Top US Security Official in Afghanistan for Crucial Talks

U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster arrived in Kabul Sunday for talks with Afghan leaders on security matters and to assess the situation for American troops on the ground.

McMaster’s visit follows calls by U.S. military commanders for adding “a few thousand” more troops to the existing strength of around 8,400 American troops in Afghanistan.

President Afghan Ashraf Ghani’s office welcomed McMaster’s visit to Kabul and thanked him for continuous U.S. support to Afghanistan.

Ghani and McMaster discussed “bilateral ties, security, counterterrorism, reforms  and development,” said a brief presidential palace statement issued after the two met.

The Afghan deputy chief of army staff, General Murad Ali Murad, confirmed to reporters that McMaster met with his counterpart, Hafnee Atmar, soon after landing in Kabul. Murad said the visit by the top American security official demonstrated the strong support of Afghanistan’s allies in defeating the “common enemy” of terrorism.

Murad added that McMaster’s talks with Afghan Defense Ministry officials are also planned, and he asserted the United States will increase the number of troops to help Afghan security operations.

Bombing defended

McMaster arrived in the country just days after the U.S. military struck the stronghold of Islamic State in eastern Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan, with what American officials said was the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat.

Murad again defended the massive strike saying it killed more than 95 IS militants and destroyed the “strategic hideout of Daesh” in Afghanistan. He used the Arabic acronym for IS.

Afghan and American forces have been conducting an assessment operation in the area since Thursday’s attack.

“Casualties inflicted on Daesh will be more than 95 after the current assessment is over,” he anticipated and reiterated there were no reports of civilian casualties.

Separately, Afghan Public Health Ministry officials told reporters they have deployed mobile medical teams but they have received no evidence of any civilian casualties or of post-attack health problems caused to area residents.

While President Ashraf Ghani has stated his support for the U.S. bombing, his predecessor has strongly denounced the strike and the United States.

Bomb a turning point for Karzai

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday he is unleashing a campaign to push U.S. forces out of his country for dropping the so-called “mother of all bombs” on Afghan soil, calling it a “barbaric” act that was more aimed at testing “a new weapon of mass destruction” than targeting Islamic State fighters.

Karzai’s criticism was echoed by Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, who tweeted, “I find the use of the largest non-nuclear bomb, the so-called ‘mother of all bombs,’ on our soil reprehensible & counterproductive. If big bombs were the solution we would be the most secure place on earth today.”

Thursday’s bombing is believed to have eliminated a complex of tunnels and caves in the mountainous Afghan district.

A large number of journalists have also arrived in the area, but authorities have not yet allowed them to enter.

Meanwhile, residents in the Kurram tribal district in neighboring Pakistan reported Sunday that the massive blast caused by the U.S. bomb damaged and shook buildings on their side of the border.

Local officials confirmed wide cracks appeared in several houses and two places of worship in the Malana border village. Residents told local media they felt a tremor and thought it was an earthquake. But there were no reports of civilian casualties on the Pakistani side.

Islamic State is running its terrorist operations in Afghanistan under the local name of Khorsan Province, or ISKP, but U.S. military officials say the terrorist group has not been able to expand its presence beyond Nangarhar.

Given ISKP’s limited role in Afghanistan, there are questions as to whether the size and the threat the group posed warranted such a dramatic strike, observed Kabul-based non-governmental Afghanistan Analysts Network, AAN, in its initial assessment.

“When the U.S. decided to drop the MOAB (mother of all bombs), ISKP was under pressure. Its territory was shrinking and although they still had a well-entrenched stronghold in the Mamand Valley (the site of Thursday’s strike) there was no great threat of expansion or momentum,” it said.

The U.S. military in its assessment before Thursday’s bombing acknowledged that sustained anti-IS operations have confined the group to about three districts in Nangarhar while the number of its militants in Afghanistan has been reduced to fewer than 800.

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