Joint Chiefs chairman argued before Congress that the Taliban’s “small low-level” attacks on Afghan forces don't violate their four-day-old agreement with the United States.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper acknowledged to Congress that the “results have been mixed” in the four days since the United States inked a peace deal with the Taliban, which has conducted at least 76 deadly attacks on Afghan forces since Saturday.
In a Senate hearing, Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley downplayed the increase in violence, with Milley calling them “small, low-level attacks” that were within the boundaries of the agreement.
“The Taliban have signed up to a whole series of conditions,” Milley told Senate Armed Services Committee lawmakers on Wednesday. “Of significance, there’s no attack on 34 provincial capitals, no attacks in Kabul, no high profile attacks, no suicide bombers, no vehicle-born suicide, no attacks against U.S. forces, no attack against coalition [forces].
“There’s a whole laundry list of these things that aren’t happening,” he said.
Milley’s testimony comes less than one day after President Donald Trump twice vouched for the Taliban’s intention to honor the deal. “I spoke to the leader of the Taliban today. We had a good conversation. We've agreed there's no violence. We don’t want violence. We'll see what happens,” Trump said to reporters at the White House.
Later, at an event in Maryland, Trump said the Taliban are "looking to get this ended, and we're looking to get it ended.
“The relationship is very good that I have with the mullah, and we had a good, long conversation today,” he said. “And, you know, they want to cease the violence. They'd like to cease violence also.”
Trump then repeated his argument that the United States is acting like a “police force” and that he could “win” the conflict but doesn’t want to kill millions of people to do so.
Early Wednesday, military officials revealed that U.S. forces conducted their first airstrike against the Taliban in 11 days.
“As we have demonstrated, we will defend our partners when required,” Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a tweet. “Talibs appear intent on squandering this [opportunity] and ignoring the will of the people for peace.”
On Monday, Milley said in a press conference that Pentagon leaders had expected at least some violence to continue after the signing of the deal. The agreement was preceded by a five-day “reduction in violence” period that both the Taliban and the United States abided by, but after the deal was signed, the Taliban publicly announced that it would resume operations against Afghan forces.
In the U.S.-Taliban deal, signed Saturday, Trump administration officials offered an immediate withdrawal down to 8,600 troops and a complete U.S. withdrawal within 14 months. But Esper on Monday said that the United States would begin to draw down to 8,600 troops immediately, whether or not there was continued violence on behalf of the Taliban.
Talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban are set to begin on March 10. But the implementation of the deal has already hit several public snags, including the Taliban declaration that it would resume attacks on Afghan forces. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has also rejected the agreement’s provision for a Taliban prisoner exchange that has put the beginning of the talks in jeopardy.
Milley on Wednesday suggested that it was too early to tell whether the conditions of the agreement were fraying.
“We’re on day four,” he said. “This was small, low level attacks out on checkpoints etc…. Yes, there was significant numbers of attacks, small attacks [but] they were all beaten back.”