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Deadly Taliban attack adds to despair over faltering Afghan peace process

Taliban militants celebrating US-Afghan peace deal, Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

KABUL — The news footage from a remote northern city Monday showed only the rubble that remained, hours after a Taliban car bomb and gun attack left 11 Afghan intelligence workers dead and at least 60 civilians wounded. But although most Afghans never heard the explosions, gunfire and screams ring out, the incident reverberated across the demoralized country.

Following weeks of relentless insurgent ground assaults and bombings — some in areas that had long enjoyed relative calm — the brazen attack in Aybak, ­capital of Samangan province, seemed to many Afghans like one more nail in the coffin of long-stymied talks between Taliban and Afghan delegates.

Insurgent spokesmen said that the blast targeted an intelligence agency compound and that all the dead were agency employees, but Afghan officials said gunmen then attacked the next-door city hall building, busy with public visitors. Scores of civilians were injured including children, hospital officials said.

“This is what the Taliban have to offer the Afghan people. Destruction, destruction and more destruction,” Javed Faisal, a spokesman for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, tweeted Tuesday.

One council member in Samangan, a fertile northern region that was an ancient center of Buddhism, said the Taliban presence there is “stronger than any time in the past 20 years.” In Kabul, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, a senior aide to Ghani, tweeted that the attack had “closed the doors of peace.”

Across Afghan society, the attack seemed to deepen growing feelings of disillusionment with the peace process and fears for the future. Over the past week, a variety of observers said they now believe that the Taliban will eventually return to power through a combination of force and political maneuvering, and that the more than 18-year-long civil conflict may continue indefinitely.

In Washington, meanwhile, concerns about the faltering peace process and mounting violence, following reports of Russian bounty payments to the Taliban to kill American troops, led to calls to rethink U.S. strategy, including a slowdown of planned troop reductions.

The top civilian official for NATO in Afghanistan, Stefano Pontecorvo, said Tuesday that the Taliban’s “insistence on continuous violence is jeopardizing the unique opportunity for peace.” The insurgents, he said, must “cease bloodshed and engage constructively” in negotiations.”

But the Taliban seems to remain undeterred, racking up day after day of attacks. On Monday, insurgents carried out 30 ground assaults and remote bombings in 17 provinces, killing 19 people in addition to the toll in Aybak, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry. The incidents included assaults on a prayer ceremony in the western province of Faryab and a district headquarters in the northern province of Balkh, once a showcase of stability and economic development.

On Sunday, there were 44 insurgent attacks or bombs in 21 provinces, including Nangahar in the east, Paktika in the south and Daikundi in the center of the country. A total of 21 security troops were killed. Many incidents were checkpoint attacks with few or no casualties, but in the northern province of Baghlan, an ambush killed five soldiers and wounded four police officers. The reports do not specify whether attackers are from the Taliban or other groups.

“The Taliban are in a state of glorification, and the country is in a state of resignation,” said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a former Afghan foreign minister who has criticized the U.S. government for making too many concessions to the insurgents in a rush to withdraw troops. “They have only one goal — not a sharing of power but a transfer of power.”

Afghans are especially concerned about the high rate of civilian casualties. According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the first six months of this year saw 1,213 civilians killed and 1,744 injured in conflict incidents. It said 48 percent of casualties were caused by the Taliban, 27 percent by unknown groups and 15 percent by government forces.

One of the few public figures who remains upbeat is Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department envoy who spearheaded months of talks with the insurgents that led to a bilateral agreement in February. The pact publicly called on the insurgents to stop attacking American troops and begin talks with Afghan leaders in exchange for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces.

But U.S. officials later said Taliban negotiators also agreed to reduce violence until a general cease-fire took place.

In a tweet Tuesday, Khalilzad declared that “a key milestone” had been reached with the completion of a “first phase” of work toward implementing the pact, including the vacating of five U.S. military bases. He condemned the Samangan attack, saying that it “contradicts” the insurgents’ pledge and that Afghans “continue to die in large numbers for no reason,” but he noted that “no American has lost his/her life” in Taliban attacks.

The Taliban, in a statement, praised the recent U.S. force reductions and called it “unfortunate” that an ongoing dispute over prisoner releases had delayed inter-Afghan talks. But they also complained that U.S. and Afghan forces carried out airstrikes against civilians in eight provinces. They called such actions “blatant violations” of the U.S. agreement.

While expressing optimism about the peace process, Khalilzad reiterated that U.S. dealings with the Taliban would continue to be based on its meeting certain conditions.

Elsewhere, the revelations of Russian bounties to the Taliban amid continued insurgent attacks have spurred calls to rethink President Trump’s Afghan exit strategy.

In an op-ed in The Washington Post on Monday, retired Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the United States must respond “forcefully” to such Russian actions. He also recommended that the United States “pause” the ongoing withdrawals of U.S. troops, now down to 8,600, until the Taliban meets the conditions set out in the peace agreement by cutting ties with al-Qaeda, beginning peace negotiations with Afghans and reducing violence.

The statement Tuesday by Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the attack in Samangan and other “escalations of violence” were only “reactions” to Afghan government attacks. He cited a June 29 incident in Helmand province where 23 civilians died in a chaotic bombing and mortar attack on a market. Taliban and Afghan officials blamed each other for the deadly episode.

Mujahid called for a “swift and complete” implementation of the February accord and urged that the situation be “stopped from spiraling towards further mistrust.”

The Ghani government has created an elaborate peace apparatus with a negotiating team of more than 100 leaders and a separate ministry, but little progress has resulted. Some critics blame Ghani for the delays, while others charge that the U.S. deal spearheaded by Khalilzad gave the Taliban too much leverage and has emboldened the insurgents to flout its conditions.

“After the agreement, we had hope that they would keep their promise to reduce violence, but they have not kept it,” said Fawzia Koofi, a member of the negotiating team. “I still have to be optimistic about bringing peace because people are being killed every day. The Taliban feel more power now, but people are fed up with war. If they expect to conquer Afghanistan by force, history proves that they will fail.”

Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post 2020

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