(CNSNews.com) – The State Department on Tuesday declined to comment on a call by the Taliban for President Trump to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but stressed that it was the militant group that was responsible for the country’s troubles, including a recently-recorded increase in attacks on civilians.
“Let’s not lose focus here,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing.
“What is going on in Afghanistan is a result of the Taliban,” she continued. “We’ve seen – and there was a report out not that long ago – about the increase in attacks on civilians, which largely included women and children. That is being perpetrated by members of the Taliban.”
“Let’s not lose focus that the Taliban is behind many of those attacks, many of the increase in civilian casualties,” she said, adding that “that undermines the Afghan population and also the Afghan government.”
(The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported last month that the rise in casualties among Afghan women in the Jan. 1- Jun. 30 period was up 23 percent over the same period last year, while the number of child deaths was up nine percent.)
‘The errors of your predecessors’
In its lengthy open letter to Trump Tuesday, the Taliban argued that the 16-year-long war was going nowhere, that the situation in the country was “far worse than you realize,” and that young Americans were being sacrificed in a campaign to impose “incompetent, corrupt, immoral and criminal officials” upon Afghan citizens.
“We have noticed that you have understood the errors of your predecessors and have resolved to thoroughly rethink your new strategy in Afghanistan,” the letter said, urging Trump not to follow the advice of “warmongering congressmen and generals.”
“American youth are not born to be killed in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan in order to establish the writ of thieves and corrupt officials,” it said. “Rather you and American officials have the grave responsibility of protecting the lives of American youth which is your indispensable human resource.”
The Taliban characterized itself as a group with no foreign sponsors and with no intention of allowing Afghan soil to be used by any group to cause harm to others.
“Your intelligence agencies admit that our mujahideen [holy warriors] are not being supported by any country and neither can they produce any proof in the contrary,” it said.
“[T]he Islamic Emirate does not have any intention or policy of causing harm to anyone and neither will it allow others to use the Afghan soil against anyone.”
The U.S. went into Afghanistan in the first place in late 2001 because the Taliban, which then controlled most of the country, had provided a haven for Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda as it planned and carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Taliban/al-Qaeda links and collaboration have continued over the years since.
And despite the Taliban’s claims to the contrary, the U.S. government has accused official elements in Pakistan and Iran of supporting the group.
“Afghan-oriented militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, retain freedom of action inside Pakistani territory and benefit from support from elements of the Pakistani government,” the Pentagon said in a report to Congress last June.
The following month, the State Department’s annual country reports on terrorism stated that a number of attacks by the Taliban and other groups in 2016 “were planned and launched from safe havens in Pakistan.”
‘All options’ on the table
The terrorist group’s open letter to the president came at a time when a White House decision on the road ahead for Afghanistan is expected at any time, and a day after Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters that “all options” – including a troop withdrawal – were on the table.
Mattis said Trump was “open to” his advice as well as that of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and CIA Director Mike Pompeo about what to do in Afghanistan.
“The strategic decisions have not been decided, but we’re very close.”
Other options referred to by Mattis include the use of more private security contractors.
The U.S. currently has more than 8,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led mission to “train, advise and assist” Afghan forces, Personnel are also conducting counterterrorism operations actions against the Taliban and other groups. Earlier reports suggested an additional 3,000-5,000 troops could be deployed.
“We’re sharpening each one of the options [being provided to the president], so you can see the pluses and minuses of each one,” Mattis said.
Asked Tuesday whether a troop withdrawal was an option, Nauert said it was “not my place to talk about that whatsoever.”
“I know there are a lot of various options on the table that the U.S. government is considering as it reviews its Afghan policy,” she said. “They will be considering a lot of different options and would never rule out any – absolutely everything.”
Trump said last Thursday a decision on Afghanistan was “very close.”
“I took over a mess,” he told reporters in Bedminster, N.J. “And we’re going to make it a lot less messy.”