U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has voiced frustration with renewed violence in Afghanistan, saying the Afghan parties to the conflict need to take advantage of a peace deal signed over the weekend.
"Violence must be reduced immediately for the peace process to move forward," Pompeo told reporters on March 5. "Do not squander this opportunity."
The comments came after the Pentagon said U.S. forces conducted a “defensive” air strike against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan on March 4, as attacks by the militants left at least 32 Afghan security-force members dead in at least three provinces.
The wave of violence is threatening to unravel a February 29 agreement signed in Doha between the United States and the Taliban and aimed at ending the 18-year war in Afghanistan.
The deal would allow allied forces to leave the country within 14 months in return for various security commitments from the Taliban and a pledge to hold talks with the Afghan government -- which the militant group so far has refused to do.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has warned he was not committed to a key clause in the deal involving the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
The Taliban said it would not take part in intra-Afghan talks until that provision was met.
"What we have urged the parties to do is stop posturing," Pompeo told his press conference in Washington, adding that this includes moving ahead with prisoner releases and sitting down to talk.
"We still have confidence the Taliban leadership is working to deliver on its commitments. We are working on ours," he also said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a Senate panel on March 4 that the Taliban is honoring the agreement by not attacking U.S. and coalition forces, “but not in terms of sustaining the reduction in violence.”
“Keeping that group of people on board is a challenge. They've got their range of hard-liners and soft-liners and so they’re wrestling with that too, I think,” Esper added.
Esper, who was in Kabul with Afghan leaders while the peace agreement was signed in Qatar, told senators that the deal allows the U.S. military to act to defend Afghan forces.
“It’s the commitment I made to the Afghans when I was there. We would continue to defend the Afghans,” he said.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told lawmakers that "there were significant numbers of attacks, small attacks,” adding that the assaults “were all beaten back."
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, did not refer to the U.S. strike in a series of Twitter comments. But he said: "Increasing violence is a threat to the peace agreement and must be reduced immediately."
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a tweet that "according to the plan, [the Taliban] is implementing all parts of the agreement one after another in order to keep the fighting reduced."
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP