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U.S. reassures Afghan forces of support

America’s protection questioned amid Taliban peace deal negotiations by Mujib Mashal The New York Times | August 16, 2019 at 2:24 a.m. | Updated August 16, 2019 at 2:24 a.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The top American commander in Afghanistan sought to reassure Afghan forces Thursday that they still had the full backing of the United States, after a report that the support was being dialed back in preparation for an imminent peace deal with the Taliban.

The fighting in Afghanistan has intensified as U.S. diplomats and the insurgents have worked through eight rounds of negotiations in Qatar. Afghan forces and the Taliban have sought to increase their political leverage through violence, with both sides suffering heavy casualties and civilians bearing the brunt of the attacks.

But on Monday, Newsweek magazine, citing anonymous sources in Washington, said U.S. personnel had been ordered to limit offensive operations against the Taliban and to stop advising Afghan forces.

Gen. Austin Miller, who leads the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan, brushed aside such reports as "false."

"We will continue to provide the same support we are providing today to the Afghan forces," he told reporters in Kabul, with Afghanistan's defense minister, Asadullah Khalid, standing at his side.

Miller added, however, that the future of the United States presence in Afghanistan would be decided by political work, in which officials are talking to both the Taliban and the Afghan government.

He said he was working with Afghan leaders "to determine the right levels of all our actions -- that includes air support, ground operations and protection of the force."

It was an apparent acknowledgment that preparation is underway to reduce the U.S. military presence in the country as part of a timetable for withdrawing all foreign forces, a central demand of the Taliban in the talks.

"We are planning closely with the Afghan security leadership," Miller said. "I will also let you know that I am always looking for ways to optimize the force structure here in Afghanistan, all the time."

Afghan forces, which depend on the United States and its allies for their salaries and for crucial air support during operations, worry about what an American deal with the Taliban could mean for their position.

Except for the country's special forces, who carry out regular offensive raids, they have been almost entirely on the defensive in recent months, suffering heavy casualties as the Taliban have besieged their bases -- although they endured much of the crucial spring fighting season without losing further territory.

Afghan security leaders fear that uncertainty over U.S. support could undermine their ability to defend their ground as negotiations enter their final stages.

Yet the Taliban leadership has a looming political problem of its own. Their forces, also suffering heavy casualties, have remained relatively united while engaged in an ideological fight against a common enemy. But they may not remain so through hard negotiations on the details of government and power-sharing.

On Thursday, reporters also asked Khalid, the defense minister, about the latest attack that resulted in large civilian casualties, in the Zurmat district of Paktia province.

The attack was said to have been carried out by a strike force belonging to the Afghan intelligence agency, which is closely mentored by the CIA and has been accused of engaging in a pattern of abuse with little accountability.

Family members and local officials said the forces had descended on several civilian homes close to midnight Sunday, arriving in helicopters. At least 11 people were killed, most of them students or government employees who were visiting relatives for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

"I know all of them, and all of them were civilians," said Nabi Hashimi Yarghal, who was roommates with one of the victims. "I know there are Taliban in Zurmat, but that doesn't mean all people living there are Taliban and Taliban supporters."

Many of the victims were shot from close range after being held, according to elders from the district who took their complaint to the Afghan Defense Ministry, arguing that even suspected Taliban members should have been taken in for questioning.

Khalid told reporters that President Ashraf Ghani had ordered an investigation.

"We assure you that if there are civilian casualties -- and unfortunately there are civilian casualties -- we will share the details and hold those responsible accountable," Khalid said.

A Section on 08/16/2019

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