The U.S. is sticking with its plan to remove all but 8,600 troops from Afghanistan by July, despite a recent spate of attacks including one that killed mothers and newborns in a Kabul maternity ward, Pentagon chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Friday.
In a series of tweets, and in a conference call with reporters Friday, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad blamed the Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State (ISIS) for the hospital attack that killed at least 24, and he pressed the Kabul government to begin negotiations with the Taliban on a peace settlement.
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Though the Taliban has denied involvement in that attack, Afghan officials have not ruled out the possibility. President Ashraf Ghani said Afghan forces are now moving out of their defensive posture and going on the offensive against the Taliban.
"We're still moving forward with the force reduction levels that we're committed to," Hoffman said. " ... "We expect to meet that within the timeline laid out under the agreement with the Taliban."
The planned drawdown levels were worked out in February by Khalilzad in lengthy negotiations with the Taliban.
Hoffman declined comment on how many troops may already have been withdrawn.
"I do not have an update for you on what the actual number is today," he said.
The U.S. stopped giving counts on the number of troops in Afghanistan in February, when the estimated troop strength was about 13,500.
The scope and types of attacks earlier this week, and other attacks allegedly carried out by the Taliban during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, led Ghani to order his forces out of their defensive posture to encourage peace negotiations with the Taliban.
"Today, once again, there is a need for you to demonstrate your hidden power and bring out your swords from the sheath," Ghani said in a speech Friday to members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, according to the local Tolo News Agency.
However, Ghani added that "Our objective is to create conditions for peace. We are not moving away from peace."
In a series of tweets, Khalilzad said ISIS "has demonstrated a pattern for favoring these types of heinous attacks against civilians and is a threat to the Afghan people and to the world," but added the peace process must not be allowed to falter.
"Rather than falling into the ISIS trap and delay peace or create obstacles, Afghans must come together to crush this menace and pursue a historic peace opportunity," he said.
Even in a nation that has endured war and terrorism since the Soviet invasion in 1979, the attack on the Dasht-e-Barshi hospital in Kabul stood out for its brutality.
"They came to kill the mothers," said Frederic Bonnot, head of Afghan programs for Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), who escaped the attack in a hospital safe room during the four-hour assault.
"They went through the rooms in the maternity, shooting women in their beds. It was methodical -- walls sprayed with bullets, blood on the floors in the rooms, vehicles burnt out and windows shot through," Bonnot said.
In a release, MSF, which ran the maternity ward, said 11 women were killed, three of them in the delivery room with their unborn babies, and five others were injured. Ten of the mothers managed to find shelter in safe rooms along with many health workers.
Also among the dead were two baby boys and an Afghan midwife working with MSF. Two newborn babies were wounded, and one was transferred to another hospital for emergency surgery after being shot in the leg, MSF said.
Even as the attack continued, a baby was born, and both mother and newborn survived, said a spokeswoman for MSF, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for its humanitarian work worldwide.
"We know this area has suffered attacks in the past, but no one could believe they would attack a maternity [ward]," Bonnot said. "This country is sadly used to seeing horrific events, but what happened Tuesday is beyond words."
The attackers numbered three, and all were killed by Afghan security personnel, Afghan officials said.
On Saturday, Afghans lined up outside the hospital compound, offering to adopt the babies whose mothers were killed, Tolo News reported.
Khalilzad has been undeterred in his efforts to press for negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government on an eventual peace settlement. The talks were originally set to begin on March 10, but no negotiations have been held as the Taliban continued attacks and disputes arose over prisoner releases.
In the conference call with reporters Friday, Khalilzad said it would be best to begin the talks soon while there was still a major U.S. troop presence.
"So, we want this to happen as soon as possible when now, we're still there in a significant way," Khalilzad said, according to Reuters.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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