Afghan security forces appeared to have cleared Kunduz of Taliban fighters Sunday, a day after insurgents tried to repeat a 2015 takeover of the northern Afghanistan city. The Taliban launched a multi-fronted attack on Kunduz early Saturday, but were eventually repelled after heavy fighting that included US air support.
The fighting comes as US and insurgent negotiators were seeking an agreement in Doha that would see thousands of American troops leave Afghanistan in return for security guarantees. Early Sunday morning, Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said the two foes were on the brink of a deal.
“We are at the threshold of an agreement that will reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit together to negotiate an honourable and sustainable peace,” Khalilzad said on Twitter. He was due to arrive in Kabul later Sunday.
President Donald Trump had said on Thursday that the United States will keep a permanent presence in Afghanistan, with 8,600 troops initially, even after a deal is reached with the Taliban.
“We’re going down to 8,600 and then we make a determination from there,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News radio. “We’re always going to have a presence.”
Trump also warned that if another attack on the United States originated from Afghanistan “we would come back with a force like … never before.”
The comments provided some clarity on US intentions after lengthy negotiations with the Afghan guerrilla group over finding an exit from a war that has lasted two decades.
Despite overwhelming advantages in firepower, the US military has little to show for its efforts and Trump is hoping he can declare the war over in time for his 2020 reelection campaign.
Washington has been talking to the Taliban since at least 2018, with the main sticking point being how to get sufficient guarantees that Taliban territory will not be used by Al-Qaeda or other international militant groups to plot attacks on the United States.
There are currently around 14,000 US troops in the country, a number already far down from a peak of around 100,000.
The Taliban want all US troops out. But Trump underlined that there was to be no complete withdrawal; the US would keep a force that would provide “high intelligence.”
“You have to keep a presence,” he said.
‘Not based on trust’
It is unclear what a US pullback will mean for the Afghan government, whose own US-trained armed forces risk a renewed onslaught from the Taliban.
For now, the White House appears to be focusing on ensuring US security, especially with regards to making sure that the Taliban keep their side of the bargain.
“We’re well aware of the history of the Taliban … and its complicated history with Al-Qaeda, which is exactly why any deal, if one is reached, will be so stringently monitored and verified,” a State Department spokesman said.
“The agreement we’re working on is not based on trust – it will be based on clear requirements and commitments, subject to our monitoring and verification.”
US forces were first sent to Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on US soil carried out by Al-Qaeda, which was sheltered by the former Taliban regime. About 2,400 US troops have died there and around 20,000 have been wounded.
Summing up the cautious US position in the Taliban talks, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that he would not call the process a “withdrawal.”
“I’m using ‘we’re going to make sure that Afghanistan is not a sanctuary, and we’re going to try to have an effort to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan,'” he said.
Kunduz, the latest flashpoint, had been “completely cleared” of Taliban fighters by Sunday afternoon, the interior ministry said in a statement, noting that 56 “terrorists” had been killed.
The ministry said 20 Afghan security forces had been killed along with five civilians. Another 85 civilians were wounded, officials said.
In one incident, a suicide bomber blew himself up while police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini was speaking to reporters.
Hussaini, who had livestreamed himself earlier in the day from the same spot, was killed along with about 10 others. He was widely respected in the city and had been an outspoken Taliban critic.
It was not clear if any journalists were among the victims.
In late September 2015, the Taliban attacked Kunduz, overwhelming local forces and briefly seizing the city. It was only through extensive US air support that the Taliban were repelled.
The event garnered particular global attention after a US gunship struck a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), killing dozens of patients and staff.
The fall of Kunduz also underscored the vulnerability of Afghan security forces and played a role in stopping the pull-out of US forces under then president Barack Obama.
Since then the city has come under frequent Taliban attack, but the insurgents have been unable to pull off a full capture.
Here is a timeline for the nearly two decades of US intervention in Afghanistan:
‘War on terror’
On October 7, 2001 – less than a month after the September 11 attacks that killed around 3,000 people in New York and Washington – President George W. Bush launches operation “Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan.
The country’s fundamentalist Taliban regime had been sheltering Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda movement, accused of the attacks.
The operation opens a military front in the US “war on terrorism”.
Within weeks US-led forces overthrow the Taliban, in power since 1996.
Besides carrying out air strikes, Washington also lends support to the Afghan Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban, contributing paramilitary teams from the CIA and special forces.
About 1,000 American soldiers are on the ground by November 2001, the number rising to 10,000 the next year.
US attention is diverted from Afghanistan when US forces invade Iraq in 2003 to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, accused of harboring weapons of mass destruction.
The Taliban and other Islamist outfits regroup in their strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan, from where they can easily travel among their bases in Pakistan’s tribal zones, and launch an insurgency.
In 2008 the US command in Afghanistan calls for more manpower. Bush sends additional soldiers and about 48,500 US troops are deployed.
Peak of 100,000 troops
In 2009 Barack Obama – elected president on campaign promises to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – boosts the US deployment to around 68,000. In December he sends another 30,000.
The objective is to put brakes on the growing Taliban insurgency and to strengthen Afghan institutions.
By 2012 more than 150,000 foreign soldiers are deployed in Afghanistan, of whom 100,000 are American.
Bin Laden killed
Bin Laden is killed on May 2, 2011 in a US special forces operation in Pakistan.
Combat operations end
On December 31, 2014 the NATO alliance ends its combat mission in Afghanistan. But, under agreements reached a few months earlier, 12,500 foreign soldiers – of whom 9,800 are American – remain to train Afghan troops and conduct anti-terrorist operations.
Security in Afghanistan degenerates as the Taliban’s insurgency spreads, with the Islamic State (IS) group also becoming active in early 2015.
In July 2016, Obama slows the planned pace of withdrawal of US troops, saying 8,400 will remain into 2017.
MSF clinic bombed
In October 2015, during intense fighting for the northeastern provincial capital Kunduz, a US airstrike hits a Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) hospital, killing 42 people, including 24 patients.
Mega bomb against IS
In April 2017, the US military drops the largest non-nuclear bomb it has ever used in combat on an Islamic State network of tunnels and caves in eastern Afghanistan. Afghan officials say it killed 96 jihadists.
In August 2017, new US President Donald Trump scraps any timetables for a US pullout and re-commits thousands more soldiers.
In mid-November, some 3,000 soldiers arrive to reinforce the 11,000 troops already deployed.
However, deadly attacks multiply, especially against Afghan forces. The US steps up air strikes dramatically.
In mid-2018, Washington and Taliban representatives discreetly open talks in Doha focused on slashing the US military footprint in Afghanistan.
In return, the US demands that the Taliban prevent the country from being used as a safe haven for jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda. Talks are also focusing on a ceasefire and the opening of talks with the Kabul government.