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U.S. and Taliban agree to "re-set" as Afghanistan peace deal marred by spiraling carnage

Violence threatens Afghan-Taliban peace talks
Latest wave of violence threatens to upend Afghan-Taliban peace talks 11:21

The Trump administration's top envoy for Afghanistan said Thursday that the U.S. and the Taliban had "agreed to re-set actions by strictly adhering to" the terms of an agreement reached between the two sides earlier this year. The agreement was meant to reduce the level of violence in the almost-two-decade old war and sever the Taliban's links with other militant groups to enable the last 4,500 or so U.S. forces in the country to come home.

But it hasn't been working. The Taliban, which agreed under the deal with the U.S. to reduce the violence that has left thousands of Afghans dead, including attacks on Afghan forces, has instead launched a new offensive in the southern Helmand province, driving thousands of civilians from their homes in the capital city of Lashkargah and surrounding districts.

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports that, in response, the U.S. military flew extensive air strikes over the weekend, killing an estimated 80 Taliban militants. 

"At present too many Afghans are dying," U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said in a series of tweets on Thursday, announcing the agreement to "re-set" adherence to the agreement. "With the re-set, we expect that number [of fatalities] to drop significantly."

Khalilzad did not provide details on any steps the U.S. or the Taliban would take to deescalate, but he said: "This means reduced numbers of operations."

The Taliban's political office in Qatar confirmed the discussion, saying in a statement that both sides had "stressed the importance of the agreement and discussed in detail how it would be better implemented. The two sides will also acknowledge their responsibilities and work to ensure that the agreement is fully implemented."

Home for Christmas?

Senior U.S. officials, including President Trump, have sent conflicting messages over the last week regarding Washington's plans to pull troops out of Afghanistan.  

Afghan officials have told CBS News that Mr. Trump's assertion last week that all remaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan "should" be home by Christmas may have been aimed primarily at an American audience in the run-up to the November election, but it was heard loud and clear by the Taliban.

The insurgent group has battled — and negotiated — for years to get the U.S. and other foreign troops backing Afghanistan's own security forces out of the country. Analysts and officials fear Mr. Trump's rhetoric gave them a morale boost both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.

The agreement signed in Qatar earlier this year between the U.S. and the Taliban — which the Afghan government was not a direct party to — laid out a staged plan aimed at facilitating the U.S. military withdrawal.

As senior U.S. military and diplomatic officials have stressed repeatedly, that deal is "conditions based," requiring the Taliban to reduce violence and drop all support for and links with other extremist groups operating in the country before the U.S. will completely extricate itself from its longest-ever war.

Twitter/Hekmat Khalil Karzai
A photo posted to Twitter by former Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai, now chairman of the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, shows him (center right) attending negotiations between members of the Taliban, seated with him, and U.S. officials including government envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (2nd from left), in Doha, Qatar, in January 2019. Twitter/Hekmat Khalil Karzai

In addition to the escalating  violence, U.S. officials have testified recently in Congress that there's still progress to be made by the Taliban in cutting ties with other militant groups.

In short, as Khalilzad's announcement made clear on Thursday, there's no indication yet that conditions will have been met by Christmas for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Mixed messages

The Taliban welcomed Mr. Trump's tweet last week, praising his "honesty" and calling him a "sane and wise man" when it comes to Afghan policy. Afghan government officials, on the other hand, have sought to frame it as pure U.S. politics on Mr. Trump's part, not a reflection of the reality on the ground.

"Keep in mind that, regardless, there will be a number of U.S. troops — it may be less or more — but a specific number will remain, based on our strategic relationship and mutual partnership on fighting terrorism," a senior Afghan security official told CBS News. "They can't ignore the geopolitical importance of Afghanistan and they also can't accept the risk of any threats for their homeland security."

The speaker of the upper house of Afghanistan's Parliament, Fazil Hadi Muslimyar, was less circumspect in his reaction to Mr. Trump's remark, saying discussion of a U.S. withdrawal "at such a critical time is amoral."

H.R. McMaster says Trump’s Afghanistan policy makes U.S. less safe 00:44

Top U.S. officials continue to express confidence that American forces will be able to leave Afghanistan by sometime next year, but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley wouldn't discuss timelines earlier this week in an interview with NPR.

"We're trying to end a war responsibly, deliberately, and to do it on terms that guarantee the safety of the U.S. vital national security interests that are at stake in Afghanistan," he said five days after Mr. Trump's tweet.

Before that tweet by the president, U.S. national security advisor Robert O'Brien had said the U.S. would likely cut its troop presence in Afghanistan down to 2,500 by early next year.

"Trump has promised to fully withdrawal from Iraq and Syria as well, but U.S. troops are still there," Torak Farhadi, a former advisor to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, told CBS News.

Regardless of the intent or meaning of his tweet, Mr. Trump's overt desire to bring U.S. troops home could put the Taliban in a stronger negotiating position as the militant group's long-awaited direct peace talks with the Afghan government get rolling.

Afghan and Taliban leaders hold first direct meeting as historic peace talks get underway 07:41

Those negotiations, which only began about a month ago, already appear to be grinding toward deadlock, with Kabul and the Taliban butting heads over even the basic parameters of a peace agreement.

"These messages from Washington help the Taliban think they are the winners," Fawzia Koofi, a member of the government's negotiating team, told CBS News. "The Taliban think if they don't agree on a peaceful solution, they will win through war once U.S. troops fully withdraw from Afghanistan."

Despite the confused messages, Koofi expressed optimism that U.S. politics, in the end, wouldn't end up dictating the superpower's path forward in the war.

"The Taliban did not fulfil their commitments, and I don't think Americans would decide to fully withdraw at the end of the year no matter what the outcome will be in the November elections," she said.

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