A top Russian diplomat says the Taliban insurgency is “flawlessly” adhering to the terms of a 2020 peace deal with the United States to help end the war in Afghanistan and is urging Washington not to renege on its commitments.
Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, spoke ahead of Wednesday’s NATO conference aimed at determining whether to meet a May 1 deadline agreed to with the Taliban for the withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan. He also spoke as the number of attacks carried out by the Taliban continue to rise.
The meeting in Brussels of NATO defense ministers comes amid increased allegations the Islamist insurgent group has committed serious breaches of the February 29, 2020, pact by not reducing Afghan battlefield violence and not cutting ties with international terrorist groups.
A new U.S. Department of Defense report said Wednesday that the Taliban’s links remain intact with al-Qaida.
“The Taliban continues to maintain relations with al-Qaida ... [the terror network’s] members were integrated into Taliban forces and command structures" said Sean O'Donnell, the department's acting inspector general.
And on Monday, the U.N. mission in the country published a new report that points to a sharp increase in targeted killings of Afghan human rights defenders and journalists in recent months.
'Much higher' Taliban violence
The Taliban have denied they are behind the assassination spree, but Afghan officials blame the insurgents, and independent observers also say the group’s denial is not convincing.
“Taliban violence is much higher than historical norms,” General Scott Miller, the head of U.S. forces and the NATO-led noncombat Resolute Support mission, told Reuters on Wednesday. “It just doesn’t create the conditions to move forward in what is hopefully a historic turning point for Afghanistan.”
The increase in violence prompted U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to review the deal before deciding on whether to bring home the remaining 2,500 American soldiers from the South Asian nation to close what has been the longest military intervention in U.S. history.
Despite that, the Russian state-owned Sputnik News Agency quoted Kabulov as saying, “The Taliban adhere to the agreement almost flawlessly — not a single American soldier has died since the agreement was signed — which cannot be said about the Americans.”
The Russian envoy accused the U.S. military of “repeatedly” carrying out airstrikes against Taliban-held Afghan area positions “under various pretexts.”
Kabulov also downplayed the presence of al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan, saying the terror network has about 500 militants in the country and they do not constitute a major security challenge.
“If the new [U.S] administration decides not to withdraw [the troops], it will violate the agreement with the Taliban. It doesn't look good for anyone. The Taliban have announced the war will continue [if foreign troops extend their stay],” said Kabulov.
Through an "open letter," the Taliban also urged the Biden administration on Tuesday to stick to the troop withdrawal agreement, describing it as “the most effective way of ending” the war in Afghanistan.
American officials maintain the U.S. has reduced its forces in Afghanistan from nearly 13,000 a year ago to 2,500 to meet its obligations outlined in the agreement. They also acknowledge the U.S. military has suffered no casualties since the signing of the accord with the Taliban that bound insurgents not to stage attacks against foreign troops.
Kabulov said Moscow is trying to host a multination meeting this month on how to nudge the Afghan warring parties back to the negotiating table for peace talks that stemmed from the U.S.-Taliban agreement but have been suspended since early last month.
The Taliban and Afghan government negotiators have accused each other of dragging their feet in the talks that started last September but failed to produce tangible results.
Kabulov said China, the U.S., Iran and Pakistan have been invited to the proposed meeting to develop a “collective mechanism to push the warring Afghan sides to return to table" and "declare a cease-fire at least for the period of the negotiation process.”
The Russian envoy said he would travel to Islamabad this week for “consultations” with Pakistani officials on the Afghan peace process. A Pakistani foreign ministry source told VOA the Russian diplomat was scheduled to arrive in the country on Friday.
Kabulov blamed the Afghan government for delaying the start of the intra-Afghan talks that were originally scheduled to begin last March.
“The Kabul administration has already done a lot of stupid things: It delayed the start of negotiations in anticipation of a change of administration in Washington, thinking that the next administration would behave differently,” alleged Kabulov.
He went on to assert the delay in starting the negotiations had allowed the Taliban to expand their influence to “three-quarters of the territory of Afghanistan” and “strengthen their negotiating position.”
Criticism of Taliban defense
A senior Afghan interior ministry official, Sediq Sediqqi, criticized Kabulov for defending the Taliban.
“No one should just close their eyes and say that the Taliban adhered to the terms. If that was the case, Afghans would have lived in a cease-fire and peace, the talks would continue and there would have been a solution. Taliban are the main violator and they at war with Afghans,” Sediqqi tweeted.
Critics acknowledge Biden faces a tough challenge in deciding how to proceed in Afghanistan, but they say abandoning the timelines agreed upon with the Taliban will have consequences.
"If the U.S. extends its military presence beyond May 1, there’s a good chance the Taliban will declare the Doha deal null and void, its war against the U.S. will be back on, a nascent and fragile intra-Afghan dialogue will fall apart, and we will be back to square one,” said Michael Kugelman at Washington’s Wilson Center.