PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Taliban fighters have been called out of their traditional winter break from fighting to front-line duty, three militant leaders tell NBC News, amid growing concerns in their ranks that the Biden administration will not withdraw foreign troops by an agreed May deadline.
“Senior commanders and governors have been directed to return to their positions and attend special sessions and discussions to chalk out a future strategy,” a Taliban commander in Helmand province said.
He said there were “multiple issues” that the movement’s leadership needed to address, including a “deadlock” in the peace talks with the Afghan government and doubts about the future raised by the new administration in Washington.
Like other insurgents cited in this article, the commander spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The comments come amid growing warnings about escalating violence from local and foreign officials and experts, with President Joe Biden — who assumed office just months before a deadline to withdraw all foreign troops — weighing what to do next in America’s longest war.
Going through with the drawdown would end nearly 20 years of war for America in Afghanistan, but risks emboldening the Taliban whose raison d’etre for decades has been to force foreign soldiers from the country.
A Taliban political leader in Doha, Qatar, said the group’s plan was to try and capture strategically important provinces in case talks with the Afghan government failed, and Biden kept troops in the country beyond May — the withdrawal date agreed to by the Taliban and the Trump administration.
He said commanders of “important” districts had been recalled to their positions.
The militants have misled the media in the past and it remains unclear to what extent the Taliban are willing to act on their rhetoric, but the threat of violence is also echoed in a recent public statement.
“History has proven that the Afghan Mujahid nation can valiantly defend its values, soil, homeland and rights,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement earlier this week. The Arabic terms mujahed or mujahedeen refer to holy warriors — and became more widely used during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Biden team has said it’s reviewing the situation in Afghanistan and has indicated that it would be prepared to delay troop withdrawal if necessary. There are currently around 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the lowest level since 2001, and approximately 7,500 non-American NATO-led forces.
Around 2,300 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan since 2001. Between October 2001 and October 2018, some 58,000 Afghan military and police were killed in the violence, according to a study by Brown University.
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Afghanistan is also one of the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian. The United Nations documented more than 100,000 civilians killed or injured in the 10 years after 2009, when it began systematically recording the war’s impact on civilians.
A wave of assassinations has also recently hit the country, mainly targeting prominent women, journalists and other progressives.
The Taliban has long denied targeting civilians.
Ashley Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, a London think tank, said while the Taliban was unlikely to have a grand strategy at this stage, they would be watching and waiting, and the lack of clarity from the Biden administration risked testing internal discipline among Taliban ranks.
“It’s incredibly hard on the Taliban in Doha who obviously have guys on the ground who have never trusted the U.S. [to] … stick to the deal, and are eager to return to the battlefield because they think they can make huge gains, if not dominate the country,” she said.
The lack of clarity was also hard on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, she said, who also doesn’t know what’s coming next.
Fawad Aman, a deputy spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of National Defense, said since the U.S. has reduced its troops, Afghan forces had taken responsibility for all ground operations and more than 95 percent of airstrikes.
“This is what we have been working for — independent forces able to conduct our own fight,” Aman said. “NATO has ensured they would continue to provide the funding we still require to support our operations. This is the kind of support we need now.”
Aman declined to comment on the Taliban’s claim that some fighters were returning to their positions.
On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the administration was reviewing the U.S.-Taliban agreement and assessing “whether the Taliban are fulfilling their commitments.”
The agreement specified that all foreign forces would withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban. The militants pledged to take steps to prevent any group or individual, including Al Qaeda, from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.
U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001, toppling the Taliban government that had sheltered Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The group also agreed to enter into peace talks with an Afghan delegation — negotiations that have essentially been put on hold as the U.S. reviews its stance, negotiators on both sides of the talks confirmed.
Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar and Saphora Smith from the U.K.