The Pentagon on Wednesday played down the gravity of new Taliban attack in Afghanistan that cast doubts on a four-day old peace deal between the insurgent group and the United States.
Meanwhile the head of NATO warned that Western forces will only leave Afghanistan if the Taliban make good on their commitment to reduce bloodshed.
Since the signing in Doha on Saturday, the militants have ramped up violence against Afghan forces, ending a partial truce and casting a pall over peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban, due to begin on March 10.
“There were a variety of attacks over the last 24 to 48 hours. And they were all beaten back,” said General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the US military.
“What is important, though, for the agreement: we’re on day four, this was small, low level attacks, out on checkpoints, etcetera,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Afghanistan’s interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi on Wednesday detailed 30 attacks by the Taliban in 15 provinces over the previous 24 hours that left four civilians and 11 Afghan soldiers, dead, as well as 17 insurgents.
But Milley said “the Taliban have signed up to a whole series of conditions,” and he noted what has not occurred despite the latest violence.
“Of significance: there are no attacks on 34 provincial capitals, there are no attacks in Kabul. There’s no high profile attacks, there’s no suicide bombers, there’s no vehicle-borne suicide, no attack against the US forces, no attack against the coalition,” Milley said.
“There’s a whole laundry list of these things that aren’t happening,” he added.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told the same hearing that the Taliban were honoring their pledge under the accord to stop attacking US and coalition forces, but they had not followed through on an obligation to reduce the overall level of violence.
Esper said some of that was the challenge the group has in controlling its rank and file.
“Keeping that group of people on board is a challenge. They have got their range of hard-liners and soft-liners. And so they’re wrestling with that, too, I think,” Esper said.
An American military spokesman said the US launched an airstrike against Taliban fighters in southern Helmand province on Wednesday to defend Afghan forces.
Western forces will only leave Afghanistan if the Taliban make good on their commitment to reduce bloodshed, the head of NATO warned Wednesday.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told AFP that a “long and hard” road to peace lay ahead but warned the Taliban that if they reneged on the agreement, foreign forces would not leave.
“It is a very difficult situation and Taliban must honor their commitment. We need to see reduction in violence,” Stoltenberg told AFP in an interview in Zagreb, where he attended a meeting of EU defense ministers.
“We can only deliver our side of the deal if Taliban deliver their side of the deal.”
Under the terms of the deal, US and other foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to Taliban security guarantees and a pledge by the insurgents to hold talks with the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
NATO, which has a 16,000-strong training and support mission in Afghanistan, has long insisted it would only leave when conditions were right – in particular that terrorists could not use the country as a springboard for attacks abroad.
“The agreement that was signed on Saturday was an important first step, but it’s only a first step,” said Stoltenberg, who as prime minister of Norway sent troops to Afghanistan following the US-led invasion that overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
“The road towards peace will be long and hard and we have to be prepared for disappointments.”
“At the same time there is no alternative. The only way to have a peaceful solution is a negotiated agreement and to talk to Taliban.”
With an election coming up in November, Trump is keen to make good on pledge to end America’s longest war, but observers say it appears the Taliban have yet to be convinced to come to the negotiating table with Kabul.
Under the peace deal, US and other foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to Taliban security guarantees and a pledge by the insurgents to hold talks with Kabul.
Barely three days after signing the partial truce deal, the Taliban announced they were resuming their offensive against Afghan government forces.
In a sign of their intent, the militants have mounted 30 attacks in 15 of the country’s 34 provinces in the space of 24 hours, according to the Afghan interior ministry.
US forces invaded more than 18 years ago, after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, to overthrow the Taliban government that had sheltered Al-Qaeda.