Watchdog: Taliban violence high despite deal with US

Watchdog: Taliban violence high despite deal with US
© Getty Images

Taliban attacks on Afghan forces were high in the first three months of the year even with a one-week reduction in violence ahead of the Trump administration signing a withdrawal deal with the insurgents, a U.S. government watchdog said Tuesday.

“The United States and Taliban agreed to a one-week reduction in violence prior to the signing of the agreement, but Taliban violence during the quarter overall was high,” acting Pentagon Inspector General Sean O’Donnell wrote in the introduction to the latest quarterly lead inspector general report on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

“According to senior U.S. officials, the Taliban significantly decreased its attacks during the negotiated week of reduced violence that preceded the signing of the agreement,” the report added. “However, both during the reduction in violence and after the signing of the agreement, the Taliban continued attacks against Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Citing the State Department, the report also said “during those seven days, the Taliban largely ceased attacks against U.S. and coalition forces, but continued a wide range of smaller, harassing attacks against the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.”

The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban at the end of February that committed the U.S. military to drawing down to 8,600 troops by mid-July. The agreement also lays out a full U.S. withdrawal within 14 months after its signing if the Taliban honors its counterterrorism commitments.

As a confidence-building measure, all sides agreed to a reduction in violence in the week leading up to the deal's signing. U.S. officials deemed that week largely successful.

Days after the deal was signed, the Taliban announced it would no longer adhere to the reduction in violence and picked up attacks against Afghan forces.

As with another watchdog overseeing the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military would not provide Operation Freedom’s Sentinel lead inspector general with data on the number of enemy-initiated attacks this quarter because, the military told the inspector general, that information is “now a critical part of deliberative interagency discussions regarding ongoing political negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But, citing media reports, the inspector general said the Taliban launched attacks more than 300 times in the last two weeks of March alone.

Tuesday’s report is the latest evidence of increasing violence in Afghanistan despite the U.S.-Taliban deal. U.S. officials have said they expect the Taliban to reduce violence, but the deal does not explicitly commit the insurgents to ending attacks on Afghan forces.

Also Tuesday, the United Nations’s mission in Afghanistan released preliminary civilian casualty figures for April showing a spike in casualties compared to last year. The Taliban were responsible for 208 civilian casualties in April, an increase of 25 percent over April 2019, while Afghan forces were responsible for 172 civilian casualties, an increase of 38 percent over last year, according to the U.N.

“I call for a halt to the fighting and for parties to respect humanitarian law that is there to protect civilians,” Deborah Lyons, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement Tuesday. “Parties have committed to finding a peaceful solution and should protect the lives of all Afghans and not jeopardise people's hope for an end to the war.”

War-weary Afghanistan was also shaken by a horrific attack last week on a maternity hospital in Kabul that killed at least 24 people, including two infants.

No group has taken credit for the attack, and the Taliban have denied responsibility. U.S. officials have blamed ISIS for the attack.

But following the hospital attack, as well as an ISIS-claimed attack the same day on a funeral in Nangarhar province, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered his country’s forces to move into an offensive posture against the Taliban. Afghan forces had maintained a defensive posture since the U.S.-Taliban signing.

Following Ghani’s order, fighting has raged, including a Taliban assault Tuesday on the city of Kunduz. In their efforts to repel the attack, Afghan forces reportedly bombed a clinic that treats Taliban fighters.

U.S. officials have said the drawdown to 8,600 troops is on track despite the uptick in violence. On Monday, pushing back on a Wall Street Journal editorial, President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE argued that “we never really fought to win” in Afghanistan.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the deal with the Taliban, is in Doha, Qatar, this week in an effort to get the peace process back on track.

U.S. officials are hopeful of reinvigorating the process after Ghani and his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, reached a power-sharing deal over the weekend. Their dispute had been a key hurdle in starting Afghan government negotiations with the Taliban.

In Doha, Khalilzad is expected to meet with Taliban officials to “discuss implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement and press for steps necessary to commence intra-Afghan negotiations, including a significant reduction of violence,” according to a Monday statement from the State Department.

After Doha, Khalilzad will travel to Afghanistan to “meet with senior government officials to explore steps the Afghan government needs to take to make intra-Afghan negotiations begin as soon as possible,” the statement added.