ISLAMABAD – A retired Afghan general has defected to the Taliban in western Farah province, according to Afghan and Taliban officials, as concerns rise over members of the Afghan security forces switching sides at a critical moment in the war.
A spokesman for Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry called the news “regretful” in a statement Sunday, accusing retired Gen. Abdul Jalil Bakhtawar of choosing “violence over a life of dignity.”
Bakhtawar’s son, who is the deputy governor of Farah province, disputes his father’s defection.
A Taliban spokesman released a video Monday welcoming Bakhtawar.
“The honorable general was in contact with our Mujahideen, and we are happy to have him in our ranks,” said a senior Taliban official in the video who was not identified by name. “He is an influential personality, and it is great that he is back at his home.”
In the video, Bakhtawar is seen saying, “Let there be peace. I am happy to return to my home. I hope that there should be total peace, and all the elders should join hands. There shouldn’t be any bloodshed on the land.”
At no time in the video does he pledge loyalty to the Taliban or denounce the Afghan government.
Following the signing of a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban, Afghan security forces have been racked by waves of violence. On the ground, Afghan government commanders have said they fear mounting casualties among their men are undercutting morale.
A foreign diplomat in Kabul said the number of defections within the Afghan security forces have increased following the signing of the peace deal more than two months ago. Afghan officials in provinces hit hardest by the uptick in Taliban attacks have also relayed reports of increased defections.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because were not authorized to speak to the media.
The U.S. military command in Afghanistan dismissed reports of large numbers of defections.
“We are not seeing these defections at the scale the Taliban are claiming or at a rate which would exceed previous attrition rates,” a U.S. defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with department regulations.
Dadullah Qani, a local lawmaker in Farah province, said the nature of Bakhtawar’s surrender was worrying because others may follow his footsteps.
The retired general “has joined the Taliban, thinking the government may collapse,” Qani said. “We fear that his surrender may turn into a trend for others to join the Taliban.”
Bakhtawar’s military service dates back two decades, and his family remains politically powerful. But the retired general doesn’t have a loyal armed following and so would not be bringing additional fighters to the Taliban’s ranks, Qani said.
High rates of desertion – not necessarily to Taliban ranks – have long plagued Afghanistan’s security forces. In a December 2019 report to Congress, the Pentagon warned attrition continued to “degrade” the security forces.
Bakhtawar’s son Massoud insisted Monday that his father had not joined the Taliban. “My father has not surrendered, he hasn’t surrendered, I completely deny it,” he said in an interview. He said his father had received permission from the Taliban to travel to his village, which is under militant control.
Retired Gen. Dawlat Waziri, who previously served as spokesman for Afghanistan’s ministry of defense, said the Taliban was trying to undermine Afghan forces by encouraging defections and increasing attacks.
Waziri said to protect Afghan forces, the country’s political leaders must speed up direct talks with the Taliban “to reach a settlement sooner rather than later.”
The U.S.-Taliban peace deal included a requirement for so-called intra-Afghan talks to begin in early March. But the process has been plagued by delays and differing positions on a controversial prisoner swap.
U.S. and Taliban officials have traded heated comments on social media in recent weeks, accusing each other for the increased violence.
A spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul said in a recent statement that the Taliban verbally agreed to bring violence levels down by 80% following the signing of the peace deal. But the text of the agreement requires the Taliban to cease attacks only on American and coalition targets.
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The Washington Post’s Sharif Hassan in Kabul and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.