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In Annual Address, Obama Attacks Rich-Poor Divide, Maps Out Afghan And Iran Plans

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 28.
President Barack Obama has used his annual State of the Union address to announce what he called “concrete, practical proposals” to reduce the gap between rich and poor in the United States.

He has also touted progress under his administration in bringing America "closer to energy independence than we've been in decades" and pushed for "responsible" energy development goals, including the reduction of carbon emissions and other measures to combat manmade climate change.

On foreign policy, Iran and Afghanistan were the top issues in the annual address to a joint session of Congress, but he also expressed support for the right to peaceful free expression in connection with the current unrest in Ukraine.

Tehran And Kabul

Obama said he would veto any move by Congress to impose fresh sanctions against Iran in the coming months in order to give diplomatic efforts on Tehran’s nuclear program a chance to succeed.

But he also said he would lead the call for new sanctions if those negotiations failed.

"For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed," Obama said. "If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon."

Obama also said a small U.S. and NATO military force may remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

But he promised to declare an end to 12 years of war there by the end of 2014 and said any U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan after this year will be there for two specific reasons: training and counterterrorism.

"If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of Al-Qaeda," Obama said. "For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country."

Speaking to RFE/RL after the speech, Michelle Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said Obama's Iran appeal was strong but his Afghan remarks lacked specifics.

"He really made an argument for continuing the nuclear negotiations with Iran. He said three separate times what the goal of those talks is, which is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and he said that he would veto any new sanctions bill that was sent to him by the Congress regarding Iran," Dunne said, before turning to Afghanistan, where negotiations have bogged down with President Hamid Karzai over a bilateral security agreement. "He also talked a bit about withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, although he didn't go into much detail.... I think some people were hoping to hear a bit more from him about that or expecting to really call on President Karzai to sign the agreement with us. But he was very low key about that."

Obama also addressed the raging protests in Ukraine, where a decision in November to abandon talks over closer ties to the European Union sparked popular anger and two months of street protests.

"In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future," he said.

RELATED: Euromaidan: The Dead, The Missing, And The Jailed

Several people have died and hundreds have been injured, while scores more Ukraiinians have been jailed or disappeared since the so-called Euromaidan demonstrations intensified following the passage of harsh antiprotest legislation this month.

Domestic Economy

On the domestic front, Obama said he would use executive action “wherever and whenever” he can “take steps without legislation” in order to expand economic opportunities for middle class American families:

“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better," Obama said.

"But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

Obama said he was eager to work with lawmakers to speed up economic growth in a way that strengthens and increases opportunities for middle class Americans. But he said “America does not stand still – and neither will I."

“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class," the U.S. president said.

"Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

The president's speech, delivered while millions of Americans watched on television and on the Internet, marks the opening salvo in a midterm Congressional election campaign that is expected to consume Washington in the months ahead.

Democrats, seeking to cast Republicans as protectors of the rich, have pressured Obama to focus more on the issues of economic fairness and efforts to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.

Obama suggested that the American work ethic is threatened by growing income disparity in the United States:

“What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead," he said.

"Let’s face it: that belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.”

Republican Response

In a Republican response aired after Obama’s speech, U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rogers charged that “more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one” under Obama’s economic policies.

McMorris also criticized Obama’s health care reforms, saying the legislation has led to canceled insurance coverage and patients who are unable to see their regular doctors.

She said Republicans are trying “to ensure that we are not bound by where we come from, but empowered by what we can become.”

She said: “That is the gap Republicans are working to close” – the gap “between where you are and where you want to be.”

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague; with contributions by Golnaz Esfandiari in Washington

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Trump Says Taliban Must Curb Violence For Meaningful Afghanistan Talks

FILE: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Bagram Air Field in November 2019.

U.S. President Donald Trump told Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani that there cannot be meaningful negotiations until the Taliban significantly reduces its violence, the White House said in a statement on January 22.

"Trump reiterated the need for a significant and lasting reduction in violence by the Taliban that would facilitate meaningful negotiations on Afghanistan's future," the White House said. Trump had been in Davos attending the World Economic Forum.

Officials Say U.S. Drone Strike Killed 10 Civilians In Western Afghanistan

FILE: A U.S. Air Force officer passes in front of a MQ-9 Reaper drone at the Kandahar air base in January 2018.

A U.S. drone strike earlier this month in the western Afghan province of Herat that apparently targeted a militant group also killed at least 10 civilians, including three women and three children, an Afghan rights official and a council member said on January 22.

The Afghan official said the strike took place in the district of Shindand on January 8. Five other civilians, including two children, were wounded, said the official, who is on Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

The Afghan military and U.S.-led forces did not immediately comment. But provincial council member Wakil Ahmad Karokhi said the strike also killed 16 militants from a Taliban splinter group, including its commander, known as Mullah Nangyalia.

The commander's funeral the following day was held in the Herat provincial capital’s Guzargah neighborhood, and was attended by dozens of militants.

Karokhi said the attack was a "huge mistake" because Mullah Nangyalia's group had been a useful buffer against the Taliban in Shindand, taking up arms with his fighters against the insurgents "when no one else would do it" and leaving the area's civilians in peace.

The Taliban controls nearly half of Afghanistan, and continue to launch attacks targeting Afghan and U.S. forces, even as it has given U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad a document outlining an offer for a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan.

With reporting by AP

Ex-Army Interpreter Accused Of Spying For Iran Goes On Trial In Germany

FILE: A soldier of the German armed forces Bundeswehr in a CH-53 helicopter on their way from Mazar-e Sharif to Kunduz in March 2017.

A trial for a German-Afghan national suspected of spying for Iranian intelligence is set to commence on January 20 in the city of Koblenz in Germany.

Identified as Abdul Hamid S. according to Germany privacy laws, the 51-year-old former interpreter and adviser for the German armed forces, or Bundeswehr, was arrested a year ago in the Rhineland region of western Germany and accused of providing information to Iranian intelligence for many years.

Prosecutors specifically accuse him of passing on 19 classified documents to Iranian intelligence.

Iran has denied ever having contact with the former military consultant.

The suspect’s 40-year-old spouse has been charged as an accessory but has not been detained.

A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry has told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that the suspect’s arrest was an attempt by “enemies” of Iran to sabotage the Islamic republic’s relations with the EU.

German magazine Der Spiegel has reported that he had access to sensitive information, including possible details of troop deployments in Afghanistan, and that he worked for Iran’s MOIS intelligence agency.

The Bundeswehr is known to use native speakers to accompany troops on patrol in Afghanistan to facilitate communication with locals.

News agency dpa reported that the trial will be conducted behind closed doors and is scheduled to last until March 31.

Based on reporting by Deutsche Welle, dpa, and Der Spiegel

Afghan Officials: Taliban Kills Six Members Of Same Family

The Taliban has killed six members of the same family, including an infant girl, in a remote village in the country's north, Afghan officials say.

The Taliban denied involvement, saying the attack on January 18 was triggered by a personal dispute.

However, local Afghan officials said January 19 the family was sentenced to death by the Taliban for immoral acts before being shot dead, said Jawed Bedar, a spokesman for Faryab Province's governor.

The infant girl's mother and twin sister survived, but both of the child's legs had to be amputated, Bedar said.

Afghan security forces deployed to the village early January 19 and helped evacuate the two survivors to the hospital.

Bedar said the Taliban attacked the government troops when they arrived. Three Taliban members were killed in the ensuing gun battle.

The Taliban now controls or holds sway over approximately half of Afghanistan.

With reporting by AP

Pakistan FM Qureshi Urges U.S. To 'Remain Engaged' In Rebuilding Afghanistan

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has urged Washington to help Afghanistan rebuild even if it eventually removes its troops.

Pakistan’s foreign minister said during his visit to Washington that the United States should remain engaged in Afghanistan even if it eventually pulls its troops out of the war-torn country.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on January 17, cautioned Washington not to return to a policy of neglect of Afghanistan in the manner seen after 1989, when Soviet troops pulled out under pressure from U.S.- and Pakistan-backed Islamic guerrillas.

"Do not repeat the '80s," Qureshi said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Even if there is a successful agreement, challenges will remain there, so the United States and its friends and coalition partners will have to have a more responsible withdrawal," he said.

"They should remain engaged -- not to fight, but to rebuild," he said.

U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since their 2001 invasion to drive out the Taliban following the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. The Taliban controlled Afghanistan at the time and harbored Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks.

U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed his desire to remove the estimated 13,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan in America’s longest war.

Over the past year, Islamabad has helped facilitate the talks between U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban in Qatar, where the militants have a political office.

But the talks have repeatedly stalled, with Washington calling on the group to reduce violence, among other things.

Earlier in the day, Qureshi said in a video message that the Taliban has shown "willingness" to reduce violence in Afghanistan, calling it a “step toward” a peace deal between the militant group and the United States.

Pakistan was the main backer of the former Taliban regime and maintains contacts with the extremists.

The Taliban militants have given Khalilzad an offer for a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan that would last between seven and 10 days, AP reported, citing Taliban negotiators.

"They are pragmatic and not foolish. They are also fatigued," Qureshi said of the Taliban.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, and AP

Two Children Killed By Bombs In Northern Afghanistan

Afghan schoolgirls walk along a street on the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif (file photo)

KABUL -- Two children have been killed and at least eight other people wounded after two bombs went off near-simultaneously in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, officials say.

Adil Shah Adil, the spokesman for Balkh Province's police chief, said the blasts took place on a road in the provincial capital on January 14.

Those killed in the explosions were aged 14 and 10, the spokesman said.

The wounded included civilians and a member of the Afghan security forces.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but the Taliban has stepped up attacks in Balkh Province and elsewhere in northern Afghanistan in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, an improvised explosive device attached to a vehicle exploded in Mazar-e Sharif, killing a local resident and wounding at least two others, according to police.

With reporting by AP and Tolo News

Severe Winter Weather Claims More Lives In Afghanistan

Heavy snowfall in Salang Pass north of the Afghan capital Kabul in early January.

Nineteen people have been reported killed as a result of extreme winter weather in parts of Afghanistan, officials said.

Officials told RFE/RL on January 12 that the victims were killed the previous day in Herat, Kandahar, and Helmand provinces amid heavy snowfall and low temperatures.

The overall death toll from this year's cold snap now stands at 24, and officials cautioned it could rise further.

Temperatures fell to minus 12 degrees Celsius in parts of the country on January 11.

"We are now expecting more cold waves in the coming weeks," Mohammad Nasim Muradi, head of the forecasting section of the government meteorological service, told Reuters.

Heavy snow has closed many major roads since the beginning of the year, including the Salang Tunnel and the Kabul-Kandahar Highway.

With reporting by Reuters

Two Afghan Pilots Killed In Military Helicopter Crash

FILE: An Afghan national army helicopter lands in a remote part of Afghanistan.

KABUL -- Two Afghan Air Force pilots have been killed after their helicopter crashed in the western province of Farah, the Defense Ministry says.

The helicopter and its crew were delivering supplies to Afghan security forces when it crashed early on January 8 due to a technical fault, the ministry said in a statement.

In a separate incident, the Defense Ministry said a helicopter made an emergency landing in the eastern province of Paktia, also as a result of a technical fault.

The ministry said nobody was hurt in the incident, but Reuters news agency quoted a local police spokesman as saying that 10 people, including himself, were injured.

With reporting by Reuters

Pompeo Defends Soleimani Killing, Accuses Iran Of Hurting Afghan Peace Effort

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has rejected suggestions that Iran's top military commander was on a "diplomatic" mission when he was killed by a U.S. air strike near Baghdad last week.

"Is there any history that would indicate that it was remotely possible that this kind gentleman, this diplomat of great order -- Qasem Soleimani -- had traveled to Baghdad for the idea of conducting a peace mission?" Pompeo told a press briefing on January 7.

"We know that wasn't true,” he added, responding to remarks by Iranian officials that the slain major general was attempting to conduct peace talks in Iraq.

Pompeo reiterated U.S. President Donald Trump's view that Soleimani, who headed Iran's elite Quds Force, was in the process of orchestrating attacks on Americans and others in the region.

The state secretary also said that Iran was "actively working" to undermine the peace process in Afghanistan and that Tehran had relationships with the Taliban and other militant groups there.

"Iran has refused to join the regional and international consensus for peace, and is, in fact, actively working to undermine the peace process by continuing its long global effort to support militant groups there," Pompeo said.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that he had discussed the "latest security developments in the region" with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

“We both agreed that it's time for urgent #de-escalation between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran," he wrote.

U.S. Ambassador Leaves Kabul After Two-Year Tenure Ends

FILE: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani conferred an Afghan medal on outgoing U.S. Ambassador John Bass (L) on December 31, 2019.

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, left Kabul on January 6 as his two-year tenure at the post ended.

The U.S. State Department says Washington is appointing a charge d’affaires to serve as a temporary replacement for Bass until a new ambassador is agreed upon.

In a statement, the State Department said Bass "skillfully advanced the Trump Administration’s goal of reaching a political settlement in Afghanistan that ensures terrorists can never again threaten the United States from Afghan soil while leading a large diplomatic mission in the face of numerous security threats.''

The on-again off-again talks between the United States and the Taliban currently appear to have stalled.

The latest problem in the talks appears to be the issue of what a cease-fire or reduction of violence might look like if Taliban fighters agree on a truce.

In a tweet bidding Afghanistan farewell, Bass said he hoped "leaders and citizens" across Afghanistan will "find strength in unity, put aside their differences, and work together to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban."

"Afghans and this beautiful country deserve nothing less," Bass said.

The departure of Bass from Afghanistan comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States since a U.S. air strike in Baghdad on January 3 killed Iran's top military general, Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

Bomb Blast In Northern Afghanistan Kills One Civilian, Wounds Two Others

FILE: The aftermath of a roadside bomb in Balkh Province.

An explosion during the morning rush hour in the northern Afghan province of Balkh has killed a local resident and wounded at least two others, police said, adding the victims were civilians.

The blast was caused by an improvised explosive device attached to a vehicle, Balkh police spokesman Adel Shah told RFE/RL on January 4. He said the bomb went off near a public bathhouse in the provincial capital, Mazar-i Sharif.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast.

The incident comes a day after the Interior Ministry reported that 2,219 civilians were killed and 5,172 were wounded by Taliban militants during 2019.

“Taliban fighters often carry out terrorist assaults on civilian populations,” Marwa Amini, a spokeswoman for the ministry said on January 4, adding that killing civilians is “tantamount to a war crime.”

The Taliban has in the past said that most civilian casualties in Afghanistan were caused by Afghan security forces and international troops.

Prominent Afghan Comedian Asif Jalali Dies Of Heart Attack

FILE: Afghan comedian and actor Asif Jalali

Asif Jalali, a well-known Afghan TV actor who gained renown for his political satire and stand-up comedy, has died in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Sabir Mohmand, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information and Culture, told RFE/RL that Jalali died on January 1 of a heart attack, but provided no further details.

Sayeed Rahmani, the head of the Afghan National Theater, said Jalali was born in 1957 in northeastern Afghanistan.

Jalali hosted several shows on local Afghan broadcasters, including the popular program Shabkhand (“Evening Laughter”).

His comedy blazed a trail in Afghanistan, where political satire was a new phenomenon after years of tightly constrained media programming, and long-standing fears of angering religious conservatives.

"The aim of my comedy is to challenge the wrongs in my society," he told the BBC in a profile that aired in 2011, "so that if they see a minister, they think he is rubbish. My other aim is to make people laugh."

Film director Latif Ahmadi told the dpa news agency that Jalali started his artistic career in commercials some 13 years ago. He also appeared in the famous Afghani drama Bulbul, in which he played the love interest of a female character.

His death surprised many across Afghanistan, and some of his fans took to social media to honor him.

"Jalali did God's work by making us laugh," Saad Mohseni, who heads the group that owns local broadcaster TOLO TV,said on Twitter.

There was no immediate word on survivors. Dpa reported that he had five children.

With reporting by dpa

Taliban Attacks On Afghan Security Forces Leave Dozens Dead

FILE: An Afghan National Army unit prepares an offensive in Kunduz Province.

At least 26 members of Afghanistan’s security forces were killed in a new wave of Taliban attacks in northern Afghanistan, local officials said on January 1.

The insurgents claimed responsibility for all the attacks.

In northern Kunduz Province, at least 10 Afghan officers were killed and four others wounded in an attack on a police checkpoint in the district of Dashti Archi late on December 31, the head of the provincial council Mohammad Yusouf Ayubi said.

In Balkh Province, the Taliban killed nine police officers in an attack on their checkpoint. The fate of four other policemen who were at the checkpoint was unknown, said Mohammad Afzel Hadid, head of the provincial council.

In another attack on December 31 seven members of the security forces were killed in a gun battle with the Taliban, according to Jawad Hajri, the provincial governor's spokesman. He said 10 Taliban fighters were also killed.

Earlier this week, the Taliban said it has no intention of declaring a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan.

"In the past few days, some media have been releasing untrue reports about a cease-fire... The fact is that, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has no cease-fire plans," the Taliban said in a December 30 statement.

Taliban militants continue to stage near-daily attacks targeting Afghan and U.S. forces, as well as government officials -- even as the group holds peace talks with a U.S. envoy tasked with negotiating an end to the military conflict in Afghanistan.

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and dpa

Pakistani Taliban Commander Reportedly Killed In Afghanistan

Afghan government officials met with refugees from Waziristan in the Gulan camp on December 4.

A key commander of the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has been shot dead at a refugee camp in southeastern Afghanistan, a Pakistani security source and a tribal elder have told RFE/RL.

A security official in the South Waziristan tribal district, in northwestern Pakistan, who requested anonymity said Qari Saifullah Mehsud was killed in his residence in the Gulan refugee camp overnight on December 28-29.

Daud Mehsud, a tribal elder at the camp, told RFE/RL on December 30 that the two gunmen had been "guests" at the TTP commander's home for several days before they killed him and fled.

A provincial police spokesman, Haider Adil, confirmed a killing but did not confirm the identity of the victim. He said a "criminal" case had been launched.

Mehsud was buried in the Gurbaz district of Khost Province at around 3 p.m. local time on December 29, the tribal elder added.

The TTP has not issued any statement.

Qari Saifullah Mehsud had fled the Pakistani military offensive in North Waziristan in 2014.

He had worked as a TTP spokesman in Kurram tribal district as well.

Taliban Attack Kills 17 Pro-Government Militia In Northern Afghanistan

A Taliban attack in Afghanistan’s northern Takhar Province has killed 17 local militiamen, local officials said on December 29.

The attack apparently targeted a local militia commander who escaped unharmed, a spokesman for the governor of Takhar Province said.

The area is currently under the control of government forces, the spokesman added.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack.

On December 28, 10 Afghan soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack on a military base in southern Helmand Province.

Taliban militants continue to stage near-daily attacks targeting Afghan and U.S. forces, as well as government officials -- even as the group holds peace talks with a U.S. envoy tasked with negotiating an end to the military conflict in Afghanistan.

Based on reporting by dpa and AP

Ten Afghan Soldiers Killed In Taliban Attack On Military Base In Helmand

FILE: An Afghan army convoy in Helmand.

Ten Afghan soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack on a military base in the southern province of Helmand, officials said on December 28.

A powerful explosion first hit an army checkpoint late on December 27, followed by an hours-long gunbattle, provincial spokesman Omar Zawak said.

The attack also wounded four soldiers, he said.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yusouf Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the group also seized weapons and ammunition.

The insurgents have a strong presence in Helmand Province.

The Taliban has increased its attacks in recent days against Afghan Army bases and checkpoints across different provinces.

Last week, six Afghan soldiers were killed when a suicide bomber detonated a car laden with explosives outside an army compound in northern Balkh Province. Militants then stormed the compound.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for that attack.

On December 23, an American soldier was killed in combat in northern Kunduz Province.

The Taliban claimed it was behind a fatal roadside bombing that targeted American and Afghan forces in Kunduz.

Taliban militants continue to stage near-daily attacks targeting Afghan and U.S. forces, as well as government officials -- even as the group holds peace talks with a U.S. envoy tasked with negotiating an end to the military conflict in Afghanistan.

Scores of Afghan civilians have also been killed in crossfire or by roadside bombs planted by militants.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Kidnapped Afghan Peace Marchers 'Released Without Harm'

This summer, more than two dozen activists of the People's Peace Movement marched more than 150 kilometers from Helmand's capital of Lashkar Gah to Musa Qala.

Twenty-seven Afghan peace activists who were kidnapped by the Taliban in the country's west have been freed "after being held by the militants for 45 hours," an official has said.

The activists from the People's Peace Movement (PPM) were released "without harm," PPM spokesman Bismillah Watan Dost said on December 26. He didn't provide further details.

There was no immediate comment from the Taliban.

The activists were kidnapped in the Bala Buluk district of Farah Province while traveling from the neighboring province of Herat, the PPM and Farah officials said.

Farah police had said efforts were under way to track the kidnappers. A PPM member also said tribal elders in Farah were to negotiate with the Taliban to release the abducted activists.

According to the PPM, the activists were in the middle of a fresh round of rallies, traveling around the country to spread a message of peace and urging all sides of the conflict in Afghanistan to agree upon a cease-fire.

The group said this was the fourth time the militant group had abducted PPM peace marchers.

The most recent incident was in June, when the Taliban detained 25 peace activists who traveled to the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala in Helmand Province in an attempt to meet with militants and plead with them to seek peace. They were released several days later.

The PPM attracted international attention last year with its peace marches across Afghanistan and in Kabul during which they warned about the record levels of violence across the country.

The movement has always claimed to be an impartial movement, only advocating for peace in the war-torn country.

Based on reporting by Tolo News and dpa

Suicide Car Bomb Hits Afghan Army Compound

FILE: Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers prepared for a military operation in Balkh Province in February.

At least six Afghan soldiers have been killed in a powerful suicide car bombing that targeted a military compound in the country’s northern Balkh Province in the early morning of December 26, officials say.

After the bomber detonated the explosives-packed car, a group of militants stormed the compound, the Defense Ministry said in a statement, calling the assault a "terrorist attack."

At least three soldiers were wounded in the explosion and the ensuing fighting between the militants and Afghan security forces.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but the ministry and local officials blamed it on the Taliban.

Munir Farhad, a spokesman for the Balkh provincial governor, said clashes inside the compound continued for several hours before the attackers were repelled.

It comes two days after the Taliban stormed a checkpoint in Balkh's Dawlat Abad district, killing seven Afghan soldiers.

Six other members of the security forces -- three soldiers and three intelligence agents -- were wounded in that attack on December 24.

Taliban militants continue to stage near-daily attacks targeting Afghan and U.S. forces, as well as government officials -- even as the group holds peace talks with a U.S. envoy tasked with negotiating an end to the military conflict in Afghanistan.

Based on reporting by AP and Tolo News

Officials: 27 Afghan Activists Abducted By Taliban During Peace March

FILE: A People's Peace Movement protest in the southern province of Helmand in July.

Twenty-seven Afghan activists from the People's Peace Movement (PPM) have been abducted by the Taliban during a peace march in the country’s west, the group’s leaders and local officials said on December 25.

Iqbal Khaibar, a PPM leader, said the activists were kidnapped in the Bala Buluk district of Farah Province while traveling from the neighboring province of Herat.

Dadullah Qani, a member of the Farah provincial council, confirmed the incident.

Farah police said efforts have begun to track the kidnappers.

There was no immediate comment from the Taliban.

The activists were in the middle of a fresh round of rallies, traveling around the country to spread a message of peace and urging all sides of the conflict in Afghanistan to agree upon a cease-fire, the PPM said in a statement.

The group said this is the fourth time the Taliban has abducted PPM peace marchers.

The most recent incident was in June, when the Taliban held 25 peace activists who traveled to the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala in Helmand Province in an attempt to meet with the militants and plead with them to seek peace. They were released several days later.

The PPM attracted international attention last year with its peace marches across Afghanistan and in Kabul during which they warned about the record levels of violence across the country.

The movement has always claimed to be an impartial movement, only advocating for peace in the war-torn country.

Based on reporting by dpa and Tolonews.com

Seven Afghan Soldiers Killed In Taliban Attack

FILE: Afghan National Army soldiers in the northren Balk province in April 2017.

At least seven Afghan soldiers have been killed in a militant attack on an army checkpoint in the northern province of Balkh, the country’s Defense Ministry said.

Six other members of the security forces -- three soldiers and three intelligence operatives -- were wounded in the “enemy” attack in Balkh’s Dawlat Abad district on December 24, the ministry said in a statement.

The statement said the checkpoint was manned by both the Afghan Army and the National Directorate of Security.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack that occurred around 4:30 a.m. local time.

Taliban militants continue to stage near-daily attacks targeting Afghan and U.S. forces, as well as government officials -- even as the group holds peace talks with a U.S. envoy tasked with negotiating an end to the military conflict in Afghanistan.

Based on reporting by AP, tolonews.com

Pentagon Identifies Soldier Killed By Roadside Bomb In Afghanistan

FILE: U.S. soldiers from the 1-108th Cavalry Regiment of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team scan key terrain and provide security during a key leader engagement in Kapisa Province in February.

The Pentagon has identified a 33-year-old soldier from New Jersey as the U.S. victim in a fatal roadside bombing in Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz Province.

The U.S. military on December 23 said Sergeant 1st Class Michael Goble of Washington Township died in the blast that has been claimed by the Taliban militant group.

Goble's unit was engaged in combat operations in Kunduz, when he suffered fatal injuries, the Pentagon said. No further details were provided.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said they killed “a U.S. force member and injured an Afghan commando” in Kunduz.

Goble's death was the 20th by a U.S. service member this year in Afghanistan. More than 2,400 Americans have died in the nearly 18-year conflict.

Taliban militants continue to carry out attacks targeting Afghan and U.S. troops even as they hold peace talks with a U.S. envoy attempting to end America's longest war.

Hundreds of Afghan civilians have also been killed in the crossfire or by militant bombs.

Some 20,000 foreign troops -- 12,000 to 14,000 from the United States -- are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist, and advise local troops.

U.S. President Donald Trump is seeking to end the conflict and pull U.S. troops out of the country to fulfill a campaign promise he made in 2016.

U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has met with Taliban leaders in Qatar and, at times, has appeared close to reaching a cease-fire deal with the extremist group.

However, Trump in September canceled a secret meeting in the United States that was to include Taliban leaders after the militant group carried out a car bombing in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a U.S. soldier.

Negotiators from both sides have since resumed talking, but no further progress has been reported.

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

U.S. Service Member Killed In Afghanistan, Pentagon Says

FILE: U.S. soldiers look out over hillsides during a visit of the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan General at the Afghan National Army (ANA) checkpoint in Nerkh district of Wardak Province in June.

A U.S. service member has been killed in action in Afghanistan, the U.S. military reports.

Officials gave no further details in the announcement on December 23, and the name of the service member was withheld pending notification of family members.

AFP reported that the Taliban militant group had claimed responsibility for the attack on the U.S. service member.

In a WhatsApp message to the news agency, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said insurgents "blew up an American vehicle in Char Dara district of Kunduz" late on December 22.

At least 20 foreign service members have been killed this year in Afghanistan, and more than 2,400 U.S. forces have died in the nearly 18-year conflict.

Some 20,000 foreign troops -- 12,000 to 14,000 from the United States -- are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist, and advise local troops.

U.S. forces also carry out counterterrorism operations against Islamist militant groups, including Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

U.S. President Donald Trump is seeking to end the conflict and pull U.S. troops out of the country to fulfill a campaign promise he made in 2016.

U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has met with Taliban leaders in Qatar and, at times, has appeared close to reaching a cease-fire deal with the extremist group.

However, Trump in September canceled a secret meeting in the United States that was to include Taliban leaders after the militant group carried out a car bombing in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a U.S. soldier.

Negotiators from both sides have since resumed talking, but the Taliban has to date rejected negotiations with the Afghan government, seeing it as a puppet of foreign powers.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

U.S. Defense Chief Says He's Fine With Afghan Troop Reduction 'With Or Without' Peace Deal

FILE: U.S. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper (Front Center) in Kabul in October.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on December 15 said he wants a drawdown of soldiers in Afghanistan “with or without” a peace deal, while voicing confidence that the head of the NATO mission in the country could carry out current tasks with fewer numbers.

The administration of President Donald Trump may announce a troop reduction of around 4,000 soldiers before the end of the year year, according to U.S. media.

There are an estimated 12,000 to 13,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan at any given time, depending on troop rotations.

Esper told reporters that Austin Miller, the commander of NATO's Resolute Support Mission and U.S. forces, “is confident that he can go down to a lower number” of soldiers, according to AFP.

Miller "believes he can conduct all the important counterterrorism missions and train, advise, and assist" the Afghan Army, Esper said.

The defense secretary added that he would like to see a political agreement sealed between the Afghan government and the Taliban to end the 18-year war.

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad last week resumed talks with Taliban negotiators in the Qatari capital, Doha, where the insurgents maintain a political office.

"But I think we can [reduce the number of troops] with or without that political agreement,” Esper said.

Meanwhile, on the same day, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) reiterated Trump’s wish to reduce the number of troops to 8,600 during a visit to Kabul.

‘"If President Trump decides in the next few weeks to reduce our forces below the 12,000 we have, I could support that," he said.

"The Afghan security forces are getting more capable," said Graham. “As they achieve capability, the number of U.S. forces necessary can go down.”

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Roadside Bomb Kills 10 From Same Afghan Family

FILE: The aftermath of a bomb blast in the Afghan province of Khost.

A roadside bomb exploded in the Afghan eastern province of Khost, killing at least 10 civilians traveling in a vehicle, officials say.

Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast occurred in the district of Ali Sher On the morning of December 17.

The casualties included three children, two women, and five men, Rahimi said.

Talib Mangal, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said they were all members of one family who were traveling to Logar Province to attend a funeral.

Rahimi blamed Taliban militants for the bombing.

The militant group did not immediately comment.

The United Nationals Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has said it is "gravely concerned about the unprecedented levels of violence” harming Afghan civilians.

UNAMA recorded 2,563 deaths and 5,676 injured in the first nine months of this year.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

At Least Three Afghan Police Officers Killed In Herat

Afghan police officers stop cars at a check point in Herat on September 27.

At least three Afghan police officers have been killed in an attack in the western city of Herat, officials say.

Provincial police chief General Aminullah Amarkhil said a group of gunmen launched the assault late on December 15.

Two attackers were killed in the ensuing battle and a number of others were wounded, according to Amarkhil.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

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