- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Trump administration’s hope for a lasting cease-fire in Afghanistan has dipped to a low point this week after a vicious attack on a Kabul maternity ward that shocked the world and led Afghan government officials to publicly declare that they have all but given up trying to make peace with the Taliban.

While the militant group has denied responsibility for the brutal assault that left 24 dead, including at least two newborns, Afghan leaders announced a fresh round of military offensives against the Taliban on Wednesday. National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib said there is “little point” in continuing peace negotiations.

In some of the harshest Afghan government wording against the militant group since negotiations began, Mr. Mohib suggested that the Taliban and their allies have strategically “subcontracted” violence to other actors to maintain plausible deniability in the face of continued bloodshed.

On the same day as the maternity ward attack, the Islamic State, not the Taliban, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed at least 26 people at a funeral in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

Analysts say the two incidents, coupled with a wave of other attacks that have coincided with an annual period typically known in Afghanistan as the Taliban’s “spring offensive,” underscore how U.S.-led efforts to get a delicate cease-fire to hold in the war-torn nation are failing.

Since the Trump administration finalized its long-awaited Taliban peace deal in February, there have been an average of 55 Taliban attacks per day, according to figures from the Afghan government. The Pentagon has confirmed a strong uptick in the number of Taliban attacks against Afghan security forces in recent weeks.

Against that backdrop, regional analysts say it’s foolish for the U.S. to continue on its current path, and some argue America would do best to speed up its planned withdrawal and force the Taliban and Afghan government to forge their own power-sharing arrangement, regardless of the direction it ultimately takes.

“The war in Afghanistan is not militarily winnable. There are no strategies we can adopt there, there are no troop levels we can employ there, there is no better way we can do things that even give us a shot to win,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, a Washington foreign policy think tank that advocates a more restrained American foreign policy.

“From the very beginning, this fell apart,” Col. Davis, who served two tours in Afghanistan, said of the administration’s deal with the Taliban during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

“What we need to do is end the war on our terms in a way that accomplishes and safeguards America’s vital national security interests and the health and well-being of our armed forces,” he said.

As part of the agreement reached with the Taliban in February, the U.S. said it would cut its troop presence from about 13,000 to 8,600 by mid-July. Military officials recently told The Washington Times that the partial drawdown remains on schedule despite the uptick in violence and the spread of COVID-19, which has slowed U.S. troop movements around the world.

The U.S. also vowed to withdraw all of its forces from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban lived up to its end of the deal, which included promises by the militant group to negotiate with the American-backed government in Kabul, to deny safe havens to terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and to take other steps to bring stability to the country.

‘Offensive’ mode

Some analysts say the very core of the peace deal appears to be hanging by a thread this week.

Not only have the Taliban and Afghan government failed to make serious progress in their direct talks, but the two sides also are on the verge of even greater conflict amid evidence of increasingly violent attacks by Islamic State factions.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Tuesday that he was directing the country’s military to position into an “offensive” mode.

Although the Taliban denied involvement in the maternity ward assault, Mr. Ghani suggested that the government continues to view the Taliban as no less dangerous than the Islamic State.

“In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks and threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, I am ordering Afghan security forces to switch from an active defense mode to an offensive one and to start their operations against the enemies,” he said in a televised address.

Whoever is ultimately responsible for the maternity ward assault, the exact motive of the violence is a subject of debate. The area reportedly is a home to many foreigners living in Kabul, but it is not known whether that was what made the ward a target for terrorists.

On the heels of the assault, Mr. Mohib, the Afghan national security adviser, unleashed a scathing series of posts on Twitter saying peace was never the Taliban’s goal.

“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 [there] seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks,’” he said. “The attacks of the last two months show us and the world that Taliban & their sponsors do not and did not intend to pursue peace. Their attacks this spring against Afghans are comparable to the level of fighting in past fighting seasons.”

Such comments, along with the Afghan military’s new offensive military posture toward the Taliban, could undermine the White House’s yearslong effort to wind down the longest war in American history.

U.S. troops have been fighting in Afghanistan since October 2001, when President George W. Bush ordered an American invasion to topple the Taliban and root out al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

President Trump has based much of his foreign policy on stopping “endless wars” in the Middle East. In recent weeks, he has reportedly pressed behind the scenes for an even quicker exit from Afghanistan.

Administration officials have condemned this week’s violence but have said little about the broader impact on the U.S. withdrawal plan.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday called for Kabul and the Taliban to work together. “The United States condemns in the strongest terms the two horrific terrorist attacks in Afghanistan,” he said in a statement. “We note the Taliban have denied any responsibility and condemned both attacks as heinous. The Taliban and the Afghan government should cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice. As long as there is no sustained reduction in violence and insufficient progress towards a negotiated political settlement, Afghanistan will remain vulnerable to terrorism.”

The 3½-page peace deal signed by the U.S. and the Taliban in late February spelled out limited and specific Taliban commitments, including a vow to not threaten the security of the U.S., to not allow the country to be used by terrorists and to ultimately discuss a cease-fire with the government in Kabul.

Some analysts say there should have been no expectation that the Taliban would slow their attacks. “There is nothing in the … agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban that mentions a reduction [of] violence, let alone a cease-fire, as some U.S. officials are demanding,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Because of this, the Taliban will continue military operations against the Afghan government,” Mr. Roggio wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.

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