WASHINGTON — During the first three months of 2021, the Taliban stepped up attacks against the Afghan people, maintained close ties with Al Qaeda and actively planned for large-scale offensives — all while peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government failed to make any progress, according to a new report by the Defense Department's Office of Inspector General.
"U.S. Forces-Afghanistan reported a historic increase in enemy-initiated attacks since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, with nearly 37 percent more enemy-initiated attacks this quarter than during the same period in 2020," the report from the Pentagon's internal watchdog said about Operation Freedom Sentinel, the name of the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan.
Citing information provided by Resolute Support, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, the inspector general found that enemy-initiated attacks in the first and second quarters of fiscal year 2021 remained above historical averages, with 11,551 reported this quarter and 10,431 last quarter.
Enemy-initiated attacks for the past three quarters have been at the highest levels since Operation Freedom Sentinel began in January 2015, "indicating that the Taliban intensified attacks" against the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces "after the signing of the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement," the inspector general found.
The report cited analysis from the Defense Intelligence Agency saying that from Jan. 1 through March 31, the Taliban's military strategy was to prepare for large-scale offensives against provincial centers, complex attacks against the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces' bases and operations to degrade the Afghan forces' capabilities.
In the first two months of 2021, the Taliban surrounded the provincial capitals of Baghlan, Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz and Uruzgan provinces to prepare the offensives, and they continued assassinating government employees, security officials and journalists, the report says.
Citing information from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the report says that Al Qaeda continues to rely on the Taliban for protection and that ties between the two groups have strengthened.
At the same time, the Afghan Security Forces have conducted offensive operations against the Taliban, but the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that the offensives "did not accomplish anything of strategic value."
Last month, the Biden administration announced that all U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, four months after the May 1 deadline set by the Trump administration's peace agreement with the Taliban last year.
The inspector general's report cited a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment that Taliban threats to resume hostilities against coalition forces if they did not withdraw by May 1 were credible and that the Taliban were very likely to respond with indirect fire, suicide bombings and attacks with vehicle-borne IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.
The U.S. began withdrawing troops on May 1. According to U.S. Central Command, 13 percent to 20 percent of the withdrawal process is complete and about 115 C-17 cargo planes with equipment and personnel have left Afghanistan. The U.S. has also handed over five bases to the Afghan Defense Ministry.
'We will help them'
The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, offered a more upbeat assessment Tuesday at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Khalilzad said he disagreed with some forecasts that Afghan government forces would unravel once U.S. troops leave in September.
"I personally believe the predictions that the Afghan forces will collapse right away, they're not right," said Khalilzad, who negotiated the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban that set out the terms for a U.S. military withdrawal.
The U.S. will continue to provide financial support to the Afghan security forces, he said. "We are helping them now. We will help them. This is our commitment."
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers voiced skepticism at the hearing that the Afghan government and its security forces would be able to hold on to power once U.S. forces leave, expressed fears that Afghans who worked for the U.S. government would face retribution from the Taliban and said they were worried that dramatic gains in women's rights would be lost.
Khalilzad, an Afghan-born diplomat, said that there was no military solution to the conflict and that if the Taliban believed they could win on the battlefield, the insurgents would face a "long war."
"The real choice that the Afghans will face is between a long war and a negotiated settlement. And I hope the Taliban and the other Afghan leaders make the right choice. I hope that those with influence over the Taliban, such as Pakistan, do the right thing," he said.
But he argued that the U.S. had to face the reality that a continued military presence would not produce a different outcome. "Again I keep coming to this proposition: What is the alternative? Is the alternative to keep doing what we have been doing for another 10, 20 years if you see that there is no way you can prevail?"
Khalilzad said he shared lawmakers' concerns about the safety of Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other jobs for U.S. troops and diplomats. He said the Biden administration was working to expedite applications for U.S. visas under a program designed for Afghans who were employed by the U.S. government.
But, he added, "We don't want to signal panic and the departure of all educated Afghans by worst-casing and undermining the morale of the Afghan security forces. So this is a delicate, complicated balance that we have to keep."
A bipartisan group of 10 senators, led by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday urging the Biden administration to take urgent action to protect the safety of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, including a possible evacuation of Afghans who have applied for U.S. visas.
The letter calls for authorizing an additional 20,000 visas for the next fiscal year for Afghans who applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, a program designed for former Afghan interpreters and others who were employed by the U.S. military or embassy. The senators also appealed to the administration to "review and consider options to evacuate to a safer location SIV applicants with pending applications who may face extreme danger in Afghanistan until the adjudication of their applications."
Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed last year, the insurgents pledged to ensure that Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups would not be allowed to use Afghan territory to launch attacks against the U.S. or its allies.
Asked whether the Taliban were living up to their counterterrorism promises, Khalilzad said: "They have made substantial progress in delivering on those commitments. But we would like to see more."
Khalilzad also suggested that the U.S. was making progress in securing possible agreements with neighboring countries for access to military bases to address terrorism threats from Afghanistan. "What I can say in this format," he said, "is that several countries in the area are open to enhanced cooperation."
As for the future of women's rights and human rights, Khalilzad said any future U.S. assistance would depend on Afghanistan's upholding respect for fundamental freedoms.
Khalilzad said Taliban representatives had told him that their views on women's rights had evolved since they were in power in the late 1990s.
"We don't take their word for it. We will have to see," he said.