Clashes between Afghan armed forces and the Taliban intensified over the weekend in Helmand Province, with the government in Kabul reporting 71 Taliban deaths on Monday, but no Afghan army casualties.
The fighting comes amid ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan leaders, brokered by the US State Department and taking place in Doha, Qatar.
These talks follow a deal made in February between the US and the Taliban, when it was agreed that all American troops would be removed from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban blocked extremist groups – including al Qaeda – from operating in the areas under their control, among other measures.
General Scott Miller, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, wrote on Twitter Monday, “The Taliban need to immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand Province and reduce their violence around the country. It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan Peace Talks.”
A spokesperson from the Taliban media office told VICE News, “The Taliban fighters from Helmand are retaking areas that they used to control,” claiming that the group has been moving into military bases abandoned by the Afghan armed forces. Local media confirmed this, reporting that the Taliban has taken control of a number of abandoned military bases near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province.
Over the past few days, the US has carried out a number of airstrikes in Helmand Province against the Taliban – which it claimed did not contradict the US-Taliban deal.
Since that deal was made in February, the Taliban has ceased its attacks on US troops, whose presence in Afghanistan has shrunk from around 15,000 to 4,000 soldiers.
On the 8th of October, in an interview with Fox Business, US President Trump said, “I've been bringing them home. We are down to 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, and I'll have them home by the end of the year.”
Later, in a tweet, Trump again promised to bring back all remaining US troops before the end of the year.
Last Thursday, Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban's spokesperson, welcomed Trump's tweet in a statement. "The Islamic Emirate [Taliban] welcomes these remarks and considers it a positive step for implementing the agreement signed between the Taliban and the US,” he said
However, Kabul's chief negotiator, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, was taken by surprise. Speaking at a think-tank event in New Delhi, he said, "It'll take us a little bit to digest it… The US military on the ground was making preparations for [a partial withdrawal by November]. There would be consequences [of a full withdrawal]. That is why we are pursuing talks for peace in Doha.”
Ahead of those talks, the Afghan government called for a ceasefire, with Abdullah Abdullah saying there will be “no winner through war”.