A holiday ceasefire has been touted for the weekend, with hopes high that the much-mentioned intra-Afghan talks could soon begin. Then on Thursday night a car bomb blew in Afghanistan’s Logar province, killing more than a dozen people, a reminder that the situation in Afghanistan remains violent.
The context within which the planned-for temporary halting of hostilities and possible talks will take place is important to understand. The latest quarterly report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), released today, provides the grim and necessary background for the latest twists and turns of the war in Afghanistan.
SIGAR, a watchdog agency established by the U.S. Congress to track overspending, inefficiency, malfeasance, and corruption in how U.S. taxpayer funds are spent in Afghanistan, provides routine reports that present a summation of the status of the war across several fronts. In the latest report, SIGAR quotes the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), an organization formed in 2018 to assist the reform of the Afghan security forces. CSTC-A said this has been “perhaps the most complex and challenging period in the last two decades” for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).
Following the February 29 agreement between the United States and the Taliban, militant attacks against U.S. and coalition forces abated, but the Taliban continued to target Afghan government forces. The Afghan government was not included in signing of the February 29 agreement, though the agreement set a route to intra-Afghan talks for Kabul. That route was, per the agreement, to be quickly paved with prisoner releases and talks starting March 10. No surprise, the Afghan government initially balked at letting 5,000 Taliban prisoners out of jail and the March 10 date soon slid by. Eventually, however, the Afghan government began the prisoner release process — not without further delays and contention — and talks do appear to be the next step.
During spring 2020, the Afghan security forces paid a heavy price as the Taliban maneuvered itself into a stronger negotiating position.
The SIGAR report cites Resolute Support as commenting that “[Enemy] violence levels stayed well above historic norms for the majority of the reporting period with reduced violence occurring during the three-day Eid cease fire (May 24–26, 2020) … There were no Taliban attacks against Coalition forces, though there were several attacks against ANDSF sites in provincial capitals.”
In the same vein, Afghanistan’s National Security Council (NSC) pointed to an increase in Taliban attacks specifically between June 14 and 21 — “422 attacks in 32 provinces killing 291 ANDSF personnel and wounding 550 others, making it the ‘deadliest [week] of the past 19 years.’”
U.S. officials have repeatedly called on the Taliban to reduce violence, but it’s evident that the Taliban have a different understanding of the February 29 agreement than the U.S. government or the Afghan government. When asked if Taliban attacks on ANDSF violate the agreement, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) told SIGAR in late June “The assessment of Taliban compliance with the agreement is still under interagency review.”
Nevertheless, a DOD assessment of violence in Afghanistan since the agreement, through June 1, said, “The Taliban is calibrating its use of violence to harass and undermine the ANDSF and [the Afghan government], but remain at a level it perceives is within the bounds of the agreement, probably to encourage a U.S. troop withdrawal and set favorable conditions for a post-withdrawal Afghanistan.”
The Taliban’s gambit is working. First, the United States has withdrawn troops back down to late Obama-era levels and is reportedly planning for continued downsizing of the U.S. presence.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, CNN reported in late June, is finalizing a decision to withdraw an additional 4,000 troops from Afghanistan by the fall. At present, there are around 8,600 U.S. troops in the country, on par with the level established at the end of the Obama presidency. It’s not clear how the potential decision to withdraw additional troops has fared under the present situation.
Second, the Afghan government has released around 4,000 Taliban prisoners, nearly fulfilling a part of the February agreement it has kept at the top of its list of priorities.
Finally, the Taliban announced last week that they would be ready for talks after the Eid ul Adha holiday at the end of July. While the government of Ashraf Ghani wants a permanent ceasefire, the Taliban has replied that that’s a topic to cover in talks.
In a message from Maulvi Hibatullah Akhundzada on Tuesday, the Taliban leader framed the group’s pitch: “The Islamic Emirate has fulfilled its obligations regarding signing an agreement with the United States … and efforts toward launching intra-Afghan negotiations.”
He went on to say, “It is now up to the other parties to determine how they utilize this opportunity.”
The Taliban denied responsibility for the Thursday blast in Logar province; the Islamic State has not commented.