‘No military solution’ to Afghan conflict, says US defense chief

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks with US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Kabul on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Updated 13 March 2018
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‘No military solution’ to Afghan conflict, says US defense chief

KABUL: US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has ruled out a military solution to the US-led war in Afghanistan after arriving in Kabul on Tuesday for a surprise visit.
Mattis said that “elements within the Taliban guerrillas” might be open to talks with the Afghan government to end the 16-year US war in the country.
The defense chief’s visit follows an escalation of bloody attacks by the Taliban on Aghan security forces in recent months. US forces have launched weeks of intensive bombing of the militants as part of Washington’s strategy to end the stalemate in the war.
Mattis’ comments come two weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expressed a willingness to hold peace talks with the Taliban.
The insurgents spoke twice last month about the desire to hold talks with Washington, but so far have given no formal response to Kabul’s offer.
“It’s all working to achieve a political reconciliation, not a military victory,” Mattis told reporters before landing in Kabul. “The victory will be a political reconciliation.”
“It may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop — that would be a bridge too far — but there are elements of the Taliban that are clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government.”
He gave no further details and failed to specify who within the movement was eager to talk. “Right now we want the Afghans to lead and to provide the substance of the reconciliation effort,” he said.
At the same time, he acknowledged that efforts to reconcile with all of the Taliban had been difficult. The effort now is to reach “those who are tired of fighting” and build from there, he said.
President Donald Trump last year ordered increased bombing of Taliban targets, including drug-making labs and training camps. He also sent more than 3,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan to boost US training and advising of local forces.
Apart from other coalition forces, almost 14,000 US troops are now in Afghanistan, up from a low of about 8,500 when Obama left office.
Ghani’s offer of peace talks comes as his government faces unprecedented division. Civilian casualties have soared in recent months, with the Taliban increasingly conducting complex attacks, targeting towns and cities in response to Trump’s more aggressive military policy.
With the US taking more of an advisory role, Afghan security forces have been able to stop some attacks, Mattis said, though he wanted to see them shift to a more “offensive mindset” in the coming months.
His surprise visit — his third as Pentagon chief — was kept secret because of an incident during his last trip in September when insurgents shelled Kabul’s airport only hours after his arrival.
Mattis is also expected to hold talks with Ghani in addition to meetings with US commanders.
Waheed Mozhdah, an analyst who knows some of the Taliban’s past and current leaders, said the movement “has held indirect contacts with the US both before the announcement of Washington’s new war strategy and afterward.
“I know of contacts between the Taliban and the Americans. It seems that the Americans have reached the conclusion that the war has no military solution,” he told Arab News.
“I do not know which elements within the Taliban are prepared for talks with Kabul. If there are only isolated individuals coming over under the name of the Taliban, then we can not expect much.”
Mattis and Ghani will discuss peace with the Taliban, a comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan and the coming elections in Afghanistan among other issues, a spokesman for Ghani, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, said.


More than 1,000 rescues, evacuations as Tropical Storm Imelda soaks southern US

Updated 5 min 16 sec ago

More than 1,000 rescues, evacuations as Tropical Storm Imelda soaks southern US

  • Imelda is the first named storm to impact the Houston area since Harvey hovered for days and inundated the flood-prone Gulf Coast

CHINA, Texas: The slow-churning remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda dangerously flooded parts of Texas and Louisiana on Thursday, scrambling rescue crews and volunteers with boats to reach scores of stranded drivers and families trapped in their homes during a relentless downpour that drew comparisons to Hurricane Harvey two years ago.
Officials in Harris County, which includes Houston, said there had been a combination of at least 1,000 high-water rescues and evacuations to get people to shelter. More than 900 flights were canceled or delayed in Houston. Further along the Texas Gulf Coast, authorities at one point warned that a levee could break near Beaumont in Jefferson County, as the longevity and intensity of the rain quickly came to surprise even those who had been bracing for floods.
A 19-year-old man drowned and was electrocuted while trying to move his horse to safety, according to a message from his family shared by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. Crystal Holmes, a spokeswoman for the department, said the death occurred during a lightning storm.
A man in his 40s or 50s drowned when he tried to drive a van through 8-foot-deep floodwaters near Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston during the Thursday afternoon rush hour, Harris County Judge Ed Gonzalez said.
The National Weather Service said preliminary estimates suggested that Jefferson County was deluged with more than 40 inches of rain in a span of just 72 hours, which would make it the seventh wettest tropical cyclone in US history.
Even when Houston was finally rid of the worst, downtown highways remained littered with abandoned cars submerged in water. Thousands of other drivers were at a practical standstill on narrowed lanes near flooded banks.
“The water kept rising. It kept rising. I couldn’t believe it,” said Ruby Trahan Robinson, 63. She uses a wheelchair and had a portable oxygen tank while getting settled into a shelter at city hall in the small town of China, just outside Beaumont.
“It rolled in like a river,” she said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner evoked the memory of Harvey — which dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the nation’s fourth-largest city in 2017 — while pleading with residents to stay put. City officials said they had received more than 1,500 high-water rescue calls to 911, most from drivers stuck on flooded roads, but authorities described a number of them as people who were inconvenienced and not in immediate danger.
Ahead of the evening rush hour, Houston officials urged commuters to stay in their offices rather than embark on flooded and already jammed highways. Turner made a similar appeal to parents of schoolchildren as the Houston Independent School District — Texas’ largest with more than 200,000 students — did not cancel classes or shorten the day unlike neighboring districts in the path of the storm.
Imelda is the first named storm to impact the Houston area since Harvey hovered for days and inundated the flood-prone Gulf Coast. That storm dumped more than 5 feet (1.5 meters) of water near the Louisiana border, and two years later, it looked in some places like Harvey was playing out all over again.
A massive Houston furniture store became a shelter for evacuees. Live television footage showed firefighters rescuing stranded truckers on major highways. On social media, people posted that water was quickly seeping into their home and asked for help.
Even as the intensity of the storm weakened, Harris County officials warned that some of their 4.7 million residents might not see high waters recede in their neighborhoods until the weekend.
In Winnie, a town of about 3,200 people 60 miles (95 kilometers) east of Houston, a hospital was evacuated. Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said emergency workers completed more than 300 rescues overnight and some residents were up on their roofs because of rising floodwaters.
Albert Livings, 73, was rescued from his apartment and said at least half of the 116 units in his complex were flooded. Water started seeping into his place before sunrise.
“It came from the front door and it didn’t stop rolling until it hit the back wall,” Livings said.
During Harvey, Beaumont’s only pump station was swamped by floodwaters, leaving residents without water service for more than a week. The Jefferson County sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post that residents of an area where a levee was deteriorating should use their boats to pick up neighbors and carry them to safety.
Following Harvey, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered a report warning that punishing storms would become more frequent because of a changing climate. Scientists say climate change is responsible for more intense and more frequent extreme weather such as storms, droughts, floods and fires, but without extensive study they cannot directly link a single weather event to the changing climate.
Climate change skepticism runs deep among Republican leaders in Texas, and Abbott has said it’s “impossible” for him to say whether he believes manmade global warming is causing the kind of disasters the state is telling residents to get used to. Earlier this year, Abbott approved billions of new dollars to fortify the Texas coast and reduce catastrophic flooding.
The flooding from Imelda came as Hurricane Humberto blew off rooftops and toppled trees in the British Atlantic island of Bermuda, and Hurricane Jerry was expected to move to the northern Leeward Islands on Friday and north of Puerto Rico on Saturday.