Days after a deal, heralded as historic, between the United States and the Taliban and after a reported phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the war in Afghanistan continues apace.
In a tweet on Tuesday, U.S. military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said that the United States conducted an airstrike against Taliban fighters in Helmand who were actively attacking an Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) checkpoint. It was the United States’ first strike against the Taliban in 11 days. He categorized the strike as “defensive” to disrupt the Taliban’s attack on Afghan government forces.
In subsequent tweets, Leggett said that on March 3 alone the Taliban carried out 43 attacks on ANDSF checkpoints in Helmand and reprimanded the Taliban for “squandering this opp. and ignoring the will of the people for #peace. #Showyourcommitment.”
On Monday, the Taliban leadership called on its forces to resume attacks on Afghan government forces. According to Afghan media, attacks have been recorded in several provinces, including Helmand, Kunduz, Zabul, Uruzgan and Baghlan.
The Taliban has long refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan government, calling it an illegitimate puppet of international powers. The deal struck between the Taliban, which was ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001 by the United States as retaliation for its hosting of al-Qaida’s leadership, and the U.S. did not include the Afghan government but nevertheless made promises on Kabul’s behalf.
The U.S.-Taliban deal commits to the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners by March 10, the date the agreement sets for the start of intra-Afghan talks. Nevermind that President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah are still tussling over who the new Afghan president is and they have not been in contact regarding the composition of the Afghan government’s negotiating side for the intra-Afghan talks (Abdullah’s side at least is hoping the impending arrival of U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad will help bridge that divide), but Ghani has already outright refused to release Taliban prisoners, let alone 5,000 of them, as a precondition for talks.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have pointed to their agreement with the United States and said the deal won’t go forward without the prisoner release included in the document.
It seems all but impossible for intra-Afghan talks to begin by March 10 given current conditions. The two sides — the Taliban and the Afghan government — are so far apart in their starting positions and the Afghan government is divided and embroiled in infighting.
But for Trump, the main goal of the peace deal is the fulfillment of a campaign promise to get out of Afghanistan. Even if it doesn’t actually do that, the soundbites will say it did. The deal pledges that the United States will reduce its troop numbers to 8,600 within 135 days. This would bring Washington back to almost the exact same number of troops it had in Afghanistan at the start of the Trump presidency (or put another way, the same number Obama had reduced to by the end of his final term). The deal then states that a complete withdrawal would be completed within 9.5 months thereafter, kicking the issue fully into the next term — either Trump’s second or the first for whichever Democrat bests him in November. Meanwhile, Trump will certainly campaign on taking the United States out of Afghanistan, the facts be damned.