US conducts air strike on Taliban in Helmand province

A military spokesman said the US is committed to peace but has a responsibility to protect its Afghan partners

epa08266595 Afghan security officials patrol in Helmand, Afghanistan, 03 March 2020. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on 01 March said his government has not pledged to free Taliban prisoners, as declared in an agreement reached by the US and Taliban officials. The agreement included cease-fire, withdrawal of foreign forces, intra-Afghan negotiations and counterterrorism assurances.  EPA/WATAN YAR
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The US has conducted an air strike on Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's Helmand province, a US military spokesman said on Wednesday.

Col Sonny Leggett said the move was a "defensive strike" against the Taliban who were actively attacking an Afghan forces checkpoint in Nahr-e Saraj.

Col Leggett stated that the US is committed to peace but has a responsibility to protect its Afghan partners and called on the Taliban to stop "its needless attacks" and uphold its commitments. He said the group has launched 43 attacks against US forces on Tuesday alone.

The strike was the first undertaken by the US against the Taliban in 11 days and came four days after the two signed a peace deal in Qatar.

The military act came as US President Donald Trump said he has spoken by phone with deputy Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in what is believed to be the first direct communication between an American president and a senior official from the militant group since the outbreak of the US invasion into Afghanistan in 2001.

At the time of the US invasion the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

Mr Trump said he had had a “very good talk” with the head of the Taliban's political office in Qatar and that the two sides had reiterated commitments to reduce violence in a peace agreement reached on Saturday.

“We had a good conversation,” Mr Trump said. “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.”

Taliban spokessman Zabihullah Mujahid said the call lasted 35 minutes and was conducted in the presence of US envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad.

The air strike and phone call followed the resumption of military operations by the Taliban against Afghan forces across the country after the signing of a peace deal between the US and the Taliban in Qatar.

The peace deal confirmed calls for US troop levels in Afghanistan to fall to 8,600 within 135 days, from about 13,000, and for all US forces to withdraw in 14 months if the accord holds. In exchange, the Taliban has promised not to let the territory turn into a haven for extremists.

The Taliban said they would not attack US or foreign forces in Afghanistan but made no agreement with the government in the country's capital, Kabul.

The Doha deal — which followed a seven-day reduction in violence — is expected to pave the way towards direct talks between Taliban officials and Afghan leaders in Oslo as soon as next week.

Expected March 10 talks between the Taliban and Mr Ghani’s administration are at a stalemate before they have begun. The militant group says Mr Ghani’s administration must release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before talks can commence, while Mr Ghani has asked the Taliban to leave Pakistan.

“If the Taliban talk prisoner release and have it as a condition, we also have conditions, they should tell me when will they leave Pakistan?,” Mr Ghani told a gathering yesterday during a visit to eastern Nangarhar province.

More to follow.