Taliban violated Afghan deal with shelling of bases, U.S. officials say
By Thomas Gibbons-Neff
Rockets launched at a U.S. military base and a joint U.S.-Afghan airfield in southern Afghanistan in recent weeks are believed to have been fired by the Taliban, according to three U.S. military officials, in what would amount to a clear breach of the peace agreement between the United States and the insurgent group.
Roughly a dozen rockets struck in late July around Camp Bastion, a sprawling air base used by Afghan and U.S. forces in the southern province of Helmand. And several rockets were fired within the past week or so at Camp Dwyer, a large U.S. military base about 50 miles south of Bastion.
A Taliban commander familiar with the region denied that the group had carried out any strikes on U.S. bases in Helmand and said that the group would investigate. The rocket strikes may also have been carried out by a Taliban faction that is against the agreement, according to one military official who was briefed on the matter.
There were no U.S. casualties in either attack, nor a public response from Washington during a stretch in which U.S. officials have struggled to keep an already shaky peace process on track.
The U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan also declined to comment.
Helmand province, long considered the Taliban’s heartland and its opium-fueled financial breadbasket, is predominantly controlled by the insurgent group, although well-armed drug barons and differing tribal affiliations ensure that many allegiances and agendas in the region are murky. Afghan government forces there are mostly constrained to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and some villages that serve as district centers.
The February peace deal signed in Doha, the capital of Qatar, stipulates that the Taliban would refrain from striking U.S. or NATO forces as they gradually withdrew from the country. And the U.S. military would attack the Taliban only to defend Afghan forces.
The Taliban, long thought to be a conglomerate of various factions with differing agendas, seem to have largely stayed true to the agreement as a unified front, at least publicly, when it comes to not attacking U.S. or coalition forces. But as the Taliban have continued to mount heavy assaults against the Afghan military forces, the United States has carried out dozens of airstrikes to help the Afghans, officials say.
Another sticking point is the Taliban’s reluctance to condemn al-Qaida, the terrorist group that carried out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and was harbored by the Taliban. A clearly defined tenet of the Feb. 29 peace agreement calls for the Taliban to sever all ties with al-Qaida before the total withdrawal of U.S. troops. Pentagon officials believe that al-Qaida fighters continue to be well ingrained with Taliban rank and file.
Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, said last week that there was a “debate” on Taliban ties to al-Qaida.
“There are very strict commitments there, and they must be upheld,” Miller told 1TV, an Afghan news outlet.
Violations of the Feb. 29 deal are often raised privately by Taliban and U.S. officials through a communication channel established after the agreement’s signing. Publicly, the Taliban have denounced the United States for carrying out airstrikes on their fighters, claiming the Americans were violating the deal.
“This is one part of a bigger picture,” said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict resolution organization.
“The military’s general silence or lack of comment of what seems to be an ongoing dynamic in the conflict feels like a reflection of a larger trend of the Americans willing to overlook ambiguities in how the February agreement is being upheld in the interest of not jeopardizing an agreement that already feels very fragile.”
In the recent attacks, the Taliban fired rockets from several miles away that were mostly inaccurate, said one military official familiar with the events. After rockets struck Camp Dwyer, U.S. aircraft retaliated by striking the launch site, destroying a cluster of munitions that had yet to be fired, the official said.
Camp Dwyer, a British base that was turned over to the Americans at the height of the war, is quietly becoming the strategic hub for U.S. troops remaining in southern Afghanistan.
The U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan has plans to shuttle troops to Camp Dwyer from its large airfield in Kandahar before closing the base in Kandahar altogether in the coming months, according to military officials. Under the February agreement, five U.S. bases were closed and handed over to Afghan forces.
Camp Bastion was once the logistics hub for U.S. and NATO troops in Helmand province. Conjoined by the U.S. Marine base Camp Leatherneck, the base was handed over to Afghan security forces in 2014.
Several months later, as the Taliban began retaking much of the province, U.S. forces returned, establishing a small base there and using the airfield for helicopter refueling and other operations.
There are roughly 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with plans to draw down to about 4,500 by the fall. Four U.S. service members have been killed during combat operations this year, a relatively small number compared to this time in 2019, when more than a dozen U.S. troops had been killed.
The Afghan government and the Taliban are stalled on the cusp of direct negotiations in Qatar as a dispute continues about a prisoner exchange on both sides.
Under the deal between the United States and the Taliban, which initiated the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, direct peace negotiations between the Afghan sides were conditioned on swapping 5,000 Taliban prisoners with 1,000 Afghan security forces held by the insurgents.
While the Taliban has released the Afghan prisoners, President Ashraf Ghani was reluctant to release 400 Taliban prisoners accused of serious crimes until a consultative assembly, convened this month, approved their release.
The talks were expected to begin in a matter of days after Ghani decreed the release of the last prisoners. But new hiccups have emerged: The Afghan government has conditioned the release of the Taliban on the freeing of more than a dozen Afghan commandos and pilots the insurgents are holding. Australia, France and the United States have also expressed concerns about the release of half a dozen prisoners.
While France and Australia do not want those members of the Taliban accused of attacks on their citizens released, the United States has said it has reason to believe that two of the Taliban fighters to be released would join the Islamic State group, a senior Afghan official said.