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Defying Trump's Landmark Peace Deal, Taliban Continues to Back Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, UN Report Says

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Defying Trump's Landmark Peace Deal, Taliban Continues to Back Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, UN Report Says

Kimberly Dozier

Time•June 1, 2020


The U.S. went to war in Afghanistan with one goal in mind: ridding the country of the threat of al-Qaeda just weeks after the group killed nearly 3,000 people in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, after nearly 20 years of fighting in which more than 3,500 American and coalition lives have been lost, President Donald Trump is pushing to withdraw U.S. forces on the back of a wobbly peace deal signed with the Taliban. But a U.N. report released on Monday shows the Islamist militant group has failed to fulfill one of the central tenets of the agreement – that it would break ties with al-Qaeda – undermining Trump’s biggest foreign policy win as he seeks re-election in November.

Al-Qaeda has 400 to 600 operatives active in 12 Afghan provinces and is running training camps in the east of the country, according to the report released Friday. U.N. experts, drawing their research from interviews with U.N. member states, including their intelligence and security services, plus think tanks and regional officials, say the Taliban has played a double game with the Trump Administration, consulting with al-Qaeda senior leaders throughout its 16 months of peace talks with U.S. officials and reassuring Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, among others, that the Taliban would “honour their historical ties” to the terrorist group.

The U.N. report’s authors are pessimistic the Taliban will live up to its end of the peace deal, including pledges to carry out counterterrorism action against al-Qaeda and launch talks with Afghan leaders to reach a permanent ceasefire. “Early indications are that many, if not all, of these objectives will prove challenging,” says the annual report to the U.N. Security Council, published Monday by the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.

This is not what the Trump Administration promised the American public and U.S. lawmakers. The deal signed in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 29, says the Taliban must “prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went even further in March, insisting that “the Taliban have now made the break” with al-Qaeda. “They’ve said they will not permit terror to be thrust upon anyone, including the United States, from Afghanistan,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation a day after the deal was signed, adding that the officials he met in Doha “agreed that they would break that relationship and that they would work alongside of us to destroy, deny resources to and have al-Qaeda depart from that place.”

The fact that none of that has taken place, and the Taliban has instead fostered its relationship with the group that plotted 9/11, according to U.N. experts, raises questions about whether the Administration rushed through a politically expedient deal that negotiators knew was doomed to fail. The U.S.–Taliban agreement was supposed to be Trump’s triumphant delivery of an end to a nearly 19-year-conflict-turned-quagmire, that has in addition to the thousands of lives lost, cost U.S. taxpayers some $132 billion. Trump hailed the deal as a chance to “bring our people back home,” adding that “everyone is tired of war.”

Despite Trump’s assurances, the report’s findings echo concerns that U.S. military leaders have also aired. U.S. Central Command’s General Frank McKenzie gave a bleak assessment of the Taliban’s ability to follow through with the deal in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. He was explicitly skeptical about the Taliban’s pledge to break with al-Qaeda. “That is something (the Taliban) are going to have to demonstrate that has not yet been demonstrated,” he said on March 13, roughly two weeks after the peace deal was signed. “We don’t need to trust them, we don’t need to like them, we don’t need to believe anything they say. We need to observe what they do.” Central Command declined to comment further, and the National Security Council and U.S. Forces Afghanistan did not respond to requests for comment.

On Monday after the report’s publication, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad declined to criticize the U.N. report, and described the Taliban’s break with al-Qaeda as a work in progress that could slow down U.S. troop withdrawals. “The Taliban have made…specific commitments with regard to al-Qaeda and other groups that could threaten the United States,” in terms of training, recruiting, and fundraising, Khalilzad told a small group of reporters by phone. “The job is not done yet on that but…progress has been made. And our future steps in terms of force reduction and related commitments depends on the Talibs delivering.” He would not say whether he was aware of ongoing Taliban-al-Qaeda talks during his negotiations.

A State Department spokesperson on Friday ahead of the report’s publication cast doubt on the UN report’s validity, saying that given Afghanistan’s security environment “it is our understanding the U.N. experts rely heavily on sources of information that may not provide a complete picture.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the Trump Administration’s reaction to the report.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen also rejected U.N. report’s conclusions ahead of its publication, denying that the Taliban conferred at high levels with al–Qaeda, assured it cooperation and safe haven, or allowed the group to run training camps in the east of the country. “I totally refute this report; it is a baseless accusation aimed at spoiling the peace process. We are fully committed to the agreement and the obligations therein— not to allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against any other country,” Shaheen said in a series of text messages from Doha exchanged with TIME on Friday.

The U.N.’s findings are not the first red flag that the much-lauded peace deal isn’t working. The deal lays out a phased withdrawal all of U.S. forces in return for the Taliban both ceasing fire on American troops and sitting down with Afghan leaders to discuss a future government. Those intra-Afghan talks have already been delayed over a dispute over a prisoner exchange between the Taliban and Afghan government, something the U.S. put in its agreement that Afghan officials say they never agreed to. Taliban attacks on Afghan forces have continued almost unabated.

Nevertheless, the U.S. military has quickened the pace of its troop withdrawal, now down from 13,000 troops in February to roughly 8,600 troops last week, months ahead of schedule, according to Reuters. That’s mostly because the U.S. military has sent personnel home to protect them from the coronavirus pandemic now gripping Afghanistan, but U.S. military leaders are planning to present options for a faster pullout to Trump within the next week or so, according to two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the upcoming meeting. One of those options includes a total drawdown of U.S. forces ahead of the American presidential poll in November, according to The New York Times.

A precipitous U.S. withdrawal could leave Afghanistan headed for a return to the status quo of the years prior to 9/11, when al-Qaeda plotted the 2001 attacks in the country’s mountainous northeast. The U.N. report says the Taliban remains focused on returning Afghanistan to a harsh form of Islamic rule, and is employing tactics to delay intra-Afghan talks to get the maximum number of U.S. troops to withdraw, which would give them more power to threaten the Afghan government, the study authors say. “The Taliban have already begun accusing the United States of bad faith when it provides close air support to Afghan Forces while under Taliban attack.”


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Isn't that what they do? Come out of the woodwork to do what they do to take advantage of other distractions in hopes of having greater impact?

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