Ethiopia tells civilians to ‘save yourselves’ as troops advance toward Tigray capital Mekelle


Ethiopian civilians have been urged to “save themselves” as advancing federal troops plan to surround the capital of the restive Tigray region with tanks in a bid to force opposition forces to surrender.

But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is refusing to surrender its rule of the northern region, said its forces were digging trenches and standing firm.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal troops have taken a string of towns during aerial bombardments and ground fighting, and are now aiming for the capital Mekelle, a highland city of about 500,000 people where the rebels are based.

The war has killed hundreds, possibly thousands, sent more than 30,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan, and seen rockets fired by rebels into the neighbouring Amhara region and across the border into the nation of Eritrea.

Foreign nations have urged talks over what the United Nations has called a “full-scale humanitarian crisis”, but Mr Abiy has pressed on with the offensive since November 4.

Scores of civilians have fled the conflict for Sudan.(Reuters: El Tayeb Siddig)

Claims by all sides are hard to verify because the Ethiopian Government has shut off communications in Tigray.

Ethiopian military promises ‘no mercy’

You view a swarm of soldiers dancing with AK-47 machine guns pointed upward to a blue sky.
Due to a communications blackout, a complete picture of troop numbers or a death toll are hard to obtain.(AP via Ethiopian News Agency)

“The next phases are the decisive part of the operation, which is to encircle Mekelle using tanks,” military spokesperson Colonel Dejene Tsegaye told state-run Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation.

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters by text message that his forces were resisting a push from the south while also fighting near the northern town of Adigrat after it fell to federal troops.

A map of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia
The conflict in Tigray earlier this month.(AP: F Duckett)

“Encircling Mekelle is their plan but yet they couldn’t,” he said.

“On south front, they couldn’t move an inch for more than one week.

“They [are] sending waves after waves but to no avail.”

Mr Abiy has accused the Tigrayan leaders of revolting against the Federal Government and starting the conflict by attacking troops in the town of Dansha.

But the rebels have said his Government has marginalised Tigrayans since taking office two years ago, removing them from senior roles in government and the military and detaining many on rights abuse and corruption charges.

Shadow cast over past Nobel Peace Prize winner

A man in a suit smiling
The Ethiopian Prime Minister has refused international mediation on the conflict.(Reuters: Tiksa Negeri)

The Prime Minister drew plaudits for opening up Ethiopia’s closed economy and repressive political system after taking office, which included winning the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a two-decade standoff with neighbouring Eritrea.

However, rights groups have said his Government has carried out mass arrests after outbreaks of violence and detained journalists this year.

Redwan Hussein, a spokesperson for the Government’s taskforce on Tigray, contrasted with Colonel Tsegaye’s threats of “no mercy”, and said there was still time for TPLF leaders to surrender.

While many Tigrayan special forces and militiamen had surrendered or scattered around Adigrat, resistance was stronger on the southern front, Mr Redwan said, where rebels have dug up roads, destroyed bridges and booby-trapped roads.

The taskforce added that the army had also taken the small town of Idaga Hamus on the road from Adigrat to Mekelle.

Reuters



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Afghans see US troops ‘home by Christmas’ as a gift to the Taliban


When the United States and the Taliban signed a deal in February, Americans spoke of a conditions-based withdrawal and said the Taliban privately committed to a reduction in violence. Also in the agreement: participation in intra-Afghan talks.

While the U.S. stuck to its incremental pullout schedule, the Taliban has escalated violence across the country, in attacks that have left thousands more Afghans dead and tens of thousands displaced.

With the talks in Doha, Qatar, now stalled, Afghan government negotiators are concerned that President Donald Trump’s decision this week to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces could have potentially grave consequences.

“The Americans will not stay forever, but I know in the meantime [withdrawal] has to be done properly, it has to be in a way that will help reduce violence,” says Fawzia Koofi, a women’s rights activist and member of the negotiating team.

She says the U.S. has led to a “wrong perception” among the Taliban that they are in a win-win situation. “It will give the Taliban a position that, ‘No matter if we don’t win at the negotiating table, we will win on the battlefield,’” she says. “So they will try to even further delay achieving something concrete on the negotiation table.”

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An American gift to the Afghan Taliban that portends more war and less peace?

That is how President Donald Trump’s sudden decision this week to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is seen by Afghan government negotiators at stalled peace talks in Doha, Qatar – even as Taliban insurgents talk peace but continue the fight.

Prior to the presidential election Nov. 3, Mr. Trump tweeted that all American troops, including those in Afghanistan, who are serving as part of a NATO force, should be “home by Christmas!”

Then, a week after the president fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who opposed the drawdown, the Pentagon announced Nov. 17 that the remaining 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be cut to 2,500 by Jan. 15 – five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

For Afghans, it’s the latest example of how American political timelines can affect their own battlespace – sometimes with deleterious effects – as the war has ground on since the U.S. toppled the Taliban and its Al Qaeda “guests” in late 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks.

For some at the Doha talks, the decision is a rushed bid to conclude America’s longest-ever war, with potentially grave consequences for the future of Afghanistan.

“When you see in the middle of this that there is a hurry from the American side which will not help the process, it is worrisome,” says Fawzia Koofi, a member of the government negotiating team who was wounded in an assassination attempt in Kabul, four weeks before intra-Afghan talks began on Sept. 12.

“The Americans will not stay forever, but I know in the meantime [withdrawal] has to be done properly, it has to be in a way that will help reduce violence,” says Ms. Koofi, contacted in Doha.

A NATO warning

Deep concerns were voiced quickly by NATO, as well.

“We now face a difficult decision. We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement the day the withdrawal was announced. “But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”

“Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands,” he said.

Ms. Koofi, a former lawmaker and women’s rights activist who has participated in talks with the Taliban since last year, says the new U.S. emphasis on pulling out speedily has led to a “wrong perception” among the Taliban that they are in a win-win situation.

“It will give the Taliban a position that, ‘No matter if we don’t win at the negotiating table, we will win on the battlefield,’” she says. “So they will try to even further delay achieving something concrete on the negotiation table.”

The U.S.-Taliban deal

Last February, after a year of negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban insurgents – who today control or have influence in more than half of the country – the U.S. and Taliban signed a deal.

The text of the agreement trades a complete U.S. and NATO pullout by the end of next April – plus 5,000 Taliban political prisoners released up front – for Taliban promises to prevent Afghan soil from being used for militant attacks abroad, as well as participation in intra-Afghan talks, where a cease-fire is only “an item on the agenda.”

Americans have spoken of a conditions-based withdrawal, and say the Taliban privately committed to an 80% reduction of violence. While the U.S. stuck to its incremental pullout schedule – which has now been sped up – the Taliban has escalated violence across the country, in attacks that have left thousands more Afghans dead and tens of thousands displaced.

U.S. officials have chastised the Taliban for “car bombs, IEDs and targeted killings” against civilians, but not slowed the withdrawal. And, after an especially heavy Taliban offensive last month to seize Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province – which required U.S. airstrikes to push insurgents back – they claimed to have worked out a “re-set” and “strict adherence” of terms with the jihadists.

Members of the Taliban delegation head to attend the opening session of the talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020.

Nevertheless, another offensive aimed at Kandahar earlier this month involved 3,500 Taliban attackers and required U.S. airpower to defeat, the Washington Post reported. It quoted an Afghan national police commander as saying the Taliban would not have been stopped were it not for U.S. airstrikes.

Taliban “all like Trump”

“The Taliban were very worried when Trump lost [the election], because they knew Trump just wanted to get out and didn’t care,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be identified further.

“They all like Trump [because] they also felt like they had Trump in their pocket, because he’s so desperate to get out. He didn’t understand the conflict and didn’t bother understanding it,” says the official.

The feeling in Kabul is that 2,500 U.S. troops is “really bare bones.”

“The bottom line is: The more you drill down the numbers, the more you get to people who are not just logistics support, but people who actually have a day job,” says the official. “It will be very difficult for somebody to be a full-time mentor to the [Afghan] Special Forces, at the same time in the evening packing up his equipment.”

Indeed, the sense that the White House drafted a lopsided deal with the Taliban and is speeding the U.S. withdrawal at the expense of the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani – which has little leverage at the negotiating table without U.S. military force backing him up – is causing pushback in Washington.

One reason former Secretary Esper was fired by Mr. Trump was reportedly a classified memo he wrote arguing against a further pullout, given stepped-up Taliban attacks.

“I believe it was political. There was no tactical, operational or strategic merit to doing this,” retired Gen. John Allen, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan until 2013, said at an online security event this week run by the Soufan Center.

Debate inside the Taliban

In Doha, Taliban leaders have routinely expressed their desire for an inclusive, negotiated solution to end the war. They have also publicly claimed that their views have evolved since the late 1990s, when they ruled Afghanistan with an uncompromising, hardline fervor, which forced women indoors and banned girls’ education.

And yet, along the front lines and among insurgent commanders and fighters, the Taliban message has been consistent: that the Doha deal means they achieved “victory” in war.

“The jury is still out,” says Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert at Queen’s University Belfast who lived and worked for years in the country.

“But as far as the evidence that is readily available – like what’s happening on the battlefield – the Taliban seem prepared to have a go at grabbing [military victory]. They certainly haven’t done anything to prepare their base for political compromise inherent in a deal,” says Mr. Semple.

News of an accelerated U.S. drawdown to 2,500 – and fewer American military capabilities when the next fighting season rolls around – “strengthens the hand and the resolution of those inside the [Taliban] movement who would like to pursue military victory rather than a negotiated settlement,” he says.

One benefit of doing a peace deal is that any interim and new government will include the Taliban, and crucially have support – and sizable funding – from the U.S. and key donors. By contrast, “winning” on the battlefield means the Taliban standing alone, ruling over a population that widely rejects them, and almost certainly sparking another civil war.

“We shouldn’t dismiss this point that there will be counsel within the Taliban saying, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’” says Mr. Semple. “But those who say, ‘Look, we can wind this up now, we can sweep the board,’ they are going to be louder and more confident.”

So far, he adds, the Taliban have tried to “calibrate their violence, rather than reduce it,” to score gains while avoiding being declared in breach of the deal.

“If the U.S. accelerates its withdrawal, goes beyond that which it is committed to with the Taliban – it is essentially rewarding a breach of conditions, rather than punishing,” says Mr. Semple. “Back in the real world of hardball war and peace diplomacy, if you reward bad behavior, you are encouraging more of it. And hence, it is less likely that you can marshal the Taliban towards a negotiated agreement.”

That result adds to the exasperation in Doha, where peace negotiators like Ms. Koofi watch every day as the death toll climbs and the fighting continues. She recalls the maxim, often repeated in Afghanistan, that the Americans may have the watch, but the Taliban have the time.

“It is frustrating…. People from both sides are being killed for something that we could actually prevent,” says Ms. Koofi. “It’s just the people of Afghanistan who do not have enough time to be a continuous victim, and it’s the Americans who should have time enough to avoid a complete collapse, once again.”  



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Australian Troops Unlawfully Killed 39 Afghans, Report Finds


This is a breaking news story. Check back for updates.

MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 civilians and prisoners in Afghanistan over an 11-year period, the country’s military said on Thursday, releasing the findings of a long-awaited inquiry that painted a damning portrait of a cavalier and deceitful culture in the Australian special forces.

The report, issued by the inspector general of the Australian Defense Force, recommended that 19 soldiers be referred to the police for criminal investigation and that the Australian government pay compensation to the families of the Afghan victims.

The military said that all 39 killings had taken place in circumstances that were clearly outside the “heat of battle,” including cases in which commanders had ordered junior soldiers to shoot prisoners so that they could record their first “kill.”

The Australian defense chief, Angus Campbell, called the episodes detailed in the report “deeply disturbing” and said the military “unreservedly” apologized to the Afghan people.

“Today, the Australian Defense Force is rightly held to account for allegations of grave misconduct,” he said as he announced the findings.



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Trump administration cuts troops in Afghanistan, Iraq


“If the forces of terror, instability, division and hate begin a deliberate campaign to disrupt our efforts, we stand ready to apply the capabilities required to thwart them,” he said.

There are currently around 5000 US troops in Afghanistan and 3000 in Iraq.

Robert O’Brien, national security adviser, makes a statement on troop levels to members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington.Credit:Bloomberg

Earlier in the day the head of NATO warned that pulling troops out of Afghanistan too quickly risked sparking a resurgence of terrorist activity in the country.

“We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

“But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”

Exiting: A military vehicle damaged by a blast is transported in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Exiting: A military vehicle damaged by a blast is transported in Kabul, Afghanistan.Credit:AP

He said: “Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on our homelands.

“And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”

Trump has long campaigned on the need to end America’s involvement in “endless wars” overseas and to bring troops home as quickly as possible.

Trump said in a Twitter post last month that he wanted all US troops to be home from Afghanistan by Christmas, but was talked out of a full withdrawal by top military and national security staffers.

Trump last week fired defence secretary Mark Esper, in part because Esper and other top officials at the Pentagon had opposed Trump’s plans to quickly scale back the number of troops in Afghanistan.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has warned Trump about premature troop withdrawal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has warned Trump about premature troop withdrawal. Credit:Bloomberg

Esper had reportedly warned that a rapid withdrawal could endanger remaining troops, harm America’s alliances and undermine peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

In a rare break with Trump, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell warned on Tuesday: “A rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm.

“The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011, which fuelled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism.

“It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”

The announcement came on the same day that officials in Iraq revealed at least two rockets had exploded inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, wounding several people.

The Green Zone contains the Iraqi parliament and foreign embassies, including the American embassy.

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Trump administration cuts troops in Afghanistan, Iraq


“If the forces of terror, instability, division and hate begin a deliberate campaign to disrupt our efforts, we stand ready to apply the capabilities required to thwart them,” he said.

There are currently around 5000 US troops in Afghanistan and 3000 in Iraq.

Robert O’Brien, national security adviser, makes a statement on troop levels to members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington.Credit:Bloomberg

Earlier in the day the head of NATO warned that pulling troops out of Afghanistan too quickly risked sparking a resurgence of terrorist activity in the country.

“We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

“But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”

Exiting: A military vehicle damaged by a blast is transported in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Exiting: A military vehicle damaged by a blast is transported in Kabul, Afghanistan.Credit:AP

He said: “Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on our homelands.

“And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”

Trump has long campaigned on the need to end America’s involvement in “endless wars” overseas and to bring troops home as quickly as possible.

Trump said in a Twitter post last month that he wanted all US troops to be home from Afghanistan by Christmas, but was talked out of a full withdrawal by top military and national security staffers.

Trump last week fired defence secretary Mark Esper, in part because Esper and other top officials at the Pentagon had opposed Trump’s plans to quickly scale back the number of troops in Afghanistan.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has warned Trump about premature troop withdrawal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has warned Trump about premature troop withdrawal. Credit:Bloomberg

Esper had reportedly warned that a rapid withdrawal could endanger remaining troops, harm America’s alliances and undermine peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

In a rare break with Trump, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell warned on Tuesday: “A rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm.

“The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011, which fuelled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism.

“It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”

The announcement came on the same day that officials in Iraq revealed at least two rockets had exploded inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, wounding several people.

The Green Zone contains the Iraqi parliament and foreign embassies, including the American embassy.

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Donald Trump to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq before Biden takes over


President Donald Trump has decided to withdraw thousands of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan by January 15 next year – just five days before Joe Biden replaces him.

The move was announced by Acting Secretary of Defence Christopher Miller today, describing it as “the next phase” in America’s fight against terrorism.

“We owe this moment to the many patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Mr Miller said.

“Together, we have mourned the loss of more than 6900 American troops who gave their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we will never forget the more than 52,000 who bear the wounds of war, and all those who still carry the scars, visible and invisible.

“In light of these tremendous sacrifices, and with great humility and gratitude to those who came before us, I am formally announcing that we will implement President Trump’s orders to continue our repositioning of forces from those two countries.

“By January 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan will be 2500 troops. Our force size in Iraq will also be 2500 by that same date.

“This is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives, supported by the American people, and does not equate to a change in US policy or objectives.”

The US currently has about 4500 troops deployed in Afghanistan and 3000 in Iraq.

RELATED: Trump suddenly fires defence secretary after election

The drawdown comes a week after Mr Trump fired his defence secretary, Mark Esper, who was reportedly pushing back on plans to scale back America’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr Esper had sent a memo to the President conveying a unanimous recommendation from the US chain of command, which was opposed to the move.

More to come.

Originally published as Trump reveals sudden troop withdrawal





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Trump administration to cut troops in Afghanistan despite warnings


The discussions come as violence surges in Afghanistan and the president continues to falsely assert victory in the November 3 election. Trump, who fired his defence secretary and elevated loyalists at the Pentagon last week, has also blocked agencies from working with Biden’s transition team.

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Days before being dismissed, former Pentagon chief Mark Esper sent Trump a classified memo that cautioned that conditions were not adequate to make additional troop cuts in Afghanistan, citing the possibility of undermining peace talks and a variety of other factors. His assessment was based on input from senior military leaders.

A deal struck between US and Taliban negotiators in February calls for the United States to withdraw all troops by May 2021 if the Taliban meets certain conditions, including making a break with al-Qaeda.

In practice, military officials have hoped they could. But each side has accused the other of violations, and military leaders have said for months that decisions about steps to meet that withdrawal objective would be based on the situation on the ground.



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Trump administration to cut troops in Afghanistan despite warnings


The discussions come as violence surges in Afghanistan and the president continues to falsely assert victory in the November 3 election. Trump, who fired his defence secretary and elevated loyalists at the Pentagon last week, has also blocked agencies from working with Biden’s transition team.

Loading

Days before being dismissed, former Pentagon chief Mark Esper sent Trump a classified memo that cautioned that conditions were not adequate to make additional troop cuts in Afghanistan, citing the possibility of undermining peace talks and a variety of other factors. His assessment was based on input from senior military leaders.

A deal struck between US and Taliban negotiators in February calls for the United States to withdraw all troops by May 2021 if the Taliban meets certain conditions, including making a break with al-Qaeda.

In practice, military officials have hoped they could. But each side has accused the other of violations, and military leaders have said for months that decisions about steps to meet that withdrawal objective would be based on the situation on the ground.



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Ethiopia on brink of civil war as Abiy Ahmed sends troops into Tigray


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Tensions with Tigray escalated in recent months after the region went ahead with its own local elections despite all polls being suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

On October 7, Ethiopian lawmakers voted to withhold budget support from Tigray, a move one Tigrayan official said was “tantamount to a declaration of war.”

Most of Ethiopia’s military equipment is in Tigray because of a long-running war against neighbouring Eritrea that ended in 2018 when the countries signed a peace deal. Now, Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his reform efforts in Ethiopia and peace overtures to Eritrea, is trying to dislodge the Tigrayan-linked old guard elements from the military.

“The last red line has been crossed with [the] attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation,” Abiy’s office said in the statement, citing what it called months of provocation and incitement. It said the mission was to “save the country and the region from spiralling instability.”

There was no official response from the TPLF, although Tigray TV reported that air space had been shut over the region. Internet and phone lines in Tigray were also down.

Both sides should immediately agree to a cease-fire, said William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, warning: “This war is the worst possible outcome of tensions that have been brewing.”

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (centre) arrives at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in February.Credit:AP

“Given Tigray’s relatively strong security position, the conflict may well be protracted and disastrous,” he said, adding that a war could “seriously strain an Ethiopian state already buffeted by multiple grave political challenges and could send shock waves into the Horn of Africa region and beyond.”

Conflict in Tigray would further increase instability in Ethiopia and add to a host of recent crises Abiy’s government has had to deal with, including tensions with Egypt over an Ethiopian dam project on the Blue Nile River and locust outbreak across East Africa.

As the country has opened and political reforms have taken hold, ethnic and other political violence have flared up as well. At least 54 people from the ethnic Amhara group were killed in a schoolyard by rebels on Sunday, according to Amnesty International. The government blamed the Oromo Liberation Army for the attack in the far western part of Oromia near the border with South Sudan.

The Washington Post

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