- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 5, 2020

Continued Taliban attacks across Afghanistan “could undermine the agreement” the insurgent group struck with the Trump administration earlier this year that would allow U.S. troops to come home next year, a key Pentagon watchdog reported Thursday.

In its regular quarterly report to Congress released Thursday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said that enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan grew by 50% in the July-September window when compared to the previous quarter. Some recent attacks in areas such as Helmand province have led to major retaliatory U.S. air strikes in support of Afghan national security forces.

The radical Islamist group has begun power-sharing talks with the U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani in Qatar even as the violence has intensified, but there is little sign of early progress in the negotiations.

Observers warn that growing violence across the country and the Taliban’s unwillingness to halt its attacks ultimately could cause the U.S.-Taliban peace pact to unravel. Other terror groups, notably Islamic State, have also stepped up violence against the Ghani government despite a Taliban pledge not to support their efforts.

The violence “could undermine the agreement,” Pentagon officials told SIGAR, according to the report.

The deal, struck in February, called for a reduction in violence across the country but did not require a full cease-fire. SIGAR auditors said that the Taliban “is calibrating its use of violence to harass and undermine” the Afghan government but also is intentionally keeping its attacks “at a level it perceives is within the bounds” of the agreement.

Indeed, the administration continues to hold up its end of the bargain despite the growing conflict across Afghanistan, and the Trump White House has announced plans to cut the approximately 4,000 to 5,000 combat troops in half in the coming months.

Most recently, Islamic State gunmen on Monday launched a brazen attack on Kabul University, killing at least 22 students and wounding more than 20 others in what Afghan government officials described as a “despicable act of terror.”

The Taliban denied any involvement in the attack, and the Islamic State later claimed responsibility.

However, veteran U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, Mr. Trump’s Afghan-born special envoy to the talks, has repeatedly said that the Taliban has kept up its end of the deal by not launching attacks on U.S. or coalition forces.

Over 1,600 civilians were wounded in Afghanistan between July and September, according to the report, and 876 civilians were killed — a 43% increase from the previous quarter. The Taliban was responsible for 42% of the increase in casualties, while 55% was attributed to “unknown insurgent.”

The number of casualties that Afghan government forces were responsible for — 212 — more than doubled this quarter compared to the prior time period. The report noted that casualties are down 36% from the same time last year.

SIGAR’s report comes amid debate surrounding the process of withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, approaching the 20th year of the longest war in American history.

The number of American troops in the country, which stood at about 12,000 when the deal was signed in February, is dropping and will be down to 2,500 by early next year, administration officials have said.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival, has said he would continue to draw down troops but also believes a small U.S. force presence should be maintained to keep terror groups in check.

The February deal also required the Taliban to cease attacks on Americans stationed in the country. SIGAR said it asked U.S. Forces-Afghanistan whether there have been any suspected Taliban attacks on Americans.

“The question drew a classified response,” SIGAR said.

American forces have been in Afghanistan since October 2001, when then-President George W. Bush ordered a military invasion to topple the Taliban government and root out al Qaeda after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mr. Trump has dubbed the conflict an “endless war” and has vowed to bring U.S. forces home after nearly two decades in the country.

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