watapor District in Kunar Province. “They would say the barrel of the rifle would bend if you open fire on them, but we attacked them, and nothing happened.”

“Then we kept attacking them and forced them to leave the valley,” said Mr. Mohabat, who fought in some of the most violent battles of the war with the United States.

In the insurgents’ view, their advances will inexorably lead to the end of the Kabul government.

“On the battlefield there is a sense that, ‘We’re stronger than ever,’’’ said Ashley Jackson, a Taliban expert at the Overseas Development Institute. “Power-sharing and democracy, these are anathema to their political culture.”

Fahim Abed, Fatima Faizi and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Makes Secret Visit to Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III landed in Afghanistan’s capital Sunday morning, becoming the first member of President Biden’s cabinet to set foot in the country that is home to America’s longest war.

The United States is tentatively set to withdraw American forces from the country on May 1, the date set in an agreement signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban more than a year ago.

Speaking to reporters before his departure from Afghanistan, Mr. Austin declined to comment on whether the Taliban had met their obligations under that agreement, which would trigger the departure of U.S. forces from a country where they have had a continuous presence since 2001.

“It’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country,” Mr. Austin said. “We’d really like to see that violence come down, and I think if it does come down it can begin to set the conditions for some really fruitful diplomatic work.”

that meeting the deadline would be “tough.” On Saturday, speaking with reporters in India, Mr. Austin expressed confidence that he could remove all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1, should the president direct him to do so.

The defense secretary’s visit to Afghanistan came at the end of more than a week of travel across the Pacific during which he reassured allies that they would have the United States’ support in countering potential threats from China.

First, at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, the secretary was briefed by Adm. Philip S. Davidson on various threats in the region and how American military assets have been deployed in response. Flying next to Japan and South Korea, Mr. Austin joined Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken for talks with the foreign and defense ministers of both nations.

Both secretaries emphasized the Biden administration’s stance that diplomacy would again be the United States’ first course of action in foreign affairs.

In New Delhi, where Mr. Austin met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the defense minister, Rajnath Singh, senior U.S. defense officials said that Indian leaders spoke mostly about their concerns regarding China. It was only toward the end of their talks that the issue of Pakistan — India’s neighbor and traditional main enemy — came up.

The trip, Mr. Austin’s first as a cabinet member, comes as President Biden seeks to build a series of security agreements with various nations who could band together to respond to Chinese military operations in the South and East China Seas.

One such agreement between the United States, Australia, Japan and India — called “the quad” — was repeatedly cited by both Mr. Austin and Mr. Blinken as a model for combined military operations in region. Mr. Austin did not ask South Korea to join the quad during his time in Seoul, according to a senior defense official.

Mr. Austin’s trip to Kabul was kept secret, and was to remain confidential until two hours after he left, but local reporters broke news of his visit after he met with President Ashraf Ghani.

The secretary’s arrival in Kabul came on Nowruz, the Persian new year — a date on which the Islamic State in Afghanistan had pledged to carry out attacks. That led the Pentagon to keep the secretary’s visit under wraps as long as possible.

After landing in Kabul, Mr. Austin boarded a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter for a brief flight to the headquarters of the American military mission. Just off the former soccer stadium that serves as the command’s heliport, Gen. Austin S. Miller, the American commander in Afghanistan, quickly walked Mr. Austin through a warren of small buildings and tall concrete blast walls to his office.

Mr. Austin told reporters that he had no particular message that he conveyed to President Ghani, preferring instead to listen to the Afghan president’s thoughts on the situation in his country.

“We’ve done a lot to work with the Afghan security forces,” Mr. Austin said in response to a question regarding concerns Afghans might have following a U.S. withdrawal. “And I don’t want to speculate about what could happen or what could not happen going forward.”

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