U.S. Targets Taliban In Airstrike Days After Deal Was signed

Mar 4, 2020
Originally published on March 4, 2020 8:38 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On Saturday, the United States and the Taliban signed a deal intended as a first step to peace in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. Just four days later, the U.S. is fighting the Taliban again. The U.S. says it has conducted an airstrike against Taliban fighters.

NPR's international correspondent Diaa Hadid joins us now from Islamabad, Pakistan. Diaa, what happened?

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: So according to a spokesman for U.S. forces, they conducted an airstrike against Taliban fighters in the southern Helmand province. Fighters there were attacking an Afghan military checkpoint. And it was the first strike against the Taliban since the U.S. signed a deal with them on Saturday, and that's meant to see a conditional withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces within 14 months. Before that deal, the Taliban had abided by a seven-day partial truce. But after the deal itself, it's been vague whether they are meant to continue that or not.

MARTIN: So even though this deal has been signed between the U.S. and the Taliban, the Taliban can still attack U.S. forces or even Afghan government forces?

HADID: Right. So also, the deal is vague on this point. And what analysts think is happening right now is that the Taliban are testing the limits of the Americans and their commitment to this deal and the Afghan government. And they might have actually been emboldened by recent events.

Consider this. On Monday, the Taliban announced they're resuming their attacks against Afghan security forces, and they conducted more than 40 just in the Helmand province alone. On Tuesday evening, President Trump called the Taliban's chief negotiator, and that was the first time an American president has talked directly to anyone in the Taliban. Following that call, the Taliban attacked a military checkpoint and killed 16 soldiers. And then this U.S. airstrike happened in response to a different attack in another part of the country.

MARTIN: What's the strategy? I mean, to the extent that you're able, can you explain what - why this would benefit the Taliban to escalate attacks just after signing this deal with the U.S.?

HADID: Right. What it appears to be is that the Taliban need to continue their attacks because violence is their chief leverage. They don't really have anything else. And they need to demonstrate their muscle, especially as they're going forward with negotiations with the Afghan government to settle their place in a future Afghanistan.

And so on this point, I spoke to Andrew Watkins. He's a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. And he's in Kabul right now. And he says this, the Taliban can't really stop their attacks because it might demotivate their base.

ANDREW WATKINS: What if the Taliban, all of a sudden, brings out such an extended reduction in violence that when it calls its fighters to resume in order to put that pressure on the Afghan government, what if the fighters don't return the call?

MARTIN: Right, so what does happen next? I mean, how does this complicate the talks that are supposed to happen between the Taliban and the Afghan government?

HADID: Right. So what we're seeing now is just sort of like a hammering out of the parameters. And the question is, like, what level of violence will the Americans tolerate in Afghanistan as they prepare to withdraw, particularly against the Afghan security forces, who, let's remember, are their allies, which the U.S. has effectively funded and trained? And because the Americans are being vague on what they'll tolerate, we're probably going to learn the limits airstrike by airstrike.

MARTIN: All right. It goes on. NPR's Diaa Hadid in Islamabad.

Thank you, Diaa. We appreciate it.

HADID: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.