ESPER: US-Taliban Deal Seeing ‘Mixed’ Results

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WASHINGTON, D.C./KABUL – Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Wednesday the US has seen “mixed” results in the first days of a peace deal with the Taliban. Esper’s comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee come after USAF conducted its first airstrike since the US administration signed the deal, which US Forces Afghanistan said was a response to a Taliban attack on an Afghan military checkpoint.

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“The results so far have been mixed,” Esper stated, adding, “The Taliban are honoring their piece in terms of not attacking US and coalition forces but not in terms of sustaining the reduction in violence.”

The deal does not commit the Taliban to continue a reduction in violence, which they adhered to as a confidence-building measure in the week leading up to signing the agreement. The insurgents announced on Monday they were no longer bound by the reduction in violence and would resume their offensive operations against the Afghan government.

Earlier Wednesday morning, US Forces Afghanistan announced it conducted an airstrike on Taliban fighters “who were actively attacking” Afghan forces in Helmand province. Esper, who was in Kabul the day the agreement was signed in Qatar, stressed that the deal with the Taliban allows US forces to defend their Afghan partners and that “it’s the commitment I made to the Afghans when I was there”.

The airstrike came hours after Trump spoke by phone with the Taliban’s lead negotiator — the first known conversation between a US president and the Taliban since the start of the war — a call that Trump described as the two agreeing on the need for no violence”.

The agreement requires the US military to draw down to 8,600 troops in 135 days and lays out a path for a full US withdrawal in 14 months. It is meant to precede talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to secure peace. But those intra-Afghan talks have hit a snag before they even began over a provision in the US-Taliban deal for a prisoner swap, a plan the Afghan government quickly rejected.

Esper noted Wednesday that US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is “over there now” trying to “pull the parties back together” to set the conditions for the intra-Afghan talks. Testifying alongside Esper, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley stressed that Taliban attacks this week have been “low level”.

“Of significance, there’s no attacks in 34 provincial capitals. There’s no attacks in Kabul. There’s no high-profile attacks. There’s no suicide bombers. There’s no vehicle-borne suicide, no attack against US forces, no attack against coalition. There’s a whole laundry list of these things that aren’t happening,” Milley said, adding, “Yes, there were significant numbers of attacks, small attacks. They were all beaten back.”

While Milley stated that the Taliban were able to control fighters during the seven-day reduction in violence to cut attacks from about 125 per day to about 15, Esper announced that the Taliban are having trouble keeping all of its factions “on board”.

“They’ve got their range of hard-liners and soft-liners, and so they’re wrestling with that too, I think,” he added.

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