- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2020

Recent U.S. airstrikes in Helmand province and elsewhere in Afghanistan violate a peace agreement struck earlier this year, Taliban officials said Sunday in a sharp war of words with the Pentagon as bloodshed escalates across the country.

The renewed violence between the two sides is fueling questions about how long the landmark U.S.-Taliban peace deal, signed in February, can hold. The agreement calls for a reduction in violence, but the Taliban in recent weeks has launched an aggressive military campaign on Helmand province.

The intense fighting between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) led the U.S. to send in air support. The Taliban claims the airstrikes represent a violation of the pact, known as the Doha agreement.

“American forces have violated the Doha agreement in various forms by carrying out excessive airstrikes following the new developments in Helmand province,” Taliban spokesperson Qari Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi said in a statement.

U.S. military officials immediately responded and fiercely denied breaking the deal.

“We categorically reject the Taliban’s claim the United States has violated the U.S.-Taliban Agreement. U.S. airstrikes in Helmand and Farah [provinces] have been and continue to be solely in defense of the ANDSF as they are being attacked by the Taliban,” U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said in a series of tweets Sunday morning. “These strikes are consistent with both the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and the Joint Declaration between the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States.”

“The entire world has witnessed the Taliban’s offensive operations in Helmand — attacks which injured and displaced thousands of innocent Afghan civilians,” Col. Leggett said. “We reiterate our call for ALL SIDES to reduce the violence to allow the political process to take hold.”

The U.S.-Taliban agreement laid the groundwork for the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in exchange for promises that the Taliban would never again allow the country to be a safe haven for terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda.

The deal also laid out the conditions for prisoner swaps between the Taliban and Afghan government and called for direct talks between the two sides. The Taliban and U.S.-backed Afghan government last month began their first face-to-face negotiations, even as their respective military forces clash across the country.

Against that chaotic backdrop, the Pentagon is moving ahead with a reduction in troop levels.

There were roughly 12,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan when the deal was finalized in February. That number was quickly cut to about 8,500, and military officials say it will soon be down to 4,500.

President Trump said earlier this month that all troops may be home by Christmas, but other administration officials now say about 2,500 will still be in Afghanistan early next year.

The U.S.-Taliban deal calls for the removal of all American forces by next spring or summer, though an exact exit date has not been established.


• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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