Taliban has carried out average of 55 attacks per day since signing US peace deal

Surge in violence threatens future of fragile agreement with America

Sharif Hassan
Friday 01 May 2020 10:52 BST
Afghan special forces stand guard at the site of a suicide bomber attack on 29 April on the outskirts of Kabul
Afghan special forces stand guard at the site of a suicide bomber attack on 29 April on the outskirts of Kabul (AP)

Facing an emboldened Taliban, and with less US military support, Afghan forces have suffered heavy casualties during a two-month surge in violence across the country that is threatening a fragile peace deal between the United States and the Taliban.

A US military assessment describes Taliban attacks on Afghan forces in March as “above seasonal norms”, according to a quarterly report released on Thursday by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar).

According to the Afghan National Security Council, the Taliban has carried out an average of 55 attacks a day since 1 March - a spike that has doubled casualties among Afghan security forces in some parts of the country, officials say.

“The numbers show Taliban doing nothing for peace and everything to continue their campaign of terror against Afghans,” the council's spokesperson, Javid Faisal, said on Twitter.

The top US commander in Afghanistan, General Austin “Scott” Miller, on Tuesday called on the Taliban to reduce attacks and give “our political leadership on all sides an opportunity to determine the peaceful way forward”, according to a transcript of his remarks released by a US military spokesperson.

“If the Taliban continue to attack, then what they should expect is a response,” Gen Miller said.

The increase in violence comes as US officials struggle to keep the Taliban peace deal on track. The February agreement ended offensive operations between US forces and the militant group and set a deadline of 10 March for the beginning of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Those talks have yet to begin, and some fear the violence could be sapping what little momentum followed the signing of the deal.

Two Afghan security officials and a senior government official say Taliban fighters used a week of reduced violence in the lead-up to the peace deal to regroup. Now, with fewer US airstrikes applying pressure to Taliban forces on the battlefield, Taliban fighters are launching more deadly attacks on Afghan government positions, the officials said. All three spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.

The US military command in Kabul refused to release more-specific data on Taliban attacks, citing concerns surrounding sensitive negotiations with the Taliban. This marks the first time the US military command in Kabul has restricted the release of such data since Sigar began using it in 2018 to track the levels and locations of violence.

Gen Miller met with Taliban leadership twice in April “as part of the military channel established in the agreement ... about the need to reduce the violence”, according to the Sigar report.

The US-Taliban peace deal does not prohibit Taliban attacks on the Afghan government, but following the deal, US officials had said they expected violence levels to remain low.

Taliban leaders have baulked at calls for reduced violence, blaming the Afghan government and US forces for the continued hostilities. After appeals from the United Nations and the Afghan government for a ceasefire to mark Ramadan and to stem the spread of the coronavirus, a Taliban spokesperson accused the government of creating “hurdles” to peace by delaying a planned release of prisoners and said the United States had violated the peace deal by delivering ammunition to Afghan forces.

“Demanding a cease-fire and reduction in violence at a time when the opposite side is not executing its own obligations is both illogical and opportunistic,” Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement on Sunday.

The Taliban has not asserted responsibility for all the attacks against Afghan forces, but has repeatedly stated that the group is in compliance with the terms of the US agreement.

The violence is just one of many factors threatening the future of the peace deal between the Taliban and the United States, according to Laurel Miller, who previously served as the acting US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and is now the director of the International Crisis Group's Asia program.

“In the context in which momentum has already been lost and is eroding, the resurgence of violence is another factor that sours the atmosphere for talks,” she said.

The Afghan government and the Taliban were supposed to launch direct talks in March, but the negotiations over a controversial prisoner swap collapsed in early April.

“Violence affects the willingness of people to accept compromises,” Gen Miller said, and high death tolls provide fodder to those who don't want to see peace talks succeed. “The violence is a way of discrediting the whole promise of the process.”

A senior security official in the northern province of Takhar, one of those hit hardest by the recent wave of Taliban attacks, said the week of reduced violence ahead of the peace deal was critical to the recent spike in Taliban attacks.

He said Taliban fighters used the lull to reinforce their positions, regroup and expand their influence in territory recently retaken by Afghan government forces.

Another senior Afghan security official described the decision to reduce Afghan government offensives as “a goodwill gesture from the government for the sake of peace”. But “it seems the adversary is taking advantage”, he said. “The Taliban think they are winning.”

The Washington Post

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