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Civilian deaths, Taliban attacks rising as full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan looms, report says

WASHINGTON — Civilian casualties and Taliban attacks in Afghanistan are mounting as the U.S. withdrawal nears completion and the Afghan military continues its collapse, according to a new quarterly report from a U.S. government watchdog that describes a country ravaged by Covid-19 and violence.

The report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, found a “dramatic increase in enemy-initiated attacks” from January through March of this year compared to the same time in previous years. There were 10,431 attacks this year, up from 7,620 last year and 6,358 in 2019.

Attacks have been increasing since the U.S.-Taliban agreement on Feb. 29, 2020, with more attacks in each three-month period since the agreement than in the same quarters in the previous year.

The number of attacks against the Afghan military and civilians has increased significantly this year, the report says, with many attacks coming during the Taliban offensive now sweeping across the country.

The Taliban launched an offensive in May after U.S. and coalition military forces began withdrawing. The offensive accelerated in June and July.

However, the report notes that Afghan forces have stopped reporting attacks as their situation deteriorates, and it says the U.S. stopped collecting attack data effective May 31 with the end of the U.S. training and advisory mission.

Civilian deaths were rising until the end of that reporting period. Resolute Support, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, reported 2,035 civilian casualties in April and May — 705 deaths and 1,330 injuries. That is nearly as many civilian casualties as in the first three months of this year combined, 2,149, and higher than in April and May of last year. According to Resolute Support, the top two causes of civilian casualties were improvised explosive devices and direct fire, and 93 percent of civilian casualties in April and May were from insurgents, largely the Taliban.

The Taliban have overrun Afghan military checkpoints and bases, district centers and a series of key border crossings, according to the SIGAR report. In some cases, the Afghan military forces, known as ANDSF, have fled.

“In some districts ANDSF forces put up some level of resistance and conducted a tactical (fighting) retreat, while in others they surrendered or fled in disorder,” the report says, citing news reports that 1,600 ANDSF fled into Tajikistan this month to avoid Taliban advances in Badakhshan province.

At a briefing last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, said the Taliban control about half of the 419 district centers in Afghanistan and are pressuring 17 of the country’s 34 provincial capitals.

“Particularly concerning was the speed and ease with which the Taliban seemingly wrested control of districts in Afghanistan’s northern provinces, once a bastion of anti-Taliban sentiment,” the SIGAR report says. At a news conference June 29, the former commander of the NATO Resolute Support Mission, Army Gen. Scott Miller, told reporters: “We should be concerned. The loss of terrain and the rapidity of that loss of terrain has to be concerning.”

The SIGAR also found that most Afghan military forces “refuse to execute missions.” Instead, the more highly trained and proficient Afghan special operators are used for basic tasks like route clearance, checkpoint security and quick reaction forces.

The Afghan air force is overtaxed now that U.S. air support has largely ended, according to the report. All Afghan air force aircraft are flying at least 25 percent over their recommended scheduled maintenance, the report found, and the readiness of most of the aircraft has plummeted since most U.S. support has withdrawn. The UH-60 Blackhawk fleet was at 77 percent readiness in May and dropped to 39 percent in June.

The U.S. military has carried out a handful of airstrikes against the Taliban this month, according to defense officials, but the aircraft fly in from neighboring countries now that nearly all U.S. military forces and equipment have left Afghanistan. Once the U.S. military mission officially ends on Aug. 31, the U.S. will still carry out strikes against Al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists, but it will no longer carry out strikes against the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the report says, the Afghan public is coping with a 2,400 percent increase in Covid cases, the majority from the delta variant. According to the U.N., half of the population requires humanitarian assistance.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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