‘Taliban are not keeping their part of the bargain’

Monitoring Desk

KABUL: The US commander for the Middle East and Afghanistan has said the Taliban are not keeping “their part of the bargain” from the deal signed with the US earlier this month, saying the insurgents were continuing to launch attacks.

Marine Gen Frank McKenzie was giving evidence to Congress on Tuesday, hours after US forces began pulling out of Afghanistan as agreed in the 29 February deal, and as talks between Taliban and government representatives were due to begin.

“The Taliban need to keep their part of the bargain, and they are continuing attacks,” McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, said. “They are not directed against coalition forces, they are not occurring in city centers, they are occurring at isolated checkpoints. But those attacks are occurring, and they’re not consistent with a movement toward a negotiated settlement, and they’re not consistent with the undertaking they made.”

The US-Taliban deal followed a week-long partial ceasefire, but it did not include an agreement to continue that ceasefire. Trump administration officials have said that the withdrawal of the 13,000-strong US military presence in Afghanistan, due to happen over 14 months, would be “conditions-based”.

“We’re going to go to 8,600 by the summer,” McKenzie said. “Conditions on the ground will dictate if we go below that. If conditions on the ground are not permissive, my advice would not be to continue that reduction.”

US officials have not spelled out the conditions for the US withdrawal to continue, leaving the Trump administration much room for manoeuvre in interpreting success.

A secret annexe to the agreement signed in Doha reportedly lists the sort of attacks that are prohibited during that period, including assaults on the retreating US troops. The annexe has been shown to members of Congress but not to the public.

The UN security council expressed its unanimous backing from the US-Taliban deal on Tuesday and called for intra-Afghan peace talks, which the council said “must protect the rights of all Afghans, including women, youth and minorities”. In a highly sceptical assessment of the agreement, McKenzie told a House committee he was not optimistic about the Taliban severing ties with al-Qaida.

“We need to observe what they do and we have the capability to do that … That has not yet been demonstrated,” he said.

But, the general added: “We’re going to have ample time to see if they actually do that … And that will be before we become irrevocably committed to a force presence that would not allow us to have adequate leverage.” The chief Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, later presented a rosier assessment of the Taliban compliance with the Doha agreement.

“Although there are ups and downs, it has somewhat been holding,” Hoffman said. Prospective talks between Taliban and government representatives, due to start this week, have been complicated over a continuing dispute over the result of last year’s presidential election.

The incumbent president, Ashraf Ghani, issued a decree on Tuesday night on prisoner releases, which has been a major obstacle to starting intra-Afghan talks. According to Ghani’s spokesman, the government will release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in stages, starting with 1,500 on Saturday and then 500 every two weeks as negotiations progress. The swap involving up to 5,000 Taliban fighters was agreed by the US, which does not hold Taliban prisoners. They are being held by the Afghan government, which has been reluctant to free prisoners of war before negotiations begin.(The Guardian)