Afghan president orders resumption of offensive operations against Taliban

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday ordered his country’s security forces into an “offensive” mode against the Taliban and other enemies in another blow to the U.S. peace deal with the Taliban.

“In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks and threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, I am ordering Afghan security forces to switch from an active defense mode to an offensive one and to start their operations against the enemies,” Ghani said in a televised speech, according to Reuters.

In response to Ghani’s comments, the Pentagon said it will defend the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) against the Taliban if necessary.

“Consistent with the agreement, the U.S. military will continue to conduct defensive strikes against the Taliban when they attack our ANDSF partners,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell said in a statement. “As the secretary of Defense stated recently, this is going to be a windy, bumpy road, but a political agreement is the best way to end the war.”

Ghani’s order came on a particularly bloody day for Afghanistan.

In west Kabul, militants stormed a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders. At least 14 people, including two newborn babies, were killed.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the Taliban denied involvement. The neighborhood where the hospital is located, Dasht-e-Barchi, has seen several ISIS attacks in the past.

Meanwhile, a suicide bomber killed at least 24 people and injured at least 68 at a funeral in the eastern Nangarhar province. The Taliban also denied responsibility for the attack in Nangarhar, which is a known hotbed of ISIS activity. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Nangarhar attack, according to the SITE Intel Group

In his speech, Ghani blamed the Taliban and ISIS for the attacks.

“Today we witnessed terrorist attacks by the Taliban and Daesh groups on a hospital in Kabul and a funeral in Nangarhar, as well as other attacks in the country,” Ghani said, according to Agence France-Presse, using the Arabic abbreviation for ISIS.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the “horrific terrorist attacks,” adding that “to attack infants and women in labor in the sanctuary of a hospital is an act of sheer evil.”

Pompeo’s statement made no explicit reference to Ghani’s speech, but said U.S. officials “note the Taliban have denied any responsibility and condemned both attacks as heinous.”

“The Taliban and the Afghan government should cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice,” Pompeo said. “As long as there is no sustained reduction in violence and insufficient progress towards a negotiated political settlement, Afghanistan will remain vulnerable to terrorism.”

Afghan forces have been in a defensive posture against the Taliban since late February when the insurgents agreed to reduce violence in exchange for the United States signing a troop withdrawal deal. The Taliban quickly resumed attacks on Afghan forces after the deal was signed.

In addition to the Taliban’s resumption of attacks on Afghan forces, several challenges have hit the U.S.-Taliban deal since its signing. The agreement was supposed to precede talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government, but those talks have not materialized amid disagreements over a prisoner swap and a dispute between Ghani and his chief political rival.

The agreement called for the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the Taliban releasing 1,000 government prisoners ahead of the talks. But just a fraction of prisoners from both sides have been released.

Meanwhile, Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah both claimed to be the winner of Afghanistan’s September elections, stalling efforts at talks with the Taliban as the two negotiate an end to their own feud.

Still, U.S. defense officials have said the U.S. military is on track to draw down to 8,600 troops by mid-July as laid out in the agreement.

The agreement also calls for a full U.S. withdrawal by 14 months from its signing, which U.S. officials have said will be based on conditions on the ground and the Taliban honoring its counterterrorism commitments.

Last week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said both the Taliban and the Afghan government, which is not a signatory to the U.S.-Taliban deal, were not living up to their commitments. 

“I said this would be a long, windy and bumpy road, and it has been a long, windy and bumpy road. I mean, it’s not moved as fast as we would like, certainly,” Esper said at a Pentagon briefing.

Asked if the Taliban was living up to its commitments, Esper said, “I don’t think they are,” adding “neither side in this case” is.

“Both need to come together and make progress on the terms that have been laid out,” he said.

Updated at 4:07 p.m.

Tags Mark Esper Mike Pompeo

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