By Eltaf Najafizada and Josh Wingrove, Bloomberg News–
Hours after Donald Trump spoke by phone with a top leader of the Taliban about peace in Afghanistan, the U.S. conducted an airstrike against the militant group while it was attacking Afghan forces in Helmand province.
U.S. military spokesman Sonny Leggett confirmed the airstrikes on Twitter, calling on the Taliban to stop “needless” attacks. “To be clear — we are committed to peace,” he tweeted, noting that Afghans and the U.S. had complied with the recently-signed agreement, while the Taliban “appear intent on squandering this opportunity and ignoring the will of the people for peace.”
As he left the White House on Tuesday, Trump called the conversation a “very good talk” and said the two sides had reiterated commitments to reduce violence in a peace agreement reached in Qatar on Saturday. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“We had a good conversation,” Trump said of the call, believed to be the first direct communication between an American president and a senior official from the militant group since America’s longest war began 19 years ago. “We’ve agreed there’s no violence, we don’t want violence, we’ll see what happens, they’re dealing with Afghanistan, but we’ll see what happens.”
On March 3 alone, the Taliban conducted 43 attacks on Afghan forces’ checkpoints in Helmand, Leggett said.
Earlier Wednesday, the Taliban launched attacks against Afghan forces across the country, after resuming military operations on Monday. In two separate assaults in northern Kunduz province in the past 24 hours, at least 20 Afghan forces were killed, said Fawzia Yaftali, a member of Kunduz provincial council, by phone.
The White House provided a statement on the call between Trump and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed the peace accord. In addition to urging a continuing reduction in violence, according to the statement, the president encouraged the Taliban to participate in talks with the Afghan government.
The Taliban said in a statement that Trump called Afghans a “tough people” who “have a great country and I understand that you are fighting for your homeland.” The group said it foresees “positive bilateral relations” with the U.S. and other nations.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed earlier confirmed the phone call.
At the time of the U.S. invasion, the Taliban ruled the country and refused to surrender al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who eventually fled to neighboring Pakistan before being killed by U.S. forces in 2011.
Trump has shown a penchant for being open to talking or meeting with foreign leaders at odds with the U.S. He broke decades of precedent when he met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in 2018 in an effort to jump start talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. He’s also lavished praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
The president, speaking Saturday in a press conference at the White House, said he plans to meet personally with Taliban leaders “in the not-too-distant future.”
“I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show that we’re not all wasting time,” Trump said. “If bad things happen, we’ll go back.”
The peace deal signed on Saturday helps Trump fulfill a 2016 campaign promise to begin pulling American forces out of what he’s called “endless wars.” The agreement calls for U.S. troop levels to fall to 8,600 within 135 days, from about 13,000 now, and for all U.S. forces to withdraw in 14 months if the accord holds.
In exchange for the initial U.S. troop drawdown, the Taliban pledge to cut ties with all terrorists and prevent Afghan territories from becoming militant havens. Despite almost two decades of war and $900 billion in spending by the U.S., the Taliban are at their strongest since being ousted by American forces.
The Doha deal — which followed a seven-day reduction in violence — is expected to pave the way toward direct talks between Taliban officials and Afghan leaders in Oslo as soon as next week.
Expected March 10, talks between the Taliban and Ghani’s administration are at a stalemate as both sides have set conditions. The militant group says Ghani’s administration must release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while Ghani has asked the Taliban to leave Pakistan.
“If the Taliban talk prisoner release and have it as a condition, we also have conditions, they should tell me when will they leave Pakistan?,” Ghani told a gathering yesterday during a visit to eastern Nangarhar province.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called the agreement in Doha “the best opportunity for peace in a generation.” But it faced criticism from some Republicans, including former National Security Advisor John Bolton.
“Signing this agreement with Taliban is an unacceptable risk to America’s civilian population,” Bolton tweeted Saturday, describing it as an “Obama-style deal.”
–With assistance from Justin Sink.
To contact the reporters on this story: Eltaf Najafizada in Kabul at email@example.com;Josh Wingrove in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at email@example.com, ;Alex Wayne at firstname.lastname@example.org, John Harney, Joshua Gallu
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