- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2020

An Afghan government provincial council member was gunned down in Kabul Sunday, as violence in Afghanistan continues to threaten the fragile peace deal U.S. officials inked a week ago with the Taliban.

The latest incident comes two days after the Islamic State or ISIS terrorist group, which the Taliban has said it would seek to extirpate from the country under the peace deal, claimed responsibility for an attack that killed more than 30 civilians in the Afghan capital.

In a statement Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the ISIS attack “in the strongest terms”

“The Afghan people deserve a future free from terror,” he said. “The ongoing Afghan Peace Process presents a critical opportunity for Afghans to come together to build a united front against the menace of ISIS.”

It was unclear whether ISIS was involved in the subsequent violence on Sunday. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, according to a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S. government-funded world news network.

The network reported that the attack was carried out by unidentified gunmen, who fatally shot Logar Province council member Naser Ghairat and two of his bodyguards in Kabul.

There was no immediate comment on the incident from the Trump administration, although U.S. officials spent much of last week downplaying a separate wave of violence tied directly to the Taliban that has occurred since last weekend’s peace deal was reached with the militant group.

It remains to be seen whether the violence will delay or derail impending intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. The talks, which are seen as the crucial next step in the peace process, were slated under the initial U.S.-Taliban deal to begin next week in Oslo, Norway.

The Pentagon and State Department offered a cautious response last week to attacks by Taliban fighters and a retaliatory U.S. airstrike against the insurgent group.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley said Wednesday that U.S. troops were prepared to escalate their response to the Taliban if necessary, but stressed that attacks by the militants on U.S.-backed Afghan forces have been “small” since the peace deal was inked and that the agreement remains intact.

His comments, along with similar remarks by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper during a Pentagon budget hearing on Capitol Hill, came after U.S. forces conducted an airstrike Wednesday to drive back a Taliban assault on an Afghan government checkpoint in the nation’s southern Helmand province — a Taliban stronghold.

Throughout the push for a peace deal, analysts have warned that rogue ground-level Taliban commanders might be difficult to control and that terrorist groups such as the ISIS branch in Afghanistan may seek to undermine the process with violence.

The initial U.S.-Taliban deal hinged on ironclad commitments from Taliban leaders that Afghanistan never again be used as a base of operations by terrorist groups.

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