U.S. weighs slowing Afghan withdrawal to ensure ‘progress sticks’: Carter


The United States is considering slowing a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan to ensure that “progress sticks” after more than a decade of war, new Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during an unannounced visit to Kabul on Saturday.

Under the current plan, the United States will halve the number of troops in Afghanistan to just over 5,000 this year, gradually winding down to a “normal” U.S. embassy presence by the end of 2016.

That schedule could now change, at least in part, suggested Carter on his first trip abroad since swearing in as the Pentagon chief on Tuesday, as the United States also rethinks the future of its counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan.

His remarks set the stage for talks next month when the Afghan president is expected in Washington.

“Our priority now is to make sure this progress sticks,” Carter said at a joint conference with President Ashraf Ghani, hours after landing in Kabul.

“That is why President (Barack) Obama is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani's security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of U.S. troops.”

Ghani said he expected to discuss U.S. troop numbers with Obama “in the context of the larger partnership.”

U.S. General John Campbell, who leads international forces in Afghanistan, suggested his focus for now was sustaining enough U.S. trainers, advisors and counter-terrorism forces inAfghanistan during 2015 and 2016, not what happens later.

“Right now I think we're comfortable looking at '15 and '16,” Campbell told reporters traveling with Carter.

The current strategy has drawn sharp criticism from Republicans in Congress, who say that hard-won gains made against the Taliban could be lost in much the same way that sectarian violence returned to Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal.

Afghanistan's national army and police suffered heavy losses last year, the bloodiest since the war against Taliban militants began in 2001.

The emergence of a small number of militants in Afghanistan aligning themselves with Islamic State, which swept into northern Iraq last summer, has underscored anxieties about the dangers as foreign forces withdraw.

Carter said Islamic State's presence in Afghanistan appeared “aspirational”.”

But he also acknowledged the future of the U.S. counter-terrorism mission was also under review.

“We are discussing and rethinking the details of the counter-terrorism mission and how the environment has changed here with respect to terrorism, since we first laid out our plans,” Carter said.

Discussions about the way forward in Afghanistan, Carter said, were possible thanks to political progress in Kabul, where Ghani's pro-Western unity government succeeded former president Hamid Karzai last year.

Once the darling of the international community, Karzai made fervently anti-Western speeches in his later years in power and resisted U.S. pressure to sign a crucial security treaty.

Carter, who this week became Obama's fourth defense secretary, is a former Pentagon No. 2 with deep roots in U.S. policy on Afghanistan. He said Saturday marked his tenth official visit to the country, even though it was his first at the helm of the Department of Defense.

Neither he nor Ghani made predictions about peace efforts with the Taliban, after senior Pakistani army, Afghan and diplomatic officials said the Afghan Taliban signaled they were willing to open peace talks.

But Ghani sounded upbeat.

“The grounds for peace have never been better in the last 36 years. Our approach is productive. We're hopeful,” Ghani said.

“But categorical answers in a peace process are dangerous.”

Three American contractors killed in ‘insider attack’ in Afghan capital


Three American contractors were killed and a fourth was wounded by an Afghan solider at the military airport in the capital Kabul, an Afghan air force official told Reuters on Thursday.

“It is unclear yet why he shot these advisers and no one else was there to tell us the reason,” the official said, asking not to be named because he was not authorised to give statements to the media. “An investigation has been opened.”

The international force in Afghanistan confirmed the shooting took place on Thursday evening.

Explosions, gunfire heard around Kabul International Airport


Insurgents launched a pre-dawn attack on Afghanistan's main international airport in the capital, Kabul, on Monday, police said, with explosions and gunfire heard coming from an area that also houses major foreign military bases.

There were no immediate reports of casualties and there was also no early claim of responsibility for the attack.

Attacks on the heavily guarded airport, used by civilians and the military, are relatively rare and would represent an ambitious target for insurgents, with recent assaults staged against less well-protected targets.

The airport, by comparison, is home to a major operational base for NATO-led forces that have been fighting Taliban and other insurgents for 12 years and is bristling with soldiers and police, guard towers and several lines of security checkpoints.

Police said the attack appeared to be centred on the military side of the airport, to the west of the civilian terminal.

“Gunmen have entered a house under construction in the west of Kabul airport and are fighting with security forces,” Kabul police spokesman Hashmatullah Stanekzai said.

“Their target is Kabul airport and all roads to it are sealed,” he said.

A spokesman for the Afghan Air Force, which is also based at the facility, also said the airport was the target of the attack. There are also a number of logistics bases in the area.

The attack began at about 4.30 a.m. (2400 GMT). Embassies in the diplomatic zone in the centre of Kabul were quickly locked down and emergency alarms were heard ringing loudly from the British embassy.

Reuters witnesses reported hearing explosions at the airport, with reports of rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. Blasts still being heard an hour after the attack was launched.

Concerns are mounting over how the 352,000-strong Afghan security forces will cope with an intensifying insurgency once most foreign combat troops leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The airport attack came soon after assaults on the International Organisation for Migration in Kabul and against the International Committee of the Red Cross in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

Four people were killed and three wounded in those attacks.

In April 2011, a rogue Afghan air force officer shot and killed eight U.S. servicemen and a civilian contractor in the worst attack at the airport since the war began.

Additional reporting by Dylan Welch and Omar Sobhani; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Paul Tait

Afghan militants say deadly blast was revenge for film


Afghan militants claimed responsibility on Tuesday for a suicide bomb attack on a minivan carrying foreign workers that killed 12 people saying it was retaliation for a film mocking the Prophet Mohammad.

A short film made with private funds in the United States and posted on the Internet has ignited days of demonstrations in the Arab world, Africa, Asia and in some Western countries.

In a torrent of violence blamed on the film last week, the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in an attack in Benghazi and U.S. and other foreign embassies were stormed in cities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East by furious Muslims. At least nine other people were killed.

On Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew up a minivan near the airport in the Afghan capital and a spokesman for the Hezb-e-Islami insurgent group claimed responsibility.

“A woman wearing a suicide vest blew herself up in response to the anti-Islam video,” said militant spokesman Zubair Sediqqi. Police said the woman may have been driving a Toyota Corolla car rigged with explosives, which she triggered.

But the claim will raise fears that anger over the film will feed into deteriorating security as the United States and other Western countries try to protect their forces from a rash of so-called insider attacks by Afghan colleagues.

Thousands of protesters clashed with police in Kabul the previous day, burning cars and hurling rocks at security forces in the worst outbreak of violence since February rioting over the inadvertent burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers.

The protesters in Kabul and several other Asian cities have vented their fury over the film at the United States, blaming it for what they see as an attack on Islam.

The outcry saddles U.S. President Barack Obama with an unexpected foreign policy headache as he campaigns for re-election in November, even though his administration has condemned the film as reprehensible and disgusting.

In response to the violence in Benghazi and elsewhere last week, the United States has sent ships, extra troops and special forces to protect U.S. interests and citizens in the Middle East, while a number of its embassies have evacuated staff and are on high alert for trouble.

Despite Obama's efforts early in his tenure to improve relations with the Arab and Muslim world, the violence adds to a host of problems including the continued U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, the Syrian civil war and the fall-out from the Arab Spring revolts.

PROTESTS, BANS

The renewed protests on Monday dashed any hopes that the furor over the film might fade despite an appeal over the weekend from the senior cleric in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest shrines, for calm.

Afghan police said among the 12 dead in the Kabul bomb attack were eight Russians and South Africans, mostly working for a foreign air charter company named ACS Ltd.

It followed a bloody weekend during which six members of Afghanistan's NATO-led alliance, including four Americans, were killed in suspected insider attacks carried out by Afghans turning on their allies.

Protesters also took to the streets in Pakistan and Indonesia on Monday and thousands also marched in Beirut, where a Hezbollah leader accused U.S. spy agencies of being behind events that have unleashed a wave of anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim and Arab world.

Authorities in Bangladesh have blocked the YouTube website indefinitely to stop people seeing the video. Pakistan and Afghanistan have also blocked the site.

Iran has condemned the film as offensive and vowed to pursue those responsible for making it. Iranian officials have demanded the United States apologize to Muslims, saying the film is only the latest in a series of Western insults aimed at Islam's holy figures.

The identity of those directly responsible for the film remains unclear. Clips posted online since July have been attributed to a man named Sam Bacile, which two people connected with the film have said was probably an alias.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, a Coptic Christian widely linked to the film in media reports, was questioned in California on Saturday by U.S. authorities investigating possible violations of his probation for a bank fraud conviction.

Reporting by various bureaus; Writing by Robert Birsel