Taliban warns of counterattacks as original May 1 deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal passes

Susannah George and Sharif Hassan

The Washington Post

May 2, 2021
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KABUL — The Taliban issued a warning to U.S. and NATO forces of possible counterattacks as the original May 1 deadline for the complete withdrawal of foreign troops passed, stoking fears of increased violence in response to President Biden’s extension of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to Sept. 11.

Taliban fighters are prepared to “take every counteraction” that the movement “deems appropriate against the occupying forces,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, in a statement Saturday. Mujahid said the group’s leadership had not yet made a decision on how to respond to the delayed pullout, and he said its fighters would not act before a consensus is reached.

Afghans are bracing for an increase in violence as foreign forces withdraw from the country, and the Pentagon has warned that U.S. forces may be at risk of attack with the May 1 deadline’s passage.

An intensified diplomatic push is aiming to secure a peace deal between the Taliban and Afghan government before the withdrawal is complete, but there have been no announcements of progress.

Afghanistan has already seen an uptick in violence in recent days. Taliban fighters overran a small Afghan army base on the edge of Ghazni’s provincial capital Saturday, south of Kabul. And Friday night, a truck bombing in neighboring Logar province killed at least 21 people and injured 91, according to the Interior Ministry. All the victims were civilians, many students, as the attack occurred near a university prep dormitory, the statement said.

Clashes between Afghan government forces and the Taliban in recent months have largely been in the country’s rural districts, but Taliban fighters have been moving increasingly closer to Afghan towns and cities. Large-scale bombings inside Afghan urban areas had largely ceased following the Taliban’s signing of the withdrawal deal last year with the United States, but many Afghans fear they could again become the norm once foreign forces withdraw.

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Details of the incident in Ghazni are murky. One local official — provincial council member Nasir Ahmad Faqiri — said the 30 Afghan government forces stationed at the outpost surrendered to the Taliban after they ran out of food and munitions. But Hameedullah Nowruz, another provincial council member, said the base was attacked and the soldiers were captured.

Afghanistan’s acting minister of defense, Yasin Zia, confirmed during a news conference Saturday that the outpost had been taken by the Taliban, but said “it is not a serious problem” and an investigation into the incident has begun. He said the outpost housed only 17 Afghan troops.

At the same news conference, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, warned of continued violence in the coming months. “Our intelligence looking forward shows that every Afghan is a target for the Taliban. That is why they are continuing their attacks,” he said.

The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with the Taliban’s senior political leader Friday, according to a Taliban statement that said the two sides discussed the progress on the peace process.

Though the assurance of a complete U.S. withdrawal removes key leverage that U.S. diplomats were hoping to use to forge a quick peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the militants are still demanding the release of thousands of prisoners and the removal of their leaders from international blacklists.

But blacklist removal and the prisoner releases are both difficult issues for the United States to make unilateral decisions on. The Afghan government has refused to release any more Taliban prisoners, and the United Nations Security Council would need to rule unanimously to remove Taliban members from its blacklists.

“Attacking a hospital and [university prep] students is not the work of those who [should] be removed from the blacklist,” Mohib said at the Saturday news conference.

Taliban warns of counterattacks as original May 1 deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal passes