World News

Taliban Kill Dozens of Afghan Soldiers, as Cease-Fires Give Way to Violence

Posted June 20, 2018 7:12 p.m. EDT

KABUL, Afghanistan — At least 30 Afghan soldiers were killed in a single Taliban attack in the northwest of the country early Wednesday, officials said, indicating an end to a brief lull in violence after both sides agreed to unilateral cease-fires.

Taliban fighters launched heavy attacks on three army outposts in the Bala Murghab district of Badghis province, said the provincial governor, Abdul Ghafoor Malakzai. The initial attacks were repelled, but the reinforcements the government sent in were hit by roadside bombs, he said.

Saleh Mohammed Khan, a local police commander in Bala Murghab, said that at least 30 soldiers were killed in the attacks and that two outposts were overrun.

“The Taliban also lost six people, and four of them were wounded,” Khan said. “The fighting continued from 1:30 a.m. until the morning. Two units fell, and one other is surrounded.”

Days before the attack, photographs shared on social media showed a large number of Taliban fighters waving white flags in Bala Murghab, mingling with crowds celebrating the cease-fire.

The attacks come after the end of a three-day Taliban cease-fire Monday. The Afghan government’s eight-day cease-fire was to end Wednesday, but it was announced Sunday that it would be extended by 10 days.

During a meeting Tuesday with peace marchers who walked 400 miles to ask for an end to the war, President Ashraf Ghani promised to extend the cease-fire further if the Taliban agreed to it.

Critics of the Afghan government argue that the cease-fire gave the Taliban the upper hand — allowing them to use the suspension of airstrikes, which are the biggest threat to their forces, to regroup, plan attacks and infiltrate the cities.

Violence had resumed before the Bala Murghab attack. Late Monday, the Taliban attacked security forces in the Dasht e Archi district of Kunduz province. At least eight soldiers and two local police officers were killed.

Afghan commanders described a sense of confusion, saying the Taliban were taking advantage of the defensive position in which security forces remained because of the government’s cease-fire extension.

“We are not really clear whether this is a truce or not. There is no energy left in the police or in the army — the government is neither leaving the area to the Taliban, nor letting us take it,” said Qumandan Jama, who leads a local police unit in Dasht e Archi.

While the government is willing to continue holding its fire, the insurgents have no apparent plans to respond in kind. Violence is expected to rise as Taliban leaders try to reassert control over their rank and file. They were surprised by the enthusiasm that foot soldiers showed for a sense of normalcy during the Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitr, when the two cease-fires overlapped for three days. The fighters openly celebrated the relatively peaceful interlude — visiting cities, stopping for ice cream and posing for selfies — despite orders to stay in their trenches.

While the cease-fires’ overlap offered new hope for the Afghan peace process, officials and diplomats say the road ahead remains bumpy until the Taliban can be brought to the negotiating table. The insurgents, in their statements, have insisted on talking to the Americans directly, and on the withdrawal of foreign troops.

The United States has shown more flexibility on both those issues in recent months, as patience in the Trump administration seems to be running out with the lack of progress toward talks.

President Donald Trump was reluctantly persuaded last year to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and to base any withdrawal on progress on the ground rather than an arbitrary deadline. Ten months later, as the administration’s strategy goes up for a review, there is little progress to speak of.

Lt. Gen. Scott Miller, speaking Tuesday at the Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, highlighted how challenging the war remains.

“We cannot compel reconciliation in Afghanistan while Pakistan, Russia and Iran continue to enable the Taliban insurgency,” Miller said. “NATO, U.S. and Afghan efforts continue to ensure the Taliban cannot win militarily. However, military pressure alone is not sufficient to achieve a political solution to the Afghan conflict.”