The assault has aroused public alarm and anger, leading many Afghans to question why their government is holding peace talks with the Taliban, especially as the insurgents are hardening their negotiating position after President Trump said he wanted to withdraw all U.S. troops by year’s end.
The Taliban delegates to the talks in Doha welcomed Trump’s announcement and publicly wished for his reelection — and then turned on their American interlocutors with their accusations.
“All contents of the U.S.-Islamic Emirate accord are unambiguous, but the other side has violated its commitments on numerous occasions, engaging in provocative actions and bombing noncombat zones,” spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said in the statement. “All responsibility and consequences … shall fall squarely on the American side.”
The U.S. military spokesman in Kabul responded that the strikes were “consistent” with both the U.S.-Taliban agreement and a joint declaration between Afghan and U.S. officials.
The Trump’s call this month for a complete U.S. troop withdrawal has been viewed as a major concession to the Taliban, who have long demanded that U.S. forces leave the country. The insurgents agreed in February to reduce violence, cut ties with extremist groups and refrain from attacking U.S. forces in return for the gradual withdrawal of all U.S. troops by May.
It was soon after Trump’s announcement that the Taliban launched the assault in Helmand, triggering accusations that they had violated the U.S. accord and jeopardized the entire peace process. U.S. officials appealed to the Taliban last week to stop, then met with their leaders in Doha to try to salvage the deal they spent 18 months negotiating.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to the talks, tweeted Saturday that both sides had agreed on a “reset” that would reduce violence. He did not provide details.
Meanwhile, the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban remained mired in disputes over procedural rules, as they have been since the talks started Sept. 12. The sides have yet to touch on the critical issues at stake: How to end the country’s 19-year civil conflict and how to combine two starkly different visions of a future government into one.
In recent days, Afghan delegates to the talks said the Taliban were doubling down on their initial demands over the rules and terms to govern substantive discussions. The Taliban have insisted that all talks be conducted under the terms of the U.S.-Taliban pact, which did not include any Afghans, and under the authority of Sunni Muslim law, although Afghanistan has a sizable non-Sunni minority.
Since Trump’s announcement, several Afghan delegates in Doha say, the Taliban’s initial stiff but polite reception has given way to sharper, dismissive rebuffs. One delegate said the Taliban are acting “as if they have defeated the United States” and the Afghan delegation is there to surrender.
“We still want to act responsibly and find a way to end the war through negotiations, but as the violence rises, public pressure is mounting and people are starting to question why we are even at the table,” said delegate Nader Nadery, an Afghan government administrator. “We have to find a balance between the sense of urgency and the temptation to rush into a peace that cannot hold.”
On Saturday, a Taliban spokesman in Doha said the group wants to keep negotiating and has actually reduced its attacks in recent months.
Afghan delegates said they, too, will continue to participate, but they expected the talks to languish until after the Nov. 3 U.S. election. The Taliban appear to hope that a reelected Trump would abandon the war entirely, while Afghan analysts say a Biden administration would likely review U.S. policy and consult with military leaders, who advise keeping some troops here permanently.
Few Afghans believe the insurgents could take over the country by force, but many expect it’s inevitable that they will play a significant role in any future government. Afghan and foreign experts have labored for months to come up with viable options for joint rule, but with the talks at a standstill, those efforts have been left on the drawing board.
Instead, a flurry of informal proposals have emerged. At one extreme is an Iran-style regime, led by Muslim clerics with controlled elections and technocratic ministries. At the other is a civilian-led government with some religious modifications and Taliban members holding some senior posts.
The role of religious influence is particularly sensitive. The Taliban are hard-line Sunnis. Critics worry about the establishment of a Sunni theocracy in a country with a 15 percent Shiite minority that has long avoided sectarian strife.
“This has created fear that the Taliban want to pave the way for future discriminatory laws,” said Ali Amiri, a professor at Ibn-i-Sena University, located in Kabul’s main community of ethnic Hazara Shiites. “The worry is that a post-peace power structure will be built on religious discrimination.”
The uncertain path forward has been complicated by Afghan domestic politics. The government of President Ashraf Ghani is weak and unpopular, and some of his rivals hope for a deal in which the Taliban agree to a permanent cease-fire in return for an interim government.
“My worry is not the Taliban taking over, it is internal collapse,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence chief. “Ghani has no leverage, and the Taliban have gained a lot of legitimacy from the U.S. deal. They may surround the cities and put on more pressure until they get a deal. We need to save our institutions, and we need new leadership to do that. The Taliban has a Plan B, but the government does not.”
But aides to Ghani said the Taliban assault on Helmand has helped rob the insurgents of moral and religious credibility. One delegate in Doha said he felt “sick to my stomach” after hearing one Taliban delegate said they did not regret killing civilians in Helmand because there were “not Muslims.”