July 16, 2020
The fact the Taliban established seven new training camps on Afghan soil in the past 30 days just as U.S. forces were exiting five military bases is likely not a pure coincidence. However, its significance will be impossible to weigh until more is known about the U.S. anti-terror posture after the conditions-based-in-name-only exit plan is fully executed.
The Pentagon, for its part, said the move was in line with the terms of the pact Washington forged with the insurgency earlier this year. The deal outlines a “conditions-based” withdrawal, albeit the conditions can, apparently, be loosely interpreted.
“July 13, 2020 marks 135 days since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement on February 29, 2020. As stipulated in the agreement, the United States agreed to reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 and withdraw from five bases. We have met this obligation,” Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement released on July 15.
The next step is for the U.S. and its allies to withdraw all personnel in less than ten months – including all private contractors – per the agreement.
There are a couple carefully-worded clauses in the Pentagon statement that are worth scrutinizing relevant to Washington’s future involvement in Afghanistan.
“U.S. military presence in Afghanistan remains focused on capabilities- not numbers,” Hoffman said. “We will continue to execute our counterterrorism mission.”
This caveat is capital because it provides the only signal that the United States will act before the Taliban takes Kabul by force. This is important to underscore because it is a very real long-term possibility.
According to journalist Stefanie Glinski, the Taliban have taken significant steps in recent weeks to build infrastructure and boost recruiting numbers.
“In just the past month, the Taliban set up three new camps for their fighters just outside Sham Sharpoor village in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province… with another four camps farther away, in Tatang village,” Glinski wrote in a piece published in Foreign Policy on July 7, citing local police commander Anar Gul.
Gul told the reporter that the Taliban have been “expanding quickly” since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, partly due to the reduction in airstrikes.
“Joining the Taliban has become a growing trend – and it’s not only civilians but also local police officers or soldiers whom I’ve seen switch sides,” Gul said.
An Afghan National Security Council official, Glinski added, said the third week of June had been the deadliest since 2001 – with more than 422 Taliban attacks across 32 provinces that left almost 300 government troops dead.
Within the past week the Taliban have seized more territory – including a bazar in Faryab province – and strategically targeted the heart of government intelligence operations.
NATO put out a statement condemning the Taliban’s escalation in violence that included more empty threats.
“The current level of violence – driven especially by Taliban attacks against Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, remains unacceptably high, causing instability and undermining confidence in the peace process,” the alliance said in a statement on July 14.
NATO also claimed the withdrawal from Afghanistan is conditions-based before threatening to “adjust” its military presence if the situation continues to unravel. The statement, in addition, repeated demands for the start of intra-Afghan talks.
Meanwhile, U.S. military leaders have continued to express nothing but frustration over the Taliban military advances, including CENTCOM chief, General Kenneth McKenzie.
“At a period when we should be striving for a reduction in violence, instead the Taliban has actually increased their attacks on the… Afghan military. And that is, frankly, not helpful and it makes cloudy the chances for a peaceful resolution and a reduction in violence and a ceasefire and a way ahead in Afghanistan,” McKenzie said in a briefing on July 14.
U.S. diplomats have been hailing the peace deal out of one side of their mouths while condemning the Taliban out of the other. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad has continued to push the fiction that the process is “conditions-based,” and has praised invisible progress.
“The Taliban & the Islamic Republic negotiating teams have made progress on logistics for intra-Afghan talks,” Khalilzad said in a tweet on July 13.
These new calls to reduce violence came days after the Taliban scoffed at the notion of changing course. The insurgents have argued that military operations are what sets the conditions for the talks in the first place – in other words, the type of reasoning that guarantees there will never be a ceasefire.
“A demand for us to stop the fighting and then start the negotiations is illogical. War is raging precisely because we have yet to find an alternative,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement as quoted by VOA on July 12.
In fact, Khalilzad has gone through some impressive mental gyrations to come up with any conditions that the Taliban have met.
“No American has lost his/her life in Afghanistan to Taliban violence,” Khalilzad said in another tweet.
One can be fairly confident not a single Afghan feels rest assured by the American envoy’s definition of progress.