Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani has ordered Afghan forces to resume “offensive” actions against the Taliban, dealing what some analysts say is a fatal blow to the fragile U.S.-brokered peace process.
Ghani made the announcement in a national address Tuesday night in Kabul, hours after a brutal attack on a maternity ward in the western part of the city killed 14 women and children. The Taliban have denied the attack, but it comes amid a sharp escalation in violence from the group in the 45 days since the deal was inked.
“If the Taliban cannot control the violence, or their sponsors have now subcontracted their terror to other entities —which was one of our primary concerns from the beginning— then their [sic] seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks’,” Afghan national security advisor Hamdullah Mohib said in a Twitter post.
The Afghan government was not a party to the negotiations that led to the peace deal in Afghanistan, and the exact impact of Ghani’s announcement is a matter of debate. It was not clear to what extent U.S. military leaders in Kabul were consulted before Ghani’s announcement, or whether U.S. forces will be supporting their Afghan partners in resumed offensive operations against the Taliban. Also unclear is the impact on the U.S.’s withdrawal plans.
“Consistent with the agreement, the U.S. military will continue to conduct defensive strikes against the Taliban when they attack our ANDSF partners,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell said in a statement Tuesday. “As the Secretary of Defense stated recently, this is going to be a windy, bumpy road, but a political agreement is the best way to end the war.”
The U.S.-Taliban deal, signed in March, envisioned an immediate American drawdown to 8,600 troops and a complete U.S. withdrawal within 14 months. The initial drawdown has been underway even as Taliban attacks on Afghan forces raged, but Pentagon officials insist that further troops withdrawals from Afghanistan will depend on both the Taliban and the Afghans adhering to the terms of the deal.
One major sticking point has been an exchange of prisoners between the Afghan government and the Taliban, envisioned by the agreement but a source of tense negotiations since. Those efforts would seem almost certain to be a casualty of Ghani’s announcement.
“We’ve seen frankly mixed results in terms of Taliban compliance to the agreement,” Trump’s pick for the top policy official at the Pentagon, James Anderson, told the Senate during his confirmation hearing last week. “They have refrained from attacking U.S. and coalition troops. They have refrained from attacking major urban centers, but they have been attacking in a robustly and an unfortunate level and an unprecedented level our Afghan partners.”
Anderson told lawmakers that there were no plans to stop the current withdrawal to 8,600, “but the department has made very clear that beyond that, reductions will be conditions-based.”
But President Donald Trump has long expressed a determination to extricate the United States from Afghanistan, and reportedly has pressed officials to expedite withdrawal plans amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Some close watchers of the almost two-decade conflict in Afghanistan argued that a total breakdown of any formal reduction in violence was inevitable because the U.S. shoehorned Kabul into a peace agreement that it was not a part of negotiating.
“I would argue ‘there never was a peace deal,’ and that was the problem from the start,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It was sold as a peace deal, but how is that even possible when the Afghan government was never a party to it? It was a deal that set the conditions for a U.S. withdrawal that was sold as a peace deal.”
From a practical perspective, Roggio cautioned that Ghani’s announcement likely wouldn’t have a major impact on the fighting in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think the ANSDF going ‘on the offensive’ means all that much,” he said. “It isn’t very effective when it does, and most of the time it sits on its bases and such.”
But none of that means that the United States won’t pull out of Afghanistan anyway. Frustration with the lengthy conflict — which has killed 2,400 Americans and thousands more Afghan citizens — has grown into a national mood in recent years. Throughout the Democratic primary campaign, presidential candidates including presumptive nominee Joe Biden called for either an outright withdrawal or a substantial drawdown.
The announcement could also simply freeze the U.S. withdrawal at 8,600 troops, roughly the number in Afghanistan at the end of the Obama administration. Former officials say that is probably the minimum number needed to continue to carry out counterterrorism missions. Anything less than that, and the United States would start to lose valuable intelligence capabilities across the sprawling nation, they say.
Ben Watson contributed to this report.