ISLAMABAD - The U.S. military carried out what it called a "defensive strike" against Taliban fighters Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, hours after President Donald Trump spoke by phone with a top Taliban leader about a peace deal the two sides signed aimed at ending the nearly 19-year war in Afghanistan.
A U.S. Forces-Afghanistan spokesman said the airstrike targeted fighters "who were actively attacking" an Afghan security forces checkpoint in Nahr-e-Saraj in Helmand province.
The spokesman said the United States is "committed to peace" but has the responsibility to defend its Afghan partners.
A Taliban readout of what it asserted was a 35-minute phone call Tuesday said its deputy chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, assured Trump the insurgent group would seek "positive future bilateral relations" with Washington after all U.S. and coalition troops withdraw from the country under the agreement they signed Saturday.
Trump later told reporters at the White House that he "had a very good conversation" with the Taliban leader. Baradar is based in Doha, the Qatari capital, where he signed the historic deal with U.S. chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad last week.
"The relationship is very good that I have with the mullah. We had a good long conversation today and you know, they want to cease the violence, they'd like to cease violence also,” Trump said of his phone call, the first such contact by a sitting American president with the Taliban.
“I think we all have a very common interest. … We’ve been there for 20 years. Other presidents have tried and they have been unable to get any kind of an agreement. The relationship is very good that I have with the Mullah,” the president said in reference to Baradar.
The rare contact took place two days after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ruled out a prisoner swap with the insurgent group, a key component in the U.S.-Taliban agreement.
The Afghan government was not part of the talks between U.S. and Taliban negotiators that led to the signed agreement Saturday.
Ghani told a news conference Sunday that his government had made no commitment to free thousands of insurgent prisoners, and insisted the issue could be taken up in intra-Afghan negotiations, which are scheduled to begin March 10 as has been stated in the pact.
The negotiations between Afghan parties to the conflict will seek a permanent nationwide cease-fire and future power-sharing in post-war Afghanistan.
However, the Taliban swiftly rejected Ghani’s announcement as an attempt to sabotage the peace deal and urged Washington to fulfil its obligations to secure release of insurgent prisoners before the start of intra-Afghan talks.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement said up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners will be released from Afghan government custody, and in turn the insurgent group will free 1,000 detainees, mostly Afghan security forces, by March 10.
On Tuesday, the Taliban said without elaborating that Trump told Baradar that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “shall soon talk with Ashraf Ghani in order to remove all hurdles to the intra-Afghan negotiations."
Baradar called on the American president to "not allow anyone to take actions that violate the terms of the agreement thus embroiling you even further in this prolonged war," according to the insurgent readout.
A mutually agreed seven-day reduction in violence paved the way for U.S. and Taliban officials to conclude last week’s agreement.
The insurgents were supposed to uphold the reduced fighting truce until they open talks with Afghan interlocutors. But Afghan authorities alleged Tuesday the Taliban carried out deadly attacks across many parts of the country in breach of their commitments.
Under the agreement reached last week, the United States is preparing to bring down the U.S. troop level to 8,600 within next five months from roughly 13,000 service members currently deployed to the Afghan mission. The rest of the troops would leave the country by April 2021, subject to Taliban counterterrorism commitments and progress in intra-Afghan peace talks.