(CNSNews.com) – President Trump said Tuesday he had “a good, long [phone] conversation” with the leader of the Taliban and that the group wants to “cease the violence.”
But on Wednesday, the United States conducted an airstrike against Taliban fighters in Nahr-e Saraj, Helmand, who were actively attacking a checkpoint manned by Afghan Defense Forces.
A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Sonny Leggett, called it a "defensive strike to disrupt the attack."
Leggett summarized the situation early Wednesday morning Washington time in four tweets:
The US conducted an airstrike on March 4 against Taliban fighters in Nahr-e Saraj, Helmand, who were actively attacking an #ANDSF checkpoint. This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack. This was our 1st strike against the Taliban in 11 days.
To be clear- we are committed to peace, however we have the responsibility to defend our #ANDSF partners. #Afghans & US have complied w/ our agreements; however, Talibs appear intent on squandering this opp. and ignoring the will of the people for #peace. #Showyourcommitment
Taliban leadership promised the int’l community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks. We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments. As we have demonstrated, we will defend our partners when required.
On March 3rd alone, the Taliban conducted 43 attacks on #ANDSF checkpoints in #Helmand. The Taliban claim to be fighting to free Afg. from int’l forces, the Feb 29 agreement provides a conditions-based path to withdrawal.
Trump's earlier call to the Taliban leader came days after the U.S. signed an agreement with the Islamic fundamentalist group, paving the way for a withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan over the next 13 months, on condition the Taliban meets commitments including severing ties with al-Qaeda.
“We had a very good conversation with the leader of the Taliban today, and they’re looking to get this ended, and we’re looking to get it ended,” Trump told reporters during a visit to the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.
“We’ve been there for 20 years,” he said. “Other presidents have tried and they have been unable to get any kind of an agreement.”
“The relationship is very good that I have with the mullah,” Trump continued. “And we had a good, long conversation today. And, you know, they want to cease the violence. They’d like to cease violence also.”
Although Trump referred to “the leader of the Taliban,” according to the group, the president spoke to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group’s co-founder, who signed Saturday’s agreement in Doha, Qatar with U.S. envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. (The group’s leader is Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada.)
The agreement hit a hurdle early on, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani challenged a requirement that the government release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners by March 10, saying that that should be an issue for Taliban-Afghan negotiations, not a precondition for such talks.
The U.S.-Taliban document stipulates the releases, along with the release by the Taliban of up to 1,000 Afghan prisoners, also by March 10.
But a separate agreement, signed the same day between the U.S. and Afghan governments, refers only to discussions on “the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides.”
Ghani’s stance on the issue prompted the Taliban to announce it would resume attacks against Afghan forces, though not against U.S. troops in the country.
A reporter asked Trump on Tuesday about Ghani’s position on the prisoner release. The president acknowledged that the Afghan authorities may feel that way, but highlighted again his view on how much the U.S. has done for Afghanistan, and at what cost.
“Well, they may be reluctant,” he said. “You know, they’ve been – they’ve done very well with the United States for many years, far beyond military, if you look at all the money that we’ve spent in Afghanistan. We’ve spent trillions of dollars.”
Trump said he has said from the outset that it is “not easy to get out of these conflicts.”
“Very complex in terms of all of the people you have to deal with –including, frankly, people in the Senate, people in the House. And a lot of people feel differently about things. But I’ve been amazed at how positive the response is to getting out of Afghanistan and to moving on.”
In a statement, the Taliban said the phone conversation took place around 9:40 AM U.S. eastern time, and lasted 35 minutes. The group said Khalilzad had sat in on the call in Doha.
It quoted Baradar as telling Trump that “if the United States honors the agreement concluded with us then we will have positive future bilateral relations.”
“Take determined actions in regards to the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and do not allow anyone to take actions that violate the terms of the agreement thus embroiling you even further in this prolonged war,” it said Baradar urged the president.
The statement said he also said that the U.S. should provide “rehabilitation assistance” to the war-torn nation.
‘A precipitous rush for the exits’
As Trump alluded to, some in Congress are wary about the agreement.
After a deadly Taliban attack Tuesday targeting Afghan policemen at a security checkpoint in eastern Afghanistan, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted, “Always suspicious of the Taliban when it came to any peace agreement, but can’t believe they’re this stupid. Killing 5 Afghan police officers not only violates the spirit of the alleged peace deal, it violates the letter of the agreement.”
“Must keep all options on the table when it comes to ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorists,” added Graham, who is an ally of the president but has on occasion differed with him on foreign policy. “Must remember the Taliban set the conditions for 9/11.”
From Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) came a cautious endorsement.
‘After nearly 20 years, two basic principles are clear,” he said on the Senate floor on Monday. “Number one: We should welcome any serious opportunity to bring greater stability to that land. But, number two: We must make certain that the progress won through great sacrifice by Afghans and Americans is not undermined by a precipitous rush for the exits.”
“I do not trust the Taliban,” McConnell continued. “So I’m grateful the lynchpin of the agreement is a conditions-based approach that will provide our commanders with leverage to test the will and the capacity of the Taliban to abide by the agreement.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said the deal was “a step in the right direction” but has called for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the matter.
America’s longest war began in the aftermath of the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to topple the Taliban regime that sheltered Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group.
A total of 2,445 U.S. personnel have been killed in the conflict since October 2001, 1,913 of them in combat, according to a tally of official Pentagon data. More than 20,700 were wounded.
The numbers include those killed and wounded during Operation Enduring Freedom, which officially ended at the end of 2014, and in the follow-on mission, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.