Esper: US-Taliban deal seeing 'mixed' results

Esper: US-Taliban deal seeing 'mixed' results
© Greg Nash

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperJan. 6 panel subpoenas four ex-Trump aides Bannon, Meadows Milley and China — what the Senate really needs to know Biden, Trump battle over who's to blame for Afghanistan MORE said Wednesday the United States has seen “mixed” results in the first days of a peace deal with the Taliban.

Esper’s comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee come after the U.S. military conducted its first airstrike since the Trump administration signed the deal, which U.S. Forces Afghanistan said was a response to a Taliban attack on an Afghan military checkpoint.

“The results so far have been mixed,” Esper said. “The Taliban are honoring their piece in terms of not attacking U.S. and coalition forces but not in terms of sustaining the reduction in violence.”

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The deal does not commit the Taliban to continue a reduction in violence, which it adhered to as a confidence-building measure in the week leading up to signing the agreement.

The insurgents said Monday they were no longer bound by the reduction in violence and would resume their offensive operations against the Afghan government.

Earlier Wednesday morning, U.S. Forces Afghanistan announced it conducted an airstrike on Taliban fighters “who were actively attacking” Afghan forces in Helmand province.

Esper, who was in Kabul the day the agreement was signed in Qatar, stressed Wednesday that the deal with the Taliban allows U.S. forces to defend their Afghan partners and that “it's the commitment I made to the Afghans when I was there.”

The airstrike came hours after President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE spoke by phone with the Taliban’s lead negotiator — the first known conversation between a U.S. president and the Taliban since the start of the war — a call that Trump described as the two agreeing on the need for “no violence.”

The agreement requires the U.S. military to draw down to 8,600 troops in 135 days and lays out a path for a full U.S. withdrawal in 14 months.

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It is meant to precede talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to secure peace. But those intra-Afghan talks have hit a snag before they even begin over a provision in the U.S.-Taliban deal for a prisoner swap, a plan the Afghan government quickly rejected.

Esper said Wednesday that U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is “over there now” trying to “pull the parties back together” to set the conditions for the intra-Afghan talks.

Testifying alongside Esper, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley stressed that Taliban attacks this week have been “low level.”

“Of significance, there’s no attacks in 34 provincial capitals. There’s no attacks in Kabul. There’s no high-profile attacks. There’s no suicide bombers. There’s no vehicle-borne suicide, no attack against U.S. forces, no attack against coalition. There’s a whole laundry list of these things that aren’t happening,” Milley said. “Yes, there were significant numbers of attacks, small attacks. They were all beaten back.”

While Milley said the Taliban was able to control fighters during the seven-day reduction in violence to cut attacks from about 125 per day to about 15, Esper said said the Taliban is having trouble keeping all of its factions “on board.”

“They’ve got their range of hard-liners and soft-liners, and so they’re wrestling with that too, I think,” he said.