Afghan deaths pile up in uncertainty over U.S. deal with Taliban

KABUL, Afghanistan – Two employees of the Afghan human rights commission were killed in Kabul on Saturday when a bomb attached to their vehicle exploded, the latest in a growing number of targeted killings in the Afghan capital.

From killings of religious scholars and assaults on cultural figures to widespread attacks by the Taliban across the country, the surge in violence is undermining the brief optimism of a US deal with the Taliban. Under that agreement, the United States would withdraw its troops, paving the way for direct negotiations between the Afghan parties to end the war in an expected political settlement.

The peace agreement hit a wall over a prisoner exchange that was supposed to allow direct talks. Instead, the violence has escalated.

In a statement, Afghanistan’s independent human rights commission said one of its vehicles was hit by a magnetic bomb on Saturday morning, killing two employees on their way to work.

The victims were identified as Fatima Natasha Khalil, 24, the commission’s donor coordinator who had recently completed a degree from the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, and Jawid Folad, a longtime commission leader.

“So far, no group has claimed responsibility, and the perpetrators of this brutal attack are unclear,” the statement said.

Afghan and US officials say the war has entered a complicated period of uncertainty, with an emboldened insurgency aided by regional powers pressing on a struggling government by launching bloody attacks often without claiming them.

In a sign of the complexity of the war zone, US intelligence recently concluded that the Taliban were receiving money from Russian intelligence for targeting US and coalition forces last year, even while negotiating peace with the United States. .

The agreement, signed in February, included the exchange of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 Afghan forces within 10 days of its signing. That exchange, which met with resistance from the Afghan government, is nearing completion with the release of nearly 4,000 Taliban prisoners.

The Taliban agreed not to attack US targets, but rejected a ceasefire with Afghan government forces, leaving that to direct negotiations between the Afghan parties. However, US officials said there was an informal understanding with insurgents that they would reduce their attacks by 80 percent. Afghans have become increasingly frustrated at not having seen that reduction in violence, and the United States, focused on President Trump’s urgency to get out of the war, has done little to stop the Taliban.

Afghanistan’s National Security Council said June had the deadliest week of the war, with 291 Afghan soldiers killed in Taliban attacks in a week. Javid Faisal, spokesman for the National Security Council, said Taliban attacks in the past three months have increased by almost 40 percent compared to the same period last year.

“We have been very concerned since the agreement between the United States and the Taliban was signed,” said Haidar Afzaly, head of the Defense Committee of the Afghan Parliament. “The only group that has benefited from that is the Taliban, which is seeing its prisoners released.”

He said the Taliban, which were delayed by frequent air strikes in 2019, “are emboldened now” and “have expanded their attacks.”

Authorities say the Taliban are also exploiting gray areas of the battlefield complicated by the remnants of a weakened Islamic State and the growing presence of criminal networks as the coronavirus outbreak further damages the country’s struggling economy.

The Taliban have increasingly outsourced killings and targeted killings to criminal networks in the cities, a senior Afghan security official said, putting pressure on the country’s intelligence agency and police. In the countryside, the Taliban continue bloody attacks in the open, but have refrained from publicizing the attacks to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States so as not to jeopardize the withdrawal of US troops.

In a sign of the complexity of the conflict, among the latest murder victims are five prosecutors from the Afghan attorney general’s office who were shot dead on their way to Bagram prison to help free Taliban prisoners.

The killings added to a long list of killings, including two of the most prominent religious scholars in Kabul, who were killed by explosions inside their mosques. Another explosion hit the family of renowned Afghan writer and poet Assadullah Walwaliji, killing his wife Anisa and teenage daughter Alteen.

“The investigation into the murder of a scholar was not complete when a second was martyred,” said Mawlawi Habibullah Hasam, head of the Afghan religious scholars union.

“We have told the government very clearly: if, God forbid, another scholar is martyred, then we have no choice but to blame the government directly as the murderer.”

“They are responsible for security,” Hasam said. “You can’t just put a statement on Facebook and say this group did it. What are you here for then?

Najim Rahim, Fatima Faizi and Fahim Abed contributed reports.