U.S.-Taliban Peace Talks Led to More Attacks, Fewer Casualties


(Bloomberg) -- Civilian casualties in Afghanistan declined during the first quarter of the year even as attacks by the Taliban increased while the insurgent group negotiated a deal with the U.S. meant to help American forces leave the country.

The U.S.-led coalition reported 1,268 civilian casualties through March 31, a 32% drop from the previous quarter and a 16% decrease compared to the same period last year, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or Sigar, said in a report published late Thursday.

While 2019 casualties surpassed 10,000 for the sixth consecutive year, they were also the lowest since 2013, according to the report. Yet progress toward peace may be undercut, the report warned, after the coronavirus pandemic began to take a toll in Afghanistan beginning in late February.

“The spread of Covid-19 in Afghanistan is already causing significant social and economic disruption that is likely to worsen in the coming months due to the country’s unique conditions,” according to the report.

In recent months there had been hope of positive news, as U.S. and Taliban officials signed a peace deal meant to wind down the war after more than 18 years of fighting turned it into the longest conflict in American history. Defense Secretary Mark Esper attended a ceremony in Kabul marking the occasion, while Secretary of State Michael Pompeo signed the agreement with Taliban representatives in Doha.

Intra-Afghan peace efforts, though, have since stalled amid a power struggle between President Ashraf Ghani and the country’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah. Both men claimed victory in last year’s election and held competing swearing-in ceremonies earlier this year.

Pompeo visited Kabul in March to try to resolve the dispute and then, having failed, warned Ghani’s government it could lose $1 billion in aid if no agreement is reached. Pompeo said Taliban officials were living up to their commitments.

While the Taliban have “refrained” from attacks against coalition forces recently, they’ve increased strikes against Afghan forces to “levels above seasonal norms,” Sigar reported, citing a statement from the coalition.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said on Friday that the level of attacks by the Taliban on Afghan forces was “unacceptably high” and “not conducive to a diplomatic solution.” But the U.S. hasn’t changed its plans to draw down its forces to 8,600, he said. “That’s a number where we think we can be and we should be.”

The peace agreement has also affected the data that the U.S.-led coalition is willing to disclose to Sigar. In the first quarter, the coalition restricted the data on enemy-initiated attacks for the first time since it began providing the figures in September 2018, the inspector general said.

The watchdog added that the data being withheld “was one of the last remaining metrics Sigar was able to use to report publicly on the security situation in Afghanistan.” The Department of Defense said that after the deliberative process among Afghan leaders ends, the data could again become releasable to the public, according to Sigar.

“The decision was that we’re working toward a better solution and a better place for Afghanistan, and that the sharing of that information would not move that ball forward,” Hoffman said on Friday. .

President Donald Trump, up for re-election in November, has been keen to deliver on a 2016 campaign promise to bring American troops home from foreign conflicts.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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