Biden administrator expected to keep US troops in Afghanistan amid escalating violence, talks stalled

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US troops are currently at their lowest level in Afghanistan, which the Pentagon said in a new report Monday placed “limitations” on the completion of its mission.

The Taliban, though engaged in intermittent talks with the Afghan government, have also suffered high levels of deadly attacks and have refused to agree to a ceasefire – even as the country is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, with rates of poverty and unemployment. strongly up.

This violence shatters the spirit of the US-Taliban agreement signed by the administration of former President Donald Trump almost a year ago, which called on the militant group to work towards a ceasefire. fire with the Afghan government and engage in meaningful talks on the way forward.

The deal also included a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops which was to withdraw completely by May 2021 if the Taliban honored those commitments, as well as a pledge to sever ties with terrorist groups like al-Qaida – including the base in Afghanistan was used to help launch the September 11 attacks.

“The Taliban have not kept their commitments. As you know, there is a looming deadline of early May … but without fulfilling their commitments to renounce terrorism and stop the violent attacks against the Afghan National Security Forces and, for the Afghan people, it is very difficult to see a specific path for a negotiated settlement, ”Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.

Kirby’s comments are corroborated by a new report from the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, or SIGAR, released on Monday, which found losses “unusually high for the winter months when fighting calms down normally. “.

“There was no ceasefire agreement and high levels of insurgent and extremist violence continued in Afghanistan this quarter despite repeated calls from senior US and international officials to reduce violence in an effort to to move the peace process forward, ”said John Sopko, the longtime special. Inspector General, wrote in the introduction to the report. “It is also not clear, as SIGAR describes in this report, that the Taliban severed ties with the al-Qaeda terrorists who orchestrated the September 11 attacks on the United States.”

While the Biden team appears keen to use US troops as leverage to secure a deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the militant group has warned that the US must honor its pledge to leave the country. The Taliban deputy negotiator threatened the insurgents to resume attacks on the US military if they did not.

“In the history of Afghanistan, no one has ever given invading foreign troops safe passage, so it is a good chance for the Americans that we are giving them safe passage out in accordance with this treaty. We hope that when they review this they will come to the same positive (conclusion), “Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai told reporters in Moscow where the Taliban were meeting with Russian officials, according to Voice of America.

Although Biden spoke of some remaining US troops to fight terrorism, it would violate the deal from the Taliban’s perspective.

It is also not known whether several hundred American soldiers could support this mission. According to the SIGAR report, after Trump ordered that US forces be reduced to 2,500 in November, military commanders told the Inspector General’s office that they were having difficulty carrying out the US twin missions: the fight against terrorism and the training and advice of Afghan security forces.

The Pentagon “recognizes that the latest force level introduces certain limitations on the force’s capacity and on the training, advice and assistance mission,” SIGAR reported, although US forces in Afghanistan “insisted this quarter on the fact that his ability to perform … “was not affected by the reduced strength levels.”

But for the Afghan security forces and their political leaders, these cuts have had an impact, and although they “respect” the decision Biden will take, according to Vice President Amrullah Saleh, they believe that “the mission is not yet completed “.

“If they withdraw prematurely, they can put any title on their withdrawal and exit, but there is also a title that terrorist groups will put on their withdrawal: defeat, surrender and flight,” Saleh told the BBC earlier this month, accusing the Trump administration of “calming down” and making “massive concessions” to the Taliban.

Delegations from the Afghan government and the Taliban met in September, six months after the scheduled start of peace negotiations. After decades of bitter fighting, the two sides reached an agreement on the rules governing the talks in December, but have yet to finalize an agenda, let alone a way forward for a political settlement.

In addition to the 2,500 American troops, the American allies have approximately 8,000 military personnel in the country under NATO command. Reuters reported on Sunday that the alliance plans to keep those troops in Afghanistan beyond the May deadline, but NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told ABC News: “No decision has been made. been taken … No NATO ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, but we have made it clear that our presence remains conditional Allies continue to assess the overall situation and consult on the way forward. “

In the midst of Biden’s review, the administration is also under increasing pressure not to withdraw US forces without first securing the release of American Mark Frerichs, who disappeared a year ago in Afghanistan and who would be held hostage by a group affiliated with the Taliban.

“As questions remain about the future of US forces in Afghanistan after the hasty and reckless withdrawals of the previous administration, we are increasingly concerned about losing our clout to ensure that US hostages in Afghanistan and Pakistan, y including Mark Frerichs, be sent home safely. their families, ”the two Frerichs home state senators, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin of Illinois, wrote to Biden on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of his disappearance.

“We urge you to look into this matter and ensure that the release of Mark Frerichs and other US hostages is a priority in future negotiations with the Taliban and that any further troop reductions are conditional on their safe return.” , added the Democratic senators.

The Taliban have denied that they or their partners kidnapped the 58-year-old civil engineer and Navy veteran, but Frerichs is reportedly being held hostage by his partner the Haqqani Network.

“We know that the Biden administration is reassessing the role of the United States in Afghanistan and the peace agreement that was reached last February and we hope that they will view Mark’s release as an important step that must happen before anything else, ”her sister Charlene Cakora said. in a statement Wednesday. “We want Mark to come home safe and sound.”

Matt Seyler of ABC News contributed to this Pentagon report and Christine Theodorou of New York.

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