Attacks deal Trump's long-shot Afghan peace push a fresh blow

Idrees Ali, Jonathan Landay and Rupam Jain
FILE PHOTO: An Afghan policeman keeps watch outside of a hospital which came under attack in Kabul

By Idrees Ali, Jonathan Landay and Rupam Jain

WASHINGTON/MUMBAI, India (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump's stalled plans to bring peace to Afghanistan have suffered a new setback with a decision by Kabul to resume offensive operations against the Taliban following two attacks on Tuesday that killed scores of Afghans.

Washington cast the attacks - one at a Kabul hospital where gunmen killed at least 24 people, including two newborns, and a suicide bombing at a funeral in Nangarhar province that killed at least 32 people - as a moment for the Afghan government and the Taliban to unite to combat such violence and to negotiate a peace deal.

An affiliate of the Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the bombing, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. There has been no claim for the hospital attack in Kabul.

The Taliban denied involvement in both attacks.

Four sources - a U.S. official, a U.S. congressional aide, a European diplomat and a former Afghan official, all speaking on condition of anonymity - said the attacks were more likely to undermine the U.S. sponsored peace process than to achieve any government-Taliban reconciliation.

The government had largely suspended offensives against the Taliban since a U.S. troop reduction plan was unveiled on Feb. 29 but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's stated intention to resume operations could start a cycle of violence, the U.S. official said. The decision could have a decisive impact on the peace deal, the official said.

"The Taliban was (probably) not ever committed to making this deal work with the Afghan government and this is the fig leaf of an excuse that will blow up (it up) and give everybody an excuse to walk away," the official said.

The hospital attack did not seem consistent with Taliban tactics, the official said.

    The official said Washington still planned to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 from about 13,000 when the deal was struck and then assess whether to go lower.

    "Very clearly our assessment is that the conditions are not being met" to go below 8,600, the official said, adding that it would ultimately be a political decision.

The State Department, which has led U.S. diplomacy to try to achieve an Afghan peace deal, declined comment for this report, as did the White House national security council.

"If the Afghans are going on the attack, I don't see how you can keep a deal going," said a U.S. congressional aide who asked not to be named. "I can’t see how the continued violence would allow the United States to continue decreasing below the 8,600."

Asked if he was concerned that the peace effort was unraveling, Trump stressed his desire for Afghans to handle their own security rather than relying on U.S. forces.

"We've been there for many years, we're like a police force. We're not fighting in Afghanistan, we're a police force in Afghanistan and at some point they're going to have to be able to take care of their country," he told reporters.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Twitter on Wednesday that the United States remained committed to a "lasting peace" in Afghanistan and "stand by our Afghan partners."


'BACK IN WAR MODE'?

The Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban deal called for a phased U.S. troop withdrawal and for the government and Taliban to release some prisoners by March 10, when peace talks were to start.

Intra-Afghan peace talks have yet to occur and there is some bitterness within the Afghan government, which was not a party to the Feb. 29 deal, that the United States undercut their leverage by negotiating directly with the Taliban.

A former senior Afghan official said Tuesday's attacks gave Ghani the "cover" he wanted "to defy the Americans on the peace talks" because he and his government see the U.S.-Taliban deal as a "sellout."

On Twitter after the attacks, Ghani's national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, said the government was concerned from the start of the process that the Taliban could not control the violence and said there "seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in 'peace talks.'"

Ghani's decision to revive offensive operations is supported by many opposition figures, who believe Washington's sole focus is to keep the U.S. troop withdrawal plan intact to help Trump win a second term in the Nov. 3 election, the former Afghan official said.

A European diplomat based in Kabul said Ghani's stance made sense given the Afghan public's horror at Tuesday's violence. However, the diplomat said U.S. support for Afghan forces in going after the Taliban could scotch the peace process.

"Now it is for the U.S. to decide whether they help Afghan forces intensify their attacks," the diplomat said. "That could  lead to the (deal's) collapse and we are back in war mode."

A second U.S. official said there was growing U.S. concern about the increasing violence but it was too early to say how much it might worsen. Much will depend on how aggressive Afghan security forces become and whether the Taliban respond in kind, the official said.

The Taliban said in a statement it was "fully prepared to counter all enemy movements and offensives and to robustly defend its people."

There had appeared to be some movement toward Afghan peace talks because some prisoner releases have occurred and talks were underway to resolve an election dispute between Ghani and his main political rival, former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.

Some analysts still see hope for peace, in part because U.S. and Afghan forces have failed to defeat the Taliban for two decades and the alternative is more violence.

"When those are the options in front of you, I think ultimately the only real option is to try to get back to some kind of a peace process," said Andrew Wilder, an Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace think tank.


(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)