Sit down before you read this: The U.S. government’s Feb. 29 agreement with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan has not resulted in peace breaking out across the country.
That's because neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government are doing enough to reach a peace deal, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Tuesday.
Esper has said previously that the Taliban have pledged to not attack Afghan security forces as part of a secret agreement, but Reuters revealed that Taliban attacks actually surged 70 percent between March 1 and April 15.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military has stopped publicly releasing the number of Taliban and ISIS attacks as well as the number of U.S. airstrikes in support of Afghan security foces while peace negotiations with the Taliban are ongoing.
At a Pentagon news conference on Tuesday, Esper acknowledged that the peace process has “not moved as fast as we would like.”
“The best thing the Taliban can do right now is to live up to the agreement to get to a reduction of violence, consistent with where we were just prior to signing the documents,” Esper said.
However, much of Esper’s criticism on Tuesday was directed at the Afghan government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his primary challenger Abdullah Abdullah are still working on a power-sharing agreement following that country’s contested September 2019 presidential election.
“The key thing at this point in time is the political leadership of Afghanistan needs to come together and find out a formula by which they can work together – they being President Ghani and CEO Abdullah,” Esper said. “From there, based on that, they can form their negotiating team to sit down and begin the intra-Afghan negotiations.”
But disagreements about releasing Taliban prisoners have prevented those negotiations from taking place.
The agreement between the United States and the Taliban calls on the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, but Ghani initially refused to do so. Since then, both the Afghan government and Taliban have exchanged batches of prisoners.
A Taliban spokesman announced on Monday that 300 of the group’s prisoners had been released recently, but that is “not enough.”
“The process should be expedited so the prisoners be saved from the Coronavirus and the way be paved for an earliest inception of intra-Afghan negotiations,” Muhammad Suhail Shaheen said in a news release.
Responding to Esper’s comments on Tuesday, an Afghan official disputed the notion that the Afghan government was falling short of its obligations to negotiate with the Taliban.
In fact, the U.S. government struck the agreement with the Taliban without including the Afghan government, the official told Task & Purpose.
“We are asked to implement an agreement that is in contradiction to the US-Afghan Government declaration, for which Esper was in Kabul,” the official said. “There was no mention of the release of 5,000 prisoners there. We are still releasing prisoners to help the US- Taliban agreement. It should be appreciated, especially since the Taliban have not kept their end of the deal on reduction in violence.”
As part of the Feb. 29 agreement, the U.S. military is in the process of drawing down to 8,600 troops in Afghanistan. The rest of U.S. troops would leave in the spring of 2021 if the Taliban agree to fight terrorist groups and meet other conditions.