WASHINGTON - U.S. and coalition defense officials fear the Taliban are successfully ratcheting up attacks against the Afghan government, hoping to push it past its breaking point, while often keeping allied forces at bay.
The officials, who spoke with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), warn that despite the February agreement between the Taliban and the United States, violence directed at Afghan government forces “stayed well above historic norms” from April through the end of June.
The only respite for Afghan forces during that time came during the three-day Eid holiday cease-fire in late May, the officials said, demonstrating “the Taliban’s ability to exert command and control of their fighters.”
A separate U.S. Defense Department assessment provided to SIGAR for its quarterly report, released Thursday, was equally blunt.
“The Taliban is calibrating its use of violence to harass and undermine the [Afghan defense and security forces] and [the Afghan government], but remain at a level it perceives is within the bounds of the agreement, probably to encourage a U.S. troop withdrawal and set favorable conditions for a post-withdrawal Afghanistan,” it said.
The latest warnings come at the start of another three-day cease-fire (for the Eid al-Adha holiday), and as the Taliban promise the imminent release of imprisoned Afghan security forces, both developments seen as signs that long hoped-for intra-Afghan negotiations will soon get under way.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expressed hope this past Tuesday that such talks could start “in a week’s time.”
Taliban officials have likewise expressed cautious optimism about the talks, insisting they are negotiating in good faith.
“Our clear message remains that we are not looking for monopoly over power because all the diverse Afghan tribes and ethnicities are in need of one another,” Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said in a speech this week, where he went on to accuse the U.S. of violating certain commitments in the agreement.
“Frequent drone strikes, bombardments, raids and artillery attacks on unjustifiable grounds do not serve the interests of anyone,” the Taliban chief said.
U.S. military officials remain wary of the Taliban’s intent.
“The number of enemy-initiated attacks is, in fact, very worrisome,” U.S. Central Command’s General Kenneth McKenzie told VOA in an exclusive interview earlier this month.
“The Taliban has not lived up to some of the obligations they have made,” he added. “I don't know that they will.”
But there are questions about how much leverage the U.S. has in its deal with the Taliban.
According to Defense Department officials, the deal with the Taliban “included commitments to seek to continue reducing violence.” But the State Department told SIGAR those commitments only go so far.
State Department officials said there is no blanket prohibition against Taliban attacks against Afghan security forces. And during a May briefing, they noted Taliban attacks against Afghan forces broke only “the spirit” of the agreement.
“The Taliban’s leaders are working to further weaken the Afghan government while running out the clock on the U.S. presence, knowing that their prospects for success are going to increase in the months to come,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“It should be noted that, thus far, there is no evidence showing that the Taliban is complying with its supposed counterterrorism assurances,” he added.
Making the situation even more precarious, the SIGAR report cautions the Afghan government is struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
The latest data show about 36,500 confirmed COVID-19 cases and just fewer than 1,300 deaths. But researchers warn those numbers likely underestimate the problem.
As of July 15, despite limited testing, nearly 43 percent of COVID-19 test samples in Afghanistan came up positive, according Johns Hopkins University, giving the country one of the highest positivity rates in the world.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health has said the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rose by almost 700 percent in May alone.
The pandemic, which has caused countries to shut down borders and trade, is also hammering the Afghan government’s finances, sending revenue plunging by more than 23 percent during the first half of 2020.
The lack of food is also worsening, as prices for staples such as flour and cooking oil increase and more Afghans fall into poverty.
“About one-third of Afghanistan’s estimated 32.2 million people remain in either a crisis or emergency state of food insecurity and require urgent action,” the SIGAR report said.
Ayesha Tanzeem, Carla Babb and Ayaz Gul contributed to this story.