KABUL, Afghanistan — No U.S. troops have died in combat in Afghanistan for a year as of Monday, but the Taliban have threatened to target them again if Washington opts to keep international forces in the country after a May withdrawal deadline.
Army Sgts. 1st Class Javier Gutierrez and Antonio Rodriguez were the last Americans to die in battle in Afghanistan on Feb. 8, 2020. Two other service members — Army Staff Sgt. Ian McLaughlin and Army Pfc. Miguel Villalon — were killed in combat there in January last year.
Weeks after their deaths, the U.S. and Taliban signed a deal under which Washington pledged to fully withdraw U.S.-led international forces from the country by May 1 of this year provided the Taliban held up its end of the agreement, including stopping attacks on foreign troops, and barring terrorist groups such as al-Qaida from using Afghanistan as a springboard to attack the U.S. or its allies.
Several military officials and lawmakers have said the Talban also agreed verbally to reduce violence in the country, although that is not included in the text of the agreement made public last year.
Despite the February deal, which was brokered by the Trump administration, violence surged last year and United Nations’ officials have said al-Qaida remains “heavily embedded” with the Taliban.
After President Joe Biden took office last month, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. was “taking a hard look at the extent to which the Taliban are complying” with the deal as Washington weighs “our force posture and our diplomatic strategy” in Afghanistan.
A report released last week by a panel set up by Congress to study the deal called for the withdrawal deadline to be pushed back.
Peace in Afghanistan should not be based on “an inflexible timeline but on all parties fulfilling their commitments, including the Taliban making good on its promises to contain terrorist groups and reduce violence against the Afghan people, and making compromises to achieve a political settlement” as it continues slow-moving talks with the government, the report said.
If the drawdown, which has seen U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan slashed from 13,000 a year ago to 2,500 by mid-January, goes ahead as scheduled, terrorist groups would have “the opportunity to reconstitute” within 18 to 36 months, one of the study panel’s chairs, Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., a retired four-star Marine general who once led international forces in Afghanistan, said in a virtual news conference.
As Washington mulls how to move forward, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid warned that the insurgents “will definitely return to war” if the U.S. “rejects this deal.” He did not say if the Taliban would be open to pushing back the withdrawal deadline.
The deputy head of the Taliban team that negotiated the February deal, Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, said last month that if U.S.-led forces remain in Afghanistan after the May deadline, “we will also kill them,” Voice of America reported.
Keeping troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1 would drag “U.S. troops back into a violent counterinsurgency,” said Adam Weinstein, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan and is now a research fellow for the Middle East at the Washington D.C.-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Having no American combat fatalities for a year was not a guarantee of “diminished risks in the future,” he said.
Some 2,300 American service members have died in Afghanistan since the war began in Oct. 2001.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.