US envoy working to resuscitate flagging Afghan peace deal as US warplanes pound ISIS-K

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The first visit to Kabul by Washington’s peace envoy since Afghanistan’s squabbling political leadership reached a power-sharing agreement comes amid increased violence blamed mostly on an Islamic State affiliate that has been targeted in stepped-up U.S. bombing.

Zalmay Khalilzad, in a flurry of tweets Thursday, told of his meetings in Doha earlier in the week with Taliban representatives and on Wednesday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and fellow leader Abdullah Abdullah. All were aimed at resuscitating a U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed in February.

U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad

Met with President @AshrafGhani and Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation @DrabdullahCE together and separately today in Kabul. I congratulated them on their agreement to form an inclusive government after protracted negotiations.

U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad

We discussed next steps required to implement the agreement between the 2 leaders. On peace, we agreed that violence is much too high and there is a need to move urgently to reduce it by all sides.

Khalilzad called for a reduction in violence by all sides in Afghanistan’s protracted conflict that has kept America militarily engaged for 19 years. He also said too much time has been wasted getting to the second and critical phase of the peace deal, which calls for talks between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s political leadership.

Abdullah will head those efforts as part of the deal he signed with Ghani to end their monthslong dispute over who won Afghanistan’s presidential election last September. He conceded the win to Ghani but as part of a power sharing agreement.

In this Wednesday, May 20, 2020, photo, Abdullah Abdullah, right, President Ashraf Ghani's fellow leader under a recently signed power-sharing agreement, holds a meeting with U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad aimed at resuscitating a U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed in February, at the presidential palace, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Sapidar Palace via AP)

In this Wednesday, May 20, 2020, photo, Abdullah Abdullah, right, President Ashraf Ghani’s fellow leader under a recently signed power-sharing agreement, holds a meeting with U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad aimed at resuscitating a U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed in February, at the presidential palace, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Sapidar Palace via AP)

The U.S. has about 12,000 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, split between counter-terrorism and the NATO-led Resolute Support’s 16,500 troop mission, which trains and aids Afghanistan’s National Security Forces. Washington currently pays about $4 billion annually to keep Afghanistan’s military in fighting form.

The coalition conducted a series of airstrikes to support Afghan Commandos clearance of ISIS-K fighters and fighting positions in Pekha Valley, Achin district, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, Feb. 17, 2018. Persistent offensive ground and air operations throughout the winter expelled ISIS-K from more than 7 km of mountainous terrain in southeastern Nangarhar. (Spc. Jacob Krone/Army)
ISIS loses more than half its fighters from US airstrikes and Taliban ground operations

Col. Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, tweeted early Thursday morning that airstrikes on Wednesday killed three ISIS fighters in Kunar Province and forced 34 ISIS militants to surrender to Afghan forces in Tswokey district.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, say the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan has been linked to foiled plots to attack America in recent years. The U.S. also blamed ISIS for a brutal attack on a maternity hospital earlier this month in Kabul that left 24 people dead, including two infants and several mothers.

The increased ISIS activity in Afghanistan has added urgency to U.S. efforts to resuscitate the peace deal, which commits the Taliban to fight terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The same Department of Defense officials said they want the Taliban in the battle to rout IS from Afghanistan.

Without intra-Afghan negotiations, the cease-fire Washington wants between the Taliban and the government won’t happen.

Taliban representatives say a cease-fire will be on the agenda in any intra-Afghan talks, which were to start by mid-March. The delay has been blamed on Afghanistan’s squabbling leadership in Kabul and disruptions in prisoner releases, which were promised as part of the peace deal ahead of intra-Afghan negotiations.

Army Staff Sgt. Jason N. Bobo helps secure the landing zone as a CH-47 Chinook helicopter lands for the extraction of coalition soldiers after a key leader engagement in southeastern Afghanistan. (Army)
Esper says Taliban not honoring deal as US warplanes bail out Afghan forces

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that the Taliban were honoring the agreement in terms of “not attacking U.S. and coalition forces, but not in terms of sustaining a reduction of violence.”

Meanwhile, in eastern Nangarhar province, where ISIS is headquartered, a suicide bomber targeted a district chief and his son Thursday as they were driving through Chaparhar district, said Attaullah Khogyani, the provincial governor’s spokesman. Sediq Dawlatzai and his son were wounded in the attack and transferred to a hospital in the capital Jalalabad. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

Gannon reported from Islamabad

US envoy working to resuscitate flagging Afghan peace deal as US warplanes pound ISIS-K