The Taliban said on Friday they have agreed to suspend attacks in southern Afghanistan that have displaced thousands this week — but only after the U.S. promised to halt airstrikes in support of Afghan forces in the latest fighting in Helmand province.
The development came after a meeting with U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. Austin Miller, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a Taliban figure familiar with the discussions said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Taliban pledged to suspend their operations after the Americans agreed to end drone strikes on Taliban positions, as well as night raids and air assaults, the Taliban figure said.
Southern Helmand province has been the scene of a blistering Taliban assault since last week, undermining U.S. efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution to the 19-year war. Rocket attacks from the Taliban and retaliatory airstrikes from U.S. and Afghan aircraft have forced more than 5,600 families to flee their homes, seeking refuge in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and Nad Ali and Marja districts.
Over the past few years, a resurgent Taliban have gained control of roughly 80% of the province, mainly the rural areas, while the district centers are still under government control.
The flareup came even as Afghan government representatives and the Taliban are holding peace talks in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar, where the Taliban have for years maintained a political office. The negotiations, envisaged under a U.S. deal signed with the insurgents in February, are seen as the country’s best chance at peace.
In a series of tweets Thursday, Khalilzad said he would meet with the Taliban and then, after several rounds, he said both sides agreed to a “reset” which will result in a “reduced numbers of operations.”
The talks in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office, began in September but after a ceremonious start became bogged down, mainly in the minutiae of Islamic jurisprudence. But the Helmand assault threatened to completely derail the negotiations, which the Trump administration sees as critical for the final withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
Khalilzad tweeted that attacks have been “threatening the peace process and alarming the Afghan people and their regional and international supporters."
“Following several meetings Gen. Miller and I had with the Taliban we agreed to re-set actions by strictly adhering to implementation of all elements of the U.S.-Taliban agreement and all commitments made,” he said.
The Taliban official told The Associated Press that the Americans were told “their military is carrying drone strikes on our positions, conducting night raids and using fighter jets to bomb our mujahedeen,” or holy warriors.
“We told them, ‘You had promised not to carry out attacks. We react to your attacks'," he said.
The Taliban official also said that after both sides agreed to strictly implement the U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February. "We have directed our mujahedeen in Helmand to stop their advance. We hope the U.S. will stop further bombing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Helmand Gov. Mohammad Yasin Khan said more than 300 Taliban fighters had been killed in the last six days in the province, and that Pakistani and Iranian nationals were among those killed.
The Taliban have not confirmed the claim, which was impossible to independently verify as much of Helmand is inaccessible to the media.
Associated Press writers Tameem Akhgar in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Abdul Khaliq in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.