With violence surging in Afghanistan, and its government still deeply at odds with the Taliban, the Trump administration said Friday that a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the nation's longest war was still on track.
The administration's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said "challenges" were blocking progress on a U.S.-Taliban agreement signed earlier this year that was meant to clear the way for U.S. forces to leave. But he said both sides remained interested in ending a conflict that has gone on for decades.
Khalilzad said a horrific attack Tuesday on a maternity ward in Kabul that left newborn babies, their mothers and pregnant women dead, was the work of an offshoot of Islamic State and not the Taliban, the militant group that does not recognize the Afghan government. The Taliban has denied responsibility, but the Afghanistan government — which was not part of the withdrawal agreement — remains skeptical.
On Thursday, a truck bomb attack on an Afghan military base in the eastern part of the country was claimed by the Taliban, and prompted the Kabul government to announce it was resuming military operations against a rival group that controls large parts of the country. The U.S.-Taliban deal, Afghan government officials said, was near collapse.
Khalilzad, briefing reporters in Washington, acknowledged the deal he brokered Feb. 29 only obliged the Taliban to halt attacks on troops from the U.S.-led coalition, not on Afghan government forces or civilians.
"But we believe that they're in violation of the spirit, given the number of attacks and Afghan casualties in those attacks," he said. "We are saying that they are violating the spirit if not the letter, given that commitment that all sides will try to reduce violence."
He also blamed outside actors like Islamic State, also known as ISIS, for attempting to torpedo the deal.
"There are forces such as ISIS that don’t see peace in Afghanistan in its interests and are trying to increase violence, to undermine the prospect for peace," Khalilzad said. "We’re urging both sides not to fall into that trap, but indeed to cooperate against the terrorists, including ISIS."
At the Pentagon on Friday, spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the U.S. is proceeding with plans to reduce its troop count in Afghanistan to 8,600, from roughly 12,000, by early summer.
“We’re still moving forward with the force reduction levels that we’re committed to,” he said. “We expect to meet that.”
Under the deal, the Taliban was to commit to reducing terrorism, but terms were vague. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to a gradual withdrawal of troops who have been engaged in fighting in Afghanistan since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. NATO troops would also be pulled out.
Khalilzad also said that setting a date for talks among all Afghan parties, another part of the deal, was under discussion. The talks were supposed to begin two months ago, but continued disagreement, chiefly between the Kabul government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban, has remained an obstacle.
Another lingering point of contention is prisoner swaps. The government was required to release 5,000 Talibs, and the Taliban agreed to free 1,000 government soldiers. So far, Khalilzad said, the government has freed only 1,011 Talibs, and the Taliban 253 soldiers.
President Trump promised to end the war in Afghanistan, and appears to be moving to make some progress on that pledge in advance of the November election. But critics, including many Afghan civil rights organizations, worry that in its haste to exit, the U.S. will abandon hard-fought gains in democracy, freedom of expression, women's rights and education.
The attack at the hospital, regardless of who was responsible, was an especially shocking atrocity in a country long accustomed to them.
The Paris-based charity Doctors Without Borders, which operates the hospital in a Shiite neighborhood, said gunmen headed straight to the maternity ward and seemed to target women and infants.
“They went through the rooms in the maternity, shooting women in their beds. It was methodical. Walls sprayed with bullets, blood on the floors in the rooms, vehicles burned out and windows shot through," the organization's head of programs in Afghanistan, Frederic Bonnot, said in a statement. "They came to kill the mothers.”
The attack left 16 dead. Khalilzad could not provide evidence that it was conducted by Islamic State, except to say it fit the group's pattern.
Islamic State “has demonstrated a pattern for favoring these types of heinous attacks against civilians and is a threat to the Afghan people and to the world,” he said earlier Friday in a tweet.
On the same day as the hospital massacre, an attack on the funeral of a pro-government warlord in the eastern part of Afghanistan killed 34 people. Islamic State took responsibility.