U.S. gen­eral sees higher threat in Afghanista­n

Antelope Valley Press - - FRONT PAGE - By LOLITA C. BALDOR

KABUL, Afghanista­n — There has been an in­crease in Ira­nian ac­tiv­ity in Afghanista­n that poses a risk to Amer­i­can and coali­tion troops there, a se­nior U..S. com­man­der said, as the threat from Tehran con­tin­ues to churn across the Mid­dle East.

Marine Gen. Frank McKen­zie, the top U.S. com­man­der for the Mid­dle East made an unan­nounced visit to Afghanista­n this week. He told re­porters trav­el­ing with him that he is see­ing a “wor­ri­some trend,” of Ira­nian ma­lign in­ter­fer­ence.

“Iran has al­ways sort of dab­bled a lit­tle bit in Afghanista­n, but they see per­haps an op­por­tu­nity to get af­ter us and the coali­tion here through their prox­ies,” McKen­zie said. “So, we are very con­cerned about that here as we go for­ward.”

McKen­zie’s warn­ings come just weeks af­ter Iran launched as many as two dozen bal­lis­tic mis­siles at two bases in Iraq where Amer­i­can forces are sta­tioned. No one was killed, but sev­eral dozen U.S. troops re­ceived trau­matic brain in­juries. The at­tack was in ret­ri­bu­tion for a U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed Qassem Soleimani, a top Ira­nian Quds Force gen­eral.

Iran has long pro­vided money, sup­port and weapons to Shi­ite mili­tias in Afghanista­n. As the war in Syria heated up in re­cent years, Iran ran an ex­ten­sive drive to bring in Shi­ites from Afghanista­n and other parts of the re­gion to help sup­port Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad. And as that war has wound down, thou­sands have re­turned home. Afghan of­fi­cials have ex­pressed con­cerns that Iran is still back­ing and or­ga­niz­ing the mili­tia mem­bers and that they could pose a threat to troops, res­i­dents and the gov­ern­ment.

McKen­zie, who left Afghanista­n Fri­day af­ter a three-day visit, said the coali­tion is work­ing with the Afghan gov­ern­ment to mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion and pre­vent any prob­lems.

Mean­while, the coali­tion’s com­bat cam­paign against the Tal­iban also rages on, even as the U.S. works to ham­mer out a peace agree­ment with the in­sur­gent group. The U.S. and the Tal­iban are ne­go­ti­at­ing a re­duc­tion in hos­til­i­ties or a cease-fire to al­low the sign­ing of a peace agree­ment that would open the way to a broader post-war deal for Afghans and al­low for the with­drawal of most, if not all, U.S. and coali­tion forces.

But as Zal­may Khalilzad, Wash­ing­ton’s en­voy for talks with the in­sur­gents, works to bro­ker a deal in Qatar, the Tal­iban has con­tin­ued near daily at­tacks, and the coali­tion and its Afghan part­ners con­tinue to strike in­sur­gents. Last year the U.S. launched more mu­ni­tions in Afghanista­n than in pre­vi­ous years, as troops bat­tled the Tal­iban and a stub­born Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate. Both sides see the vi­o­lence as a way to push the other into a bet­ter deal.

“The coali­tion is go­ing to put pres­sure on the Tal­iban to come to the peace ta­ble. We’ve al­ways been very clear about that,” McKen­zie said in an in­ter­view at the new NATO Special Op­er­a­tions Com­mand Cen­ter. “If they don’t come they’re go­ing to con­tinue to be hit and hit hard.”

Still, he spoke more op­ti­misti­cally about the op­por­tu­nity for some type of set­tle­ment.

McKen­zie, who first served in Afghanista­n as a colonel in 2004 and re­turned as a one-star gen­eral in 2009, said there was no path to peace dur­ing those years.

Now, he said, a po­lit­i­cal agree­ment is pos­si­ble if the Tal­iban is will­ing to bring rea­son­able pro­pos­als to the ta­ble.

“I’m not go­ing to tell you that we’re turn­ing the cor­ner, but I’m not will­ing to say that it’s go­ing to be sta­tus quo for­ever ei­ther,” he said. “This is new, it’s dif­fer­ent and it of­fers a path if the par­ties would be re­spon­sive and wise enough to grasp it.”

Asked about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s stated de­sire to cut Amer­ica’s troop pres­ence in Afghanista­n to about 8,600, McKen­zie would only say that, so far, he hasn’t re­ceived an or­der to bring troops home.

He de­clined to say if with­drawal might be con­tin­gent on Tal­iban peace talk con­ces­sions.

He added, how­ever, that he be­lieves the Afghan se­cu­rity forces are im­prov­ing. A key U.S. goal is to in­crease the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the Afghan forces so that they are able to se­cure their own coun­try if coali­tion troops leave. But that ef­fort has stum­bled in fits and starts over the past decade, ham­pered by gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion, lack of proper sys­tems and re­sources and troop at­tri­tion fu­eled by the per­sis­tent vi­o­lence.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Marine Gen. Frank McKen­zie (cen­ter) top U.S. com­man­der for the Mid­dle East, makes an unan­nounced visit Fri­day in Kabul, Afghanista­n.

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