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May 2nd, the Taliban bombed an Afghan military center in the Southern Helmand Province of Afghanistan. The attack threatens the fragile March peace deal between the U.S. and the insurgent group. The target of the weekend truck-bombing was an Afghan compound stationing over 150 members of the Afghanistan military and intelligence services. The attack follows the U.S.-Taliban agreement to remove over 4,000 troops in 14 months from the region.
The Taliban confirmed responsibility for the attack on May 4th. Qari Yousuf Ahmedi, a spokesman for the Islamist group, claims the attack killed “dozens of members belonging to the enemy forces.’’ However, reports on attack casualties are inconsistent. The spokesman for the Afghan regional governor, Omar Zwak, claims, “Five members of the Afghan security forces and intelligence services were killed, and seven others were wounded.” Meanwhile, media outlets put the death toll at much higher, with the BBC reporting “at least 20 security personnel” deaths from the car-bombing.
Amid ongoing U.S. troop removal, the Afghan government has faced an increase in attacks as security in the region weakens. According to Reuters, the Taliban has launched 4,500 attacks against Afghan forces in the 45 days following the agreement. The attacks amount to an approximate 70% increase in violence from March 1st to April 15th. The Saturday attack only increases the fragility of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, which has already faced obstacles that threaten its integrity.
In February, the Taliban rejected the Afghan government’s proposal for the phased release of prisoners. The insurgent group claimed the proposal contradicted its agreement with the U.S. The rejection delayed peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, which were initially set to start March 10th.
Moreover, Internal power struggles within the Afghan government are further exacerbating the situation. Two politicians, President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, claim presidential legitimacy. As a result, Afghan government coordination is increasingly tricky, allowing the Taliban to exploit weak governance to its advantage.
Despite the increase in Taliban attacks, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, claims the current peace deal is “the best path forward.” The U.S. has yet to declassify and release the entire outline of the agreement. But according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, The U.S.-Taliban deal designs troop removal to be contingent on the Taliban “preventing its members and other individuals from using Afghan soil ‘to threaten the security of the United States,’ and to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government to determine a ‘permanent and comprehensive ceasefire’ and to reach an ‘agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan.’”
Nevertheless, the agreement does not pertain to Taliban attacks against Afghan forces. The U.S. State Department told a government watchdog that the “agreement does not prohibit all Taliban attacks against Afghan security forces, nor does it preclude the United States from acting in defense of Afghan forces.” Without troop removal regulated by the level of regional violence, there is little incentive for the Taliban not to exploit the decreased security of the region. The 70% increase in violence following the signing of the agreement acts as a prime example of the agreement failing to incentivize the Taliban to accept peace. In the context of available public information, the U.S.-Taliban agreement seems to focus on U.S. removal from the region, rather than peace.
However, the perception of the agreement as solely concerned with U.S. military presence has become debatable. On February 29th, Mark Esper told reporters that the “Taliban were not living up to their commitments.” Esper’s statement goes against public information on the agreement. It implies the presence of a clause on the reduction of violence against Afghan forces. Speculation was confirmed on May 2nd, when Col. Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, tweeted a statement to Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, claiming the U.S. and Taliban “spoke of ALL sides reducing violence by as much as 80% to pave the way for peace talks.” The letter elaborated that “there were written and spoken commitments,” for the reduction of violence.
Despite the revelation that the U.S.-Taliban agreement included a reduction in Taliban violence, U.S. troop removal continues. CNN reported that there are fewer than 10,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan, a sizable reduction from the 13,000 present at the time of the agreement. At this rate, the U.S. is ahead of its announced troop removal schedule, and an earlier timeline for complete removal from the region is expected. If the agreement does contain classified clauses on a reduction of violence, the continued removal of U.S. forces acts as an incentive for the Taliban to increase its attacks. Moreover, the insurgent group now knows that America is more concerned with appeasing its public by ending its longest war, rather than securing sustainable peace.
Regulating U.S. troop removal based on the level of regional violence could be highly beneficial in terms of long-term peace. Since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the Taliban has not attacked U.S. forces. The Taliban’s aversion to violence with the U.S. reflects its interest in a reduction of forces, proving its incentivizing powers. If the incentive of American troop removal was applied to peace negotiations with the Afghan government it could act as a powerful bargaining chip against the insurgent group.
Rather than have American forces evacuate in a period of increased violence, troops can be used in defensive measures to protect civilians and government infrastructure. Considering the Taliban’s proven aversion to attacking U.S. forces, defensive use of troops to regulate regional violence could decrease civilian casualties. In the context of the 70% increase in violence over the prior two months, continued removal of troops weakens the security of the state further. In a fragile state with weak governance, the possibility of a power vacuum is high and, if created, could potentially destabilize the divided Afghan government.
The state of the Afghan government must be taken into consideration as well in U.S. troop removal. In its current state, the government is internally divided over the legitimacy of the Afghanistan president. Due to division over the executive office, the government is not currently able to fully function as a cohesive political unit. As a result, the country is in a state of weak governance that invites exploitation.
Historically, weak governance has proven to be a destabilizing force that fosters the power growth of armed groups. In the case of the Sahel, the Libyan revolution led to a period of weak governance in the region. As a result, armed groups expanded their influence through the exploitation of the power vacuum. The strengthened status of insurgent groups combined with continued weak governance has promoted a devastating Humanitarian crisis in the Sahel. To assure Afghanistan does not suffer the same future, the government must resolve its division and present a unified front.
May 1st, President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah announced work towards a power-sharing regime that could temporarily resolve internal strife. According to Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Mark Esper “said a tentative power-sharing agreement announced last week between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah was encouraging.” However, U.S. troop removal remains non-contingent on the internal efficiency of the Afghan government. The Afghan government must settle its presidential dispute and reconcile politically before the U.S. meets its goal of troop removal. Without doing so, America could facilitate a coup similar to that of Libya and with similar destabilizing effects.
Moreover, COVID-19 invites additional tension to the situation. Afghan civilians are at a heightened level of fragility due to the pandemic. The pressuring forces of the virus on state infrastructure are two-fold with the violence in the region. As witnessed globally, governments must have the capacity to respond to the pandemic before it’s infection rate becomes unmanageable. In the context of a politically divided and internally violent state such as Afghanistan, efficient response to the virus is nearly impossible. Reconciliation of the Afghan political unit would not only assist with violence reduction but also with civilian safety during the pandemic.
On May 6th, The State Department announced the deployment of a special envoy for Afghanistan. According to Al Jazeera, the U.S. special envoy “is on a mission to press Taliban negotiators in Doha and officials in India and Pakistan to support a reduction in violence, acceleration of intra-Afghan peace talks and cooperation on handling the coronavirus pandemic.” The envoy could potentially change the tides of violence in Afghanistan if it is able to incentivize the Taliban to reduce attacks. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad is the leader of the envoy, with the State Department saying Khalilzad “would press Taliban officials ‘for full implementation’ of the February 29th agreement.”
‘Full implementation’ could relate to the conditions mentioned in Col. Sonny Leggett’s twitter statement that cited an agreed-upon 80% reduction in regional violence. However, it’s debatable how the U.S. will incentivize the Taliban to follow such a reduction if troop removal is not regulated by the level of violence.
The May 2nd truck-bombing of an Afghan military center is only a single incident in the widespread violence present in the state. Unless the U.S. pressures the Taliban to reduce violence, similar attacks with increased casualties can occur in the future. It is crucial for the U.S. to implement a two-part system in response to Taliban attacks on Afghan forces. Reforms to the troop-removal system and reconciliation of internal divisions must be included as essential before more forces leave the region. If the U.S.-Taliban agreement continues at its current state, it is likely for a power vacuum to follow with devastating effects. For the better of the Afghan people, America must quell its public’s call for regional removal until stability returns.