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The withdrawal agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan is only four days old, but it’s already looking shaky.
On Wednesday, the U.S. military said it had carried out an airstrike against Taliban fighters in Helmand, its first attack on the militant group since the two sides signed the agreement in Doha on Saturday.
U.S. military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said his forces were still committed to peace but blamed continued Taliban attacks on Afghan government troops for forcing it to act. He said Wednesday’s drone strike, in Nahr-e Saraj in the southern province of Helmand, was a “defensive” action ordered to disrupt a Taliban attack against an Afghan National Security Forces checkpoint.
Leggett said the Taliban attack was just one of many against Afghan government forces in recent days: There were 43 in Helmand province alone on Tuesday.
He said that the Taliban appeared “intent on squandering this [opportunity], and ignoring the will of the people for peace,” and called on the group to “show your commitment” to the agreement.
“Taliban leadership promised the [international] community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks,” he said. “We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments.”
Wednesday’s airstrike spells further trouble for the fledgling deal, in which the U.S. has agreed to withdraw all 13,000 troops from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban meet their obligations, including fulfilling security guarantees and fighting terrorism. It’s also intended to trigger talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government on the future of the war-ravaged country.
But soon after the agreement was signed Saturday, problems emerged. The Afghan government said Sunday it would refuse to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners as stipulated in the deal, saying those releases would be discussed in future direct negotiations with the Taliban. In response, the Taliban said Monday it would resume its attacks against Afghan forces, but refrain from attacking foreign forces.
Both the U.S. and the Taliban had held off attacking one another under a partial truce implemented ahead of Saturday’s agreement. But clashes between the Taliban and Afghan government forces were reported in nine provinces Tuesday, including one in which five Afghan policemen were killed, and this resumption of violence has the potential to undo the partial ceasefire.
“As we have demonstrated, we will defend our partners when required,” Leggett said.
The airstrike came just hours after President Donald Trump said he had spoken with a Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had assured him the militant group also wanted to stop the violence.
“We had a good long conversation today and, you know, they want to cease the violence,” Trump said, describing his relationship with the Taliban co-founder as “very good.”
The 35-minute phone call is believed to be the first time a U.S. president has spoken directly with the militant group.
Cover: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, March, 1, 2020. Ghani said Sunday he won't be releasing the 5,000 prisoners the Taliban say must be freed before intra-Afghan negotiations can begin. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)