Pentagon downplays new Taliban attacks

Khalilzad says US is committed to facilitating prisoners exchange

By: News Desk      Published: 12:32 PM, 5 Mar, 2020
Pentagon downplays new Taliban attacks
Afghan security forces stand alert after an attack by the Taliban.–AFP

The Pentagon on Wednesday played down the gravity of new Taliban attack in Afghanistan that cast doubts on a four-day-old peace deal between the insurgent group and the United States.

The US envoy for Afghanistan also said that the US is committed to facilitating the prisoners exchange.

Since the signing in Doha on Saturday, the militants have ramped up violence against Afghan forces, ending a partial truce and casting a pall over peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban, due to begin on March 10.

"There were a variety of attacks over the last 24 to 48 hours. And they were all beaten back," said General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the US military.

"What is important, though, for the agreement: we're on day four, this was small, low-level attacks, out on checkpoints, etcetera," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Afghanistan's interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi on Wednesday detailed 30 attacks by the Taliban in 15 provinces over the previous 24 hours that left four civilians and 11 Afghan soldiers, dead, as well as 17 insurgents.

But Milley said "the Taliban have signed up to a whole series of conditions," and he noted what has not occurred despite the latest violence.

"Of significance: there are no attacks on 34 provincial capitals, there are no attacks in Kabul. There's no high profile attacks, there's no suicide bombers, there's no vehicle-borne suicide, no attack against the US forces, no attack against the coalition," Milley said. "There's a whole laundry list of these things that aren't happening," he added.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper told the same hearing that the Taliban were honouring their pledge under the accord to stop attacking US and coalition forces, but they had not followed through on an obligation to reduce the overall level of violence.

Esper said some of that was the challenge the group has in controlling its rank and file. "Keeping that group of people on board is a challenge. They have got their range of hard-liners and soft-liners. And so they're wrestling with that, too, I think," Esper said.

An American military spokesman said the US launched an airstrike against Taliban fighters in southern Helmand province on Wednesday to defend Afghan forces.

Under the peace deal, US and other foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to Taliban security guarantees and a pledge by the insurgents to hold talks with Kabul.

US forces invaded more than 18 years ago, after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, to overthrow the Taliban government that had sheltered Al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said in a tweet on Thursday that he met with Taliban leader Mullah Baradar and his team last night for a candid discussion about the next steps, "followed by a constructive phone call with US President Donald Trump."

Khalilzad added that increasing violence is a threat to the peace agreement and that must be reduced immediately. “In addition to discussing the need to decrease violence, we also talked about the exchange of prisoners,” he said.

“We must act on all fronts to clear the road to obstacles that slow our progress toward intra-Afghan negotiations. I once again call on all Afghans to rise to the occasion, put the country first and not to lose this historic opportunity,” Khalilzad tweeted.

He further said “US is committed to facilitating prisoner exchange, agreed in both US-Taliban Agreement and US-Afghanistan Joint Declaration. We will support each side to release significant numbers,” Khalilzad added.

Quoting sources, Afghanistan’s Ariana News reported that Zalmay Khalilzad is back in Kabul first time after signing the peace agreement with the Taliban and met with Abdullah Abdullah.