Despite its 10-day assault in Helmand, Afghan Taliban accuse US military of violating February accord
By PAMELA CONSTABLE | The Washington Post | Published: October 18, 2020
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban, facing Afghan and international condemnation for a 10-day assault near the capital of southern Helmand province, are accusing the U.S. military of violating their February accord by carrying out “excessive” aerial attacks and bombings in recent days.
In a statement Sunday, the insurgents played down their own attack on areas around Helmand’s provincial capital, which has forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes and has left scores hospitalized.
The attacks have aroused public alarm and anger, leading many Afghans to question why the government is holding peace talks with the Taliban, especially as the insurgents are hardening their negotiating position after President Donald Trump said he wanted to withdraw all U.S. troops by year’s end.
The Taliban delegates to the talks in Doha welcomed Trump’s announcement and publicly wished for his re-election — and then turned on their American interlocutors with their accusations.
“All contents of the U.S.-Islamic Emirate accord are unambiguous, but the other side has violated its commitments on numerous occasions, engaging in provocative actions and bombing noncombat zones,” spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said in the statement. “All responsibility and consequences … shall fall squarely on the American side.”
The U.S. military spokesman in Kabul responded that the strikes were “consistent” with both the U.S.-Taliban agreement and a joint declaration between Afghan and U.S. officials.
“We categorically reject the Taliban’s claim that the United States has violated the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” Col. William Leggett tweeted. He said U.S. airstrikes in both Helmand and Farah provinces were “solely in defense of” Afghan military forces as they are being attacked by the Taliban.
“The entire world has witnessed the Taliban’s offensive operations in Helmand - attacks which injured and displaced thousands of innocent Afghan civilians.” He said “all sides” in the conflict must “reduce violence to allow the political process to take hold.”
The withdrawal announcement by Trump on Oct. 7 has been viewed as a major concession to the Taliban, who have long demanded that U.S. forces leave the country. The insurgents agreed in February to reduce violence, to cut ties with extremist groups and to refrain from attacking U.S. forces in return for the gradual withdrawal of all U.S. troops by May.
It was soon after Trump’s announcement that the Taliban launched an assault in Helmand, triggering charges that they had violated the U.S. accord and jeopardized the entire peace process. Last week, U.S. officials appealed to the Taliban to stop, then met with their leaders in Qatar to try to salvage the deal they had spent 18 months negotiating.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to the talks, tweeted Saturday that both sides had agreed on a “reset” that would reduce violence. He did not provide details.
Meanwhile, the main peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban remained mired in disputes over procedural rules, as they have been ever since the talks started Sept. 12. The two sides have yet to touch on the critical issues at stake: how to end the country’s 19-year civil conflict and how to combine two starkly different visions of a future government into one.
In recent days, Afghan delegates to the talks said the Taliban were doubling down on their initial demands over the rules and terms to govern substantive discussions. They have insisted that all talks be conducted strictly under the terms of U.S.-Taliban pact, which did not include any Afghans, and under the authority of Sunni Muslim law, although Afghanistan has a sizable non-Sunni minority.
Several Afghan delegates in Doha, the Qatari capital, said that since Trump’s announcement, the initial, stiff-but-polite reception by Taliban leaders has given way to sharper, dismissive rebuffs. One said the Taliban delegates are acting “as if they have defeated the United States” and the Afghan delegation is there to surrender.
“We still want to act responsibly and find a way to end the war through negotiations, but as the violence rises, public pressure is mounting and people are starting to question why we are even at the table,” said Nader Nadery, a delegate and Afghan government administrator. “We have to find a balance between the sense of urgency and the temptation to rush into a peace that cannot hold.”
On Saturday, a Taliban spokesman in Doha said the group wants to keep negotiating and actually has reduced its attacks in recent months. That was a day before Yousuf’s statement slamming the U.S. was released.
Afghan delegates said they, too, will continue to participate, but expect the talks to languish until after the Nov. 3 U.S. election. The Taliban appear to hope that a reelected Trump would abandon the war entirely, while Afghan analysts say a Biden administration likely would review U.S. policy and would consult with military leaders, who advise keeping some troops here permanently.
Few Afghans believe that the insurgents can take over the country by force, but most expect that they inevitably will play a significant role in any future government. For months, Afghan and foreign experts have labored to come up with viable options for such joint rule, but with the talks at a standstill, those efforts have been left languishing on the drawing board.
Instead, a flurry of informal proposals and possible scenarios have emerged, from wishful thinking to worst-case scenarios. At one extreme is the vision of an Iran-style regime, led by Muslim clerics with controlled elections and technocratic ministries. At the other is a civilian-led government with some religious modifications and Taliban members holding a variety of senior posts.
The role of religious influence is particularly touchy. The Taliban are hard-line Sunnis, and critics say they worry about the establishment of a Sunni theocracy in a country with a 15% Shiite minority that has long avoided sectarian strife.
“This has created fear that the Taliban want to pave the way for future discriminatory laws,” said Ali Amiri, a professor at Ibn-i-Sena University, located in Kabul’s main community of ethnic Hazara Shiites. “The worry is that a post-peace power structure will be built on religious discrimination.”
The uncertain path forward has been complicated by Afghan domestic politics. The government of President Ashraf Ghani is weak and unpopular, and some of his rivals hope a deal can be struck in which the Taliban agree to a permanent cease-fire in return for the installation of an interim government — something Ghani might have to accept grudgingly in the name of stopping the bloodshed.
“My worry is not the Taliban taking over, it is internal collapse,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence chief. “Ghani has no leverage, and the Taliban have gained a lot of legitimacy from the U.S. deal. They may surround the cities and put on more pressure until they get a deal. We need to save our institutions, and we need new leadership to do that. The Taliban has a Plan B, but the government does not.”
But aides to Ghani said the aggressive Taliban assault on Helmand, which decimated civilian communities, has helped rob the insurgents of moral and religious credibility. One delegate in Qatar said he felt “sick to my stomach” after hearing one Taliban delegate said they did not regret killing civilians in Helmand because there were “not Muslims.”
One national security aide said that after years of presenting themselves as waging a jihad against the West, the Taliban have now forfeited that claim by striking a mutually beneficial deal with U.S. officials that did little to benefit Afghanistan, and by ramping up violent attacks on civilians from their own religion and homeland.
“Freedom fighters do not kill their own people or wage such destruction on them,” said Javed Faisal, a spokesman for the national security adviser’s office. “Their cruelty is being exposed and their jihadi narrative is hollow. No matter what happens at the table, even if the Americans give everything away, even if we do, this war is going to go on, because the Taliban show no will for peace.”
The Washington Post’s Aziz Tassal and Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.