The Taliban are "clearly" responsible for violence in Afghanistan, with civilians and Afghan security forces taking the brunt of the bloodshed, commander of US Central Command said Thursday (February 18).
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who heads US forces in the Middle East, made the remark on a regional tour, as President Joe Biden reviews a military withdrawal from the country planned for the beginning of May.
"Certainly ISIS ['Islamic State of Iraq and Syria'] has launched some attacks. It pales against what the Taliban is doing. It's a combination of their countrywide attacks against the Afghan forces, their targeted assassinations in some of the urban areas," McKenzie said.
"This is clearly the Taliban. There is no way it's anyone else. That's very clear," he said.
Violence in the war-weary country is "too high now", he said.
"Violence is not directed at us or our coalition NATO friends; it is directed against the Afghan military and security forces and against the people as well. And that is principally coming from the Taliban," he stressed to reporters travelling with him.
Taliban renege on promises
The Pentagon has accused the Taliban of not fulfilling promises that include reducing attacks and cutting ties to insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, a study mandated by the US Congress recently called for a delay in troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, warning that a swift pullout would effectively hand the Taliban a victory.
The goal should be not simply to end America's longest war but to ensure an "acceptable peace agreement" between the Taliban and the internationally recognised Afghan government, the Afghanistan Study Group said February 3.
"Withdrawing US troops irresponsibly would likely lead to a new civil war in Afghanistan, inviting the reconstitution of anti-US terrorist groups that could threaten our homeland and providing them with a narrative of victory against the world's most powerful country," the long-awaited report said.
Just 2,500 US troops remain in Afghanistan -- the lowest since the start of the war in 2001.
With the withdrawal deadline nearing, the Taliban have launched a string of offensives threatening at least two strategic provincial capitals in southern Afghanistan in recent months.
The US and the Afghan government have blamed the insurgents for a wave of deadly assassinations targeting journalists, politicians, judges and activists.
These attacks have undermined the intra-Afghan peace talks under way in Doha, Qatar.
No final decision on NATO withdrawal
NATO has made "no final decision" on the future of its Afghanistan mission, alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.
While defence ministers held off on making that call at a two-day virtual conference, they decided to expand a NATO training mission in Iraq from 500 to "around 4,000" personnel.
The fate of NATO's 9,600-strong support mission in Afghanistan was top of the agenda after the previous US administration struck a deal with the Taliban to pull troops out.
"We have made no final decision on the future of our presence," Stoltenberg said at a news conference.
"But as the May 1st deadline is approaching, NATO allies will continue to closely consult and co-ordinate in the coming weeks."
Stoltenberg insisted the Taliban must live up to commitments under the deal with the United States, including making progress in peace talks with Kabul, reducing violence and cutting ties to "international terrorist groups".
"NATO's goal is to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists that would attack our homelands," he said.
On Iraq, defence ministers agreed to bolster a NATO training mission aimed at strengthening the country's military as it looks to curb the resurgence of ISIS.
"The size of our mission will increase from 500 personnel to around 4,000," Stoltenberg said, adding that the increases would be "incremental".
"Training activities will now include more Iraqi security institutions, and areas beyond Baghdad."
Stoltenberg insisted that the mission was being carried out "at the request of the Iraqi government".
"It is carried out with full respect for Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said.