War, Peace and Taliban Spreadsheets

The New York Times

Members of the Taliban in Alingar District, Afghanistan, last year.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times 
DOHA, Qatar — In the twilight months of the United States’ war in Afghanistan, Americans fought the Taliban, not over fields or villages or hearts and minds, but over spreadsheets.

Since February 2020, when the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban laying out the terms of withdrawal from Afghanistan if certain conditions were met, the insurgent group has recorded its every perceived violation of the deal, totaling well over 1,000 incidents laid out in Microsoft Excel.

Practically every week, the Taliban delivered these lists of infractions to U.S. diplomats and military officials in Doha, Qatar, who took the complaints — investigating some and dismissing others as inaccurate.

In a way, the spreadsheets’ very existence supported President Biden’s rationale for pulling out completely, even when his generals wanted to stay: A conditions-based withdrawal, as the Pentagon wanted, seemed bound to fail because neither side could agree on whether the other party was even meeting the conditions they had signed on to.

After 20 years of killing one another, in suicide attacks, drone strikes, roadside bomb blasts, night raids and ground offensives, both sides understood the war on almost completely different terms.

Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces by Sept. 11 — months beyond the May 1 withdrawal date outlined in the 2020 agreement — has sent most diplomatic entreaties into disarray. U.S. negotiators have returned to the United States, top Taliban officials are now in Pakistan. High-profile peace talks scheduled for next week in Turkey were postponed on Tuesday, as the Taliban said they would not attend. And the Afghans are bracing for what could be a bloody summer.

But still, the Taliban are still adding to their Excel documents as each day passes.The spreadsheets include purported records of offensive operations, drone strikes, raids, artillery barrages and aerial bombardments. While this accounting provides an overview of each breach, the depth of information around each incident is sparse — not more than a sentence.

The 2020 deal, Taliban officials said, calls for Afghan security forces to cease offensive operations with U.S. support, while the Taliban are not supposed to carry out offensives into provincial capitals. Taliban suicide attacks are also forbidden. Artillery and airstrikes, by both the U.S. and Afghan security forces, are banned outside of where there is fighting, though most U.S. airstrikes are to defend besieged Afghan troops, which is allowed under the deal.

The Taliban claim that they are upholding the deal, which still stands post-Biden announcement. The United States often denies any responsibility for the violations that the Taliban identify, as they are usually said to have been committed by Afghan forces. Meanwhile, the Americans see the insurgents’ repeated attacks on villages and towns, unclaimed targeted killings and brazen offensives in the country’s south as clear infractions.

By announcing the withdrawal, the Biden administration has given up much of the United States’ negotiating leverage, but it still has one last carrot and stick up its sleeve that could get the Taliban onboard: U.S. envoys could agree to push for the release of 7,000 Taliban prisoners (though the Afghan government is likely to refuse to comply, especially in the wake of the announcement) and the removal of United Nations sanctions against the insurgent group.

It seems possible the end of America’s longest war on foreign soil will not end in a bang, or a whimper, but instead with representatives from an insurgent group and those of a superpower sitting across a table, debating spreadsheets.

The United States negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a founding leader of the Taliban, signing the peace agreement in Doha, Qatar, in February last year.
Credit…Hussein Sayed/Associated Press

To understand just how convoluted these discussions have been, The New York Times reviewed several of the spreadsheets, comparing the collection of incidents from June 2020 with its own reporting collected through the weekly Afghan war casualty reports, and was able to verify seven of the incidents that involved civilians, out of the more than 110 violations claimed by the Taliban for the month. (The Times does not record reports of Taliban casualties, of which many of their documented offenses claim to be. In the past, the Taliban have exaggerated or lied about casualty claims, so The Times is only printing the incident items it was able to verify, though the Taliban’s details differ from government or local accounts.)

A look into four of these seven incidents shows that even when these cases are put under a microscope, the bare facts of what happened and who’s to blame are still almost impossible to discern — the byproduct of the war’s unending stream of competing narratives.

Unknown gunmen entered a home in the Altamor area of Pul-e-Alam, Logar Province’s capital, and opened fire on family members, killing a mother and three of her daughters, according to local officials at the time. The father of the family was also wounded. The Taliban, however, attributed the attack on the family to an artillery strike. Though officials at the time promised an investigation, Deedar Lawang, the provincial spokesman, recently said they still have not determined who carried out the killings.

When told that The Times had reported the incident as being carried out by gunmen and not an artillery strike, a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid said, “All the recorded incidents are considered a violation by Taliban standards and reporting.”

By all accounts from officials in Kapisa Province’s district of Tagab, a mountainous province just north of Kabul, the country’s capital, the deaths of 11 Afghan security forces and three civilians were the result of a Taliban offensive into several villages on the night of June 14.

The Taliban’s account is that nine civilians were also wounded, during “artillery fire on a wedding.” But local officials said that three civilians were killed and eight others were wounded when a Taliban mortar round hit a house.

On June 18, a mortar round exploded in the yard of a madrasa, or religious school, in Takhar Province’s Ishkamish District, killing nine students and wounding six others, according to local officials. It was unclear if the children were playing with the shell, but last week, Khalil Asir, a police spokesman, said the mortar round had been concealed in a sack.

The Taliban often use mosques as central to their fighters’ operations: not just as a meeting place, but also where weapons and munitions are sometimes stored. But their incident report said that “the enemy planted a mine next to the mosque,” implying that Afghan security forces, backed by the United States, deliberately planted the round near the madrasa.

Several rounds of artillery landed in a livestock market in Sangin District, a volatile area in Helmand Province, killing 23 civilians and wounding 40 others on June 29, according to local officials. Residents of the area, which was under Taliban control, blamed government forces, while government officials blamed the insurgent group. Later on, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the United Nations determined that government forces had fired the mortar rounds in response to a Taliban attack on their base.

Though the Afghan government’s investigation still has not been made public, last week, Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said the government’s investigation attributed the attack to the Taliban.

Fahim Abed and Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a correspondent in the Kabul bureau and a former Marine infantryman. 

War, Peace and Taliban Spreadsheets