KABUL -- The United States military warned the Taliban that further escalatory violence against Afghan government forces would be met with more US response, an American military spokesman said after US forces launched an air strike against Taliban fighters Wednesday (March 4).
The air strike targeted Taliban fighters who were "actively attacking" an Afghan military checkpoint in Helmand, tweeted US Forces-Afghanistan spokesman Sonny Leggett.
"This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack," he tweeted.
News of the air strike in Helmand Province -- the first in 11 days -- came only days after the United States and the Taliban signed a historic deal to bring long-lasting peace to Afghanistan.
However, since the signing in Doha, the militants have ramped up violence against Afghan forces, casting a pall over peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban set to begin March 10.
Since Monday, the Taliban has conducted dozens of attacks in 16 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
The insurgent group carried out 43 attacks on checkpoints in Helmand Tuesday (March 3) alone, Leggett said.
Dozens of security personnel and citizens have been killed and wounded as a result.
Warning to Taliban
"Taliban leadership promised the int'l community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks. We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments," Leggett added.
"As we have demonstrated, we will defend our partners when required," he added.
"To be clear: we are committed to peace, however we have the responsibility to defend our [Afghan] partners," he said.
While the Afghan government and the United States have complied with their agreements, the Taliban "appears intent on squandering this opportunity and ignoring the will of the people", Leggett said.
"In the past two days, we have witnessed the most intense Taliban attacks in Helmand," provincial police spokesman Muhammad Zaman Hamdard told AFP.
"They have attacked several districts and many military bases," he added.
Elsewhere, the insurgents killed at least 20 Afghan soldiers and policemen in a series of overnight attacks in other provinces, government officials told AFP Wednesday.
"Taliban fighters attacked at least three army outposts in Imam Sahib District of Kunduz last night, killing at least 10 soldiers and four police," said Safiullah Amiri, a member of the provincial council.
A Defence Ministry official who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity confirmed the army toll, while provincial police spokesman Hejratullah Akbari confirmed the police fatalities.
The insurgents also attacked police in Uruzgan Province on Tuesday night, with governor's spokesman Zergai Ebadi telling AFP that six police officers were killed and seven were wounded.
'Pathway' for peace
The agreement with the Taliban remains fragile, said US Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in a visit with Afghan forces in Kabul Tuesday.
The Taliban's increased violence against Afghan forces "causes a risk to the agreement", Miller said, as quoted by TOLOnews. "Otherwise, it's hard to have an agreement."
"The period of reduction in violence across Afghanistan was an important period for the Afghan people," he said, calling it an important "pathway" toward peace.
"All sides ... have obligations to make sure that pathway is achievable. We have shown restraint with the Afghan security forces, and we have shown restraint because we know that's the will of the Afghan people," he added.
If the Taliban shirk their obligations, "we have the necessary responses", said Miller.
International forces will continue to support Afghan forces, he said.
"We will send air support when they [Afghan forces] need it… That support continues, and we will continue to defend the Afghan security forces," he said.
Under the terms of the peace deal, US and other foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to Taliban security guarantees and a pledge by the insurgents to hold talks with the national government in Kabul.
The Taliban have expressed anger on social media at the Afghan government's refusal to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners as detailed in the US-Taliban agreement.
The wording of the agreement states that the prisoner exchange was contingent on "co-ordination and approval of all relevant sides", contrary to repeated insurgent claims.
"The United States is committed to start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence building measure with the co-ordination and approval of all relevant sides," the agreement states.
President Ashraf Ghani, within his right as detailed in the agreement, March 1 refused to commit to this particular clause as a condition for intra-Afghan talks. The prisoner exchange should be discussed once negotiations begin, he said instead.
"First, given the Taliban's record of dishonesty in their statements and actions, the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners prior to the peace agreement among Afghans is illogical and wrong," said Asadullah Walwalji, a Kabul-based military affairs analyst, in supporting Ghani's stance.
"Secondly, the Taliban peace agreement with the United States does not directly state that the Taliban prisoners will be released after the agreement. It says that the release of Taliban prisoners will be in co-ordination with the parties involved," he said. "Co-ordination with the Afghan government as one side of the war is a must."
"By misinterpreting the peace agreement with the United States, the Taliban want to free their members from Afghan prisons to strengthen their military ranks," he said.
The Afghan government last week sent a delegation to Qatar to open "initial contacts" with the insurgents, but Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen Tuesday said the militants would not meet Kabul's representatives except to discuss the release of their captives.
Contrary to Islam
"A week-long reduction in violence and the US agreement with the Taliban gave us hope for peace and a ceasefire, but unfortunately the Taliban acted contrary to the agreement ... and increased their attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians," said Muhammad Zubair, a resident of Kabul city.
"By declaring war again after a week of reduced violence, the Taliban have proven that they are not fulfilling their commitments and have no will for peace and ending the war in Afghanistan," Zubair added.
"Afghans expected the Taliban to extend the reduced-violence period and not resort to violence," said Mohammad Salem Hasani, a religious scholar in Kabul.
"But unfortunately, the Taliban once again -- contrary to Islam and against the will of the Afghan people -- resumed violence and declared war on the Afghan security forces and the Afghan people," he said.
"War against Afghan forces, who are all Muslims, is forbidden," Hasani added.
[Sulaiman from Kabul contributed to this report.]