Two senior Trump administration officials indicated Tuesday that the Taliban has yet to fully cut ties with al-Qaida, which the Taliban had agreed to do as part of an agreement with the United States.
The Taliban have taken some “positive steps, but they have some distance still to go” to meet the conditions laid out in February’s agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, told Congress on Tuesday.
The agreement commits the Afghan militant group to ensuring that no terrorist group can use Afghanistan as a haven from which to attack the United States or its allies. The Taliban also pledged, as part of the agreement, to not cooperate with any groups that could threaten the U.S. or its allies.
Pressed on the issue by Democrats during a hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s national security subcommittee, Khalilzad repeatedly said that that was as much as he could say “in this setting,” an apparent suggestion that classified intelligence indicated continuing contact between the Taliban and al-Qaida.
The Taliban are so far “not fully compliant” with respect to their commitments, “so we have work to be done there,” said David Helvey, the Pentagon official currently performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is conditioned on the Taliban honoring its side of the agreement, said Khalilzad, who served as the lead U.S. negotiator in the Afghanistan peace talks. President Trump has vowed to reduce forces in the country to between 4,000 and 5,000 troops this fall. Khalilzad said the U.S. will assess whether the Taliban is fulfilling its commitments before deciding whether to continue its military withdrawal beyond that.
“This is not an agreement based on trust,” Khalilzad said, adding that the Taliban recognize that it would not be in their interest to allow any terrorists to operate in Afghanistan. “They say they have learned their lesson from the past and that they would not allow terrorists to use their territory against us.”
Asked by New Jersey Democrat Rep. Tom Malinowski whether it would violate the agreement if the Taliban worked with al-Qaida inside Pakistan, rather than in Afghanistan, Khalilzad said that the United States “would regard it as a violation, but the agreement is about Afghanistan.” That meant, said Malinowski, “that the agreement does not preclude them from cooperating with al-Qaida to attack Americans from Pakistan.” (In fact, the relevant sentence of the agreement requires the Taliban to instruct their members “not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies,” with no geographical limitations.)
However, Khalilzad said Pakistan’s leaders had so far been “helpful” during the peace process and that the United States was optimistic that one outcome of the talks would be an agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan in which both nations agree that attacks won’t be launched from their territory.
Other than the Taliban’s relations with al-Qaida, the topic most frequently raised by members of Congress was whether any future Afghan government composed in whole or in part by members of the Taliban could be expected to respect the rights of women and girls. The Taliban has a long history of misogynistic violence, including when the group previously ruled Afghanistan, and there is no reference to women’s rights in the agreement between the United States and the Taliban.
Khalilzad said that while it’s up to the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan to negotiate such topics during the intra-Afghan peace talks currently underway in Doha, Qatar, the issue of Afghan women’s rights “is of the highest importance to the United States” and the extent of U.S. financial assistance to Afghanistan in the future will depend on whether those rights and others are protected. The Taliban, he added, “have spoken positively on this.”
But Malinowski in particular appeared unconvinced, accusing Khalilzad and Helvey of being “incredibly naive” to take the Taliban at their word.
“This is a totalitarian movement that seeks power in Afghanistan — not peace, but power,” he said. “What you’re selling us is not peace, it is a fairy tale to make us feel better about leaving Afghanistan.”
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