The United States on Friday urged Afghan leaders to end a lingering political dispute and work together to advance peace-building efforts, with officials stressing the emerging coronavirus threat required a “coordinated, proactive response.”
The Trump administration’s top diplomat for the region pleaded with leaders in Afghanistan to press forward with a pause in violence after suspected Taliban “infiltrators” within the ranks of Afghan government forces killed at least 37 security personnel in the southern Zabul province.
“With the threat of COVID-19 growing around the world, (Afghan) leaders need to prioritize people over politics more than ever,” tweeted Alice Wells, the U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary.
The political feud Wells referred to stems from the contentious Sept. 28 Afghan presidential election.
The Afghan Independent Election Commission last month declared incumbent President Ashraf Ghani the winner, but his rival, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, rejected the outcome as fraudulent, and both held competing presidential inaugurations more than a week ago.
The political rift and continued insurgent violence have apparently thrown into turmoil the February 29 agreement the United States signed with the Afghan Taliban that aims to end the Afghan war.
Zabul insider attack
An Afghan security official, while sharing details of Friday’s deadly violence with VOA, said on condition of anonymity that the “insider attack” happened at a base in Zabul that was being jointly manned by soldiers and policemen, not far from the provincial governor’s office.
Several “infiltrators” connected to the Taliban reportedly opened fire on fellow security personnel as they slept. The shooters later fled the facility along with military equipment and vehicles of the slain men.
Atta Jan Haqbayan, the head of the provincial council, told VOA the suspected “infiltrators” went into action shortly after Taliban insurgents assaulted the base. He said nine Afghan forces went missing after the attack, suspecting they were the assailants and rejoined insurgent ranks.
The Taliban has neither denied nor claimed responsibility for the attack.
NATO’s senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, Nick Kay, denounced the violence.
“I condemn the savage Taliban attack on the Afghan security forces in Zabul. What kind of people can order and do this to fellow Afghans on the day of Nowruz, in the midst of a global pandemic & after professing commitment to peace? Shameful,” Kay tweeted.
The NATO envoy referred to the Nowruz new year celebrations ongoing in Afghanistan.
The violence came a day after Afghan Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid said the Taliban had intensified attacks across the country, prompting the government to order security forces to assume a more aggressive, active defense” posture against the insurgents group.
Khalid said his forces had been on a “full defensive” posture since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, He also urged the Taliban to declare a cease-fire to help Afghans tackle the coronavirus outbreak.
The Ghani-Abdullah presidential rift has effectively crippled governance in Afghanistan and prevents the Afghan side from forming a united, inclusive team of negotiators to engage in peace talks with the Taliban on a permanent cease-fire and power sharing as has been outlined in the deal Washington sealed with the insurgent group in Qatar.
The proposed intra-Afghan negotiations were scheduled to begin on March 10, subject to a prisoner swap between Kabul and the Taliban.
The agreement required the Afghan government to free up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 detainees, mostly Afghan forces, in insurgent custody.
Kabul refused to release the prisoners altogether, saying it would set them free in batches subject to the opening of talks with the Taliban and guarantees the released men would not return to the battlefield.
But the Taliban rejected the plan as a violation of its deal with the U.S., saying it would not engage in intra-Afghan negotiations until all insurgent prisoners were set free unconditionally.
The U.S. and allied forces have agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months and U.S. service members have already begun drawing down as their part of the pact with the Taliban.