KABUL (Reuters) — The United States conducted an airstrike on Wednesday against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, a U.S. forces spokesman said.
It was the first U.S. strike since a troop withdrawal agreement was signed between the two sides on Saturday.
The Taliban fighters were “were actively attacking an [Afghan National Security Forces] checkpoint. This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack,” said Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan in a tweet.
The US conducted an airstrike on March 4 against Taliban fighters in Nahr-e Saraj, Helmand, who were actively attacking an #ANDSF checkpoint. This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack. This was our 1st strike against the Taliban in 11 days.
— USFOR-A Spokesman Col Sonny Leggett (@USFOR_A) March 4, 2020
Leggett added that Taliban forces had conducted 43 attacks on Afghan troops on Tuesday in Helmand. He said U.S. forces are responsible for defending their Afghan allies, citing agreements between the U.S. and Afghan governments.
He said Washington was committed to peace but called on the Taliban to stop “needless attacks” and uphold their commitments, alluding to the deal signed on Saturday in Doha.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that a Taliban attack on a checkpoint in northern Kunduz province had killed seven of its soldiers. Ten Taliban fighters were killed in the shoot-out, according to the statement.
The Taliban have not claimed responsibility for any of the attacks so far or commented on the U.S. airstrike Wednesday.
However, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The Associated Press Wednesday that a week of reduction in violence that started midnight on Feb. 21 had ended.
What the U.S. airstrike means for peace with the Taliban
The United States has agreed to reduce its footprint in Afghanistan from about 13,000 troops to 8,600 within 135 days of the signing, and to complete a total withdrawal of its forces in 14 months.
In an interview Wednesday with Afghan-based Tolo News, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said American warplanes would continue to defend Afghan troops on the ground despite the signed agreement with the Taliban.
“We have shown restraint,” Miller said. “The objective here is to lower violence on all sides. The lowering of violence is our expectation.”
“The agreement is fragile if the Taliban are not going to lower violence, that causes risk to this agreement,” he added.
Video [English]: US Gen. Miller in exclusive intw with TOLOnews on Tues. says US will defend Afghan forces, situation is "fragile," reduction of violence is the objective, if Taliban don't live up to obligations US will respond. #Afghanistanhttps://t.co/XKfCLlhhjd pic.twitter.com/HUcTMdF7XC
— TOLOnews (@TOLOnews) March 4, 2020
President Donald Trump confirmed Tuesday that he spoke on the phone to a Taliban leader. He is the first U.S. president believed to have spoken directly with the militant group, which is responsible for the deaths of thousands of U.S. troops in nearly 19 years of fighting in Afghanistan.
“We had a good conversation. We’ve agreed there’s no violence. We don’t want violence. We’ll see what happens. They’re dealing with Afghanistan, but we’ll see what happens,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One.
According to the Taliban, Trump said the United States would help remove obstacles for upcoming intra-Afghan peace talks slated to start on March 10.
The talks are at risk of being derailed by the recent spate of violence across the country and disagreements between the Taliban and Afghan government over a prisoner exchange.
(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield; editing by John Stonestreet; Pluralist contributed to this report)