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US defense chiefs: Taliban mostly adhering to deal despite attacks

Mark T. Esper (Joint Base San Antonio/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. defense chiefs have told lawmakers that the initial results from the Taliban peace deal have been mixed, but they insisted that the extremist group is adhering to much of the agreement despite a flare-up of deadly violence in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a Senate panel on March 4 that the extremists are honoring the agreement by not attacking U.S. and coalition forces, “but not in terms of sustaining the reduction in violence.”

“Keeping that group of people on board is a challenge. They’ve got their range of hard-liners and soft-liners and so they’re wrestling with that too, I think,” he added.

The comments came after the Pentagon said U.S. forces had conducted a “defensive” air strike against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province after a checkpoint manned by Afghan forces was attacked.

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Taliban militants killed at least 20 Afghan security officers in a string of attacks on the heels of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “very good” phone chat with the Taliban’s political chief.

The wave of violence is threatening to unravel a February 29 agreement signed in Doha between the United States and the Taliban that would allow allied forces to leave Afghanistan within 14 months in return for various security commitments from the Taliban and a pledge to hold talks with the Afghan government — which the militant group has so far refused to do.

Prisoner-Release Clause

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has warned he was not committed to a key clause in the deal involving the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

The Taliban said it would not take part in intra-Afghan talks until that provision was met.

Esper — who was in Kabul with Afghan leaders while the peace agreement was signed in Qatar – told the Senate panel that the deal allows the U.S. military to act to defend Afghan forces.

“It’s the commitment I made to the Afghans when I was there on. We would continue to defend the Afghans,” he said.

Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a tweet that Taliban fighters “were actively attacking an [Afghan National Security Forces] checkpoint. This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack.”

“Taliban leadership promised the [international] community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks. We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments,” he said.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, did not refer to the U.S. strike in a series of Twitter comments. But he said: “Increasing violence is a threat to the peace agreement and must be reduced immediately.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told lawmakers that “there is no attacks on 34 provincial capitals, there is 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 U.S. forces, no attack against coalition.”

“Yes, there were significant numbers of attacks, small attacks. They were all beaten back,” he said.

The Taliban did not confirm or deny responsibility for any of the attacks.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a tweet that “according to the plan, [the Taliban] is implementing all parts of the agreement one after another in order to keep the fighting reduced.”