US warns Taliban to curb attacks after exit deal calls for 80% cut to violence

Previously secret agreement emerges as spokesmen for US military and Taliban clash on Twitter

The US military has warned the Taliban it must curb attacks inside Afghanistan and revealed that a US troop withdrawal agreement signed in February included an informal commitment for both sides to cut violence by 80%.

The previously secret arrangement was revealed in a Twitter spat between the US military spokesman, Col Sonny Leggett, and his Taliban counterpart, Zabihullah Mujahid. It comes after a sharp escalation in militant attacks since the agreement was sealed.
Civil war, poverty and now the virus: Afghanistan stands on the brink

In a rare open letter to militants published on Twitter, Leggett warned: “If the violence cannot be reduced – then yes, there will be responses.”

The Taliban had “asked for clarity” after the top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen Scott Miller, called for a reduction in violence and warned that “if the Taliban continue to attack” they should expect retaliation.

The militants have mounted more than 4,500 attacks across Afghanistan in the 45 days since they signed the agreement for a US troop drawdown, Reuters reported.

These have mostly been in rural areas, with no high-profile suicide missions targeting cities or foreign troops. But overall attacks are up 70% from the same period last year. Leggett said that broke the terms of the withdrawal deal.

“During those long negotiations, there were written and spoken commitments. Some commitments are being observed, while others are not,” he wrote. “We recognize the reduction of violence against cities and against coalition forces. But we spoke of ALL sides reducing violence by as much as 80% to pave the way for peace talks.”

It has been widely reported that the peace deal included secret annexes, but this is the first time the US has provided any details publicly of these side agreements.

The 80% figure may have been reached because the Taliban have consistently rejected calling a ceasefire, worrying it could damage their operational ability and the morale of their fighters. If four in five attacks stopped, the Taliban would still fight but Afghans would notice a slower tempo of conflict.

The Taliban spokesman attacked the US statement as “pointless and provocative” and said the path to resolving the war lay in the agreement signed in Qatar in February.

“We are committed to our end, honor your own obligations,” Mujahid said.

The Taliban have claimed attacks have fallen since the signing of the withdrawal deal and accused the US of breaking its commitment to secure the release of 5,000 of Taliban prisoners held by Afghan authorities.

Adding to Afghanistan’s troubles, the increase in violence has coincided with the rapid spread of the coronavirus. The four provinces reporting the highest number of cases have also been the ones hit the most by Taliban violence in recent weeks, according to the Reuters report.

There are fears that the virus may already be widespread, especially after tests in Kabul appeared to show almost a third of people selected for a random trial were infected, according to New York Times reporters.

Afghanistan’s divided government is meant to embark on political talks with the Taliban soon, to pave the way to a negotiated end to the war. Leggett warned that if violence levels did not go down, those peace talks might never begin.

“[Gen Miller] urges you to recognize that if all military sides do not act now to reduce violence,” he wrote, “the cycle of violence will continue to escalate and prevent the start of the political process.”

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who was in Doha for the signing ceremony, seemed more cautious in his assessment of the Taliban’s future behavior.

“The agreement will mean nothing – and today’s good feelings will not last – if we don’t take concrete action on commitments stated and promises made,” he said.