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Taliban violence gives U.S. pause about meeting treaty deadline to remove troops from Afghanistan

Sean D. Naylor
·National Security Correspondent
·3-min read

In the space of 24 hours, the Afghan president and two senior U.S. officials have separately suggested that the heightened levels of Taliban violence might force U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 withdrawal deadline spelled out in the treaty the United States signed with the militant Islamic group last year.

“It’s difficult to see how we get there from right where we are now,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said during a press conference on Thursday. “The Taliban are not meeting their commitments to reduce violence and to renounce their ties to al-Qaida.”

Referring to the February 2020 treaty, signed in Doha, Qatar, as an agreement that the new administration “inherited,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said Friday that the Biden team is “taking a hard look” at the extent to which the Taliban are complying with their commitments under the terms of the deal. “In that context we’ll make decisions about our force posture and our diplomatic strategy going forward,” Sullivan said on a U.S. Institute for Peace webcast.

John Kirby
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. (Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

During a Friday webcast with the Aspen Strategy Group, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who had spoken with Secretary of State Antony Blinken the previous day, appeared to seize on Kirby’s comments. Referring to “the initial announcements from the Pentagon that the level of violence is unacceptable and the Taliban are responsible for this,” Ghani said U.S. officials will likely decide “to send a signal to the Taliban that the U.S. is here to secure peace and not to retreat and leave the field open to them.”

All three officials said that the Taliban had not fulfilled their commitments under the treaty to cut ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups that have targeted the United States and its allies.

However, some of their specific complaints might leave the United States open to criticism that it is trying to move the goalposts regarding what is required of the Taliban before the remaining 2,500 U.S. forces leave Afghanistan.

In addition to the deal’s stipulations over al-Qaida, Sullivan said the treaty requires that “they meaningfully reduce levels of violence and contribute towards ceasefires.” Despite this, the deal as published on the State Department website does not appear to include any such commitment to reduce violence on the part of the Taliban.

Since signing the deal, the Taliban have refrained from attacking U.S. forces, with the result that there have been no U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan since last February. There has been no letup, however, in their assaults on Afghan security forces.

It is that fact, and the fears of what might happen if U.S. and NATO forces withdraw, that appears to be giving U.S. officials pause. One U.S. government source said that “for months now” there has been debate between U.S. officials over how to proceed.

Ashraf Ghani
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in March 2020. (Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“It’s time to end this war, but we want to do it responsibly, we want to do it in keeping with our national security interests and those of our Afghan partners,” Kirby said Thursday. “We have a commitment to Afghanistan and to the Afghan national security forces that we take very seriously.”

The Taliban issued a statement Friday (before Ghani and Sullivan had spoken) saying that it “is in the interest of both Afghanistan and America that all foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan in accordance with the Doha agreement.”

For his part, Ghani was clear on what would happen if the Taliban were allowed to continue their attacks on his forces without having to contend with the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan. “If the Taliban realize that they can prevail through violence,” Ghani said, “they will not let go.”

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