The top U.S. general overseeing the Middle East said Tuesday that Taliban attacks against Afghan forces are “not consistent” with the deal the insurgents signed with the United States just over a week ago.
“The Taliban need to keep their part of the bargain,” U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie said Tuesday.
“They are continuing attacks. Those attacks are relatively low in scale. They are not directed against coalition forces. They are not occurring in city centers. They are occurring at isolated checkpoints. But those attacks are occurring, and they are not consistent with a movement toward a negotiated settlement, and they are not consistent with the undertaking they made.”
McKenzie was testifying before the House Armed Services Committee as lawmakers continue to express concern with the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban that lays out a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Under the deal, the U.S. military is drawing down to 8,600 troops over 135 days. U.S. Forces in Afghanistan announced Monday the drawdown has begun.
The deal also calls for a full U.S. withdrawal in 14 months if the Taliban lives up to its commitment to prevent Afghanistan from being used by al Qaeda and other terrorists to attack the West.
Despite the terms of the agreement, McKenzie said Tuesday “we have not developed military plans to that end yet.”
The deal ties the withdrawal to the Taliban’s counterterrorism pledges, not a political settlement between the insurgents and the Afghan government or the capabilities of Afghan security forces.
But if the U.S. military sees Afghan forces are incapable of standing on their own, McKenzie said it would “absolutely” be his advice not to withdraw.
Neither McKenzie nor Kathryn Wheelbarger, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs, who was also testifying, said they knew why 14 months was chosen for a full withdrawal. Both referred the question to the State Department.
Days after the deal was signed, the Taliban announced it would no longer abide by a reduction in violence that it followed in the week leading up to the signing. The Taliban’s attacks on Afghan military checkpoints led to the U.S. military to conduct an airstrike against the insurgents Wednesday.
On Tuesday, McKenzie said he has "no confidence" in the Taliban but argued that didn't matter because he is “going to be driven by the observed facts.”
“Either they will draw down the current level of attacks or they won’t,” McKenzie said. “And if they’re unable to draw down the current levels of attacks, then political leadership will be able to make decisions based on that.”
“But it doesn’t matter whether I’m optimistic or I’m pessimistic. We’ll see what happens on the ground,” he added. “To date, Taliban attacks are higher than we believe is consistent with an idea to actually carry out this plan.”
McKenzie also said it’s unclear whether Taliban attacks are continuing because leaders have decided to continue or because leaders do not have full control of all the Taliban’s factions.
Should the Taliban have the will to live up to its counterterrorism commitments, McKenzie said he believes they have the military capability to do so.
McKenzie pointed to the Taliban's anti-ISIS operations, which he said were done with "very limited" support from the United States.
“Over the last several months in eastern Afghanistan, we’ve watched the Taliban compress and crush ISIS presence on the ground in southern Nangarhar province, and they’ve been very effective doing that,” McKenzie said. “It was a bloody mess, but they did it. In fact, ISIS really no longer holds ground in Nangarhar province.”
The U.S.-Taliban deal was meant to precede talks between the Taliban and Afghan government to secure peace. Those talks were supposed to begin Tuesday, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has resisted a precondition to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
But Wheelbarger said there are indications of forward movement on the intra-Afghan talks as soon as Tuesday.
“We do have suggestions this morning before I left that there might be somewhat of an offer from President Ghani to provide some prisoner releases,” Wheelberger told the House Armed Services Committee. “I do think we may have actual, successful, good-faith efforts maybe even today that will get the intra-Afghan conversation started.”
Ghani is in the midst of a political crisis as his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, continues to dispute the results of Afghanistan’s September elections. Ghani was declared the winner last month and held his inauguration ceremony Monday.
But Abdullah held his own parallel inauguration Monday, as well.
In a statement Monday about the inaugurations, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoWhy is Trump undermining his administration's historic China policies? Keeping the world's focus on cyber State Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials MORE said U.S. officials “welcome President Ghani’s announcement that he will issue a decree March 10 on Taliban prisoner release and the formation of a national team for intra-Afghan negotiations.”