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.”
They found that “relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage,” and that the Taliban offered al-Qaeda continuing safe have in its territory, just as it did before 9/11.
‘Bin Laden was not a threat to the United States’
In the 1990s, al-Qaeda pledged bayat, or fealty, to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, declaring him the “Emir of the Faithful,” and the Taliban had in return offered the group safe haven, according to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. According to the 9/11 Report, when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson led a delegation to meet the Taliban in Kabul in April 1998, they told him they didn’t know where al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden was, and that in any case, “Bin Laden was not a threat to the United States” — a refrain similar to the one the Taliban is employing with U.S. officials now.
Today, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of al-Qaeda, has again pledged bayat to Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhundzada, according to Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal. Akhundzada hasn’t publicly accepted that pledge, Joscelyn adds, thereby tacitly granting legitimacy to al-Qaeda’s goal to establish global rule, based on an extremist militant interpretation of Islam. For the U.S.-Taliban deal to stick, Akhundzada will have to “publicly renounce al-Qaeda’s pledge of allegiance,” and thereby remove the Taliban’s imprimatur on that bloody worldwide campaign. “So far, (Akhundzada) hasn’t done that,” Joscelyn says.
Taliban spokesman Shaheen insists that Akhunzada’s lack of public acknowledgement of the pledge is enough to show the Taliban is breaking with al-Qaeda. “Neither our current leader nor our former leader has accepted their allegiance. It is enough and it is a clear proof of our commitment to what we are saying.” Shaheen dismissed the fact that screenshots from the Taliban’s own Voice of Jihad media outlet issued a statement of acceptance of al-Zawahiri’s pledge in 2015.
The head of the Haqqani Network, another militant group that has staged deadly attacks on U.S. and coalition troops, is the Taliban’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani. He dismissed any “concerns about the potential of Afghanistan being used by disruptive groups to threaten regional and world security,” as “inflated” in a New York Times’ opinion piece published days before the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed. “It is not in the interest of any Afghan to allow such groups to hijack our country and turn it into a battleground….We will take all measures in partnership with other Afghans to make sure the new Afghanistan is a bastion of stability and that nobody feels threatened on our soil.”
Despite these public assurances from Taliban leadership, the U.N. report says the Taliban continues its hardline messaging to its base, promising the return of an Islamic Emirate. It has stepped up attacks on Afghan forces and prepared for more, while carefully avoiding attacks on U.S. forces, the report says, which could scupper the peace agreement and keep U.S troops in the country longer. The group remains “internally disciplined enough to be a formidable fighting force” while divided enough to make compromise difficult, with a “significant constituency” of the group that still believes “that they can and will still achieve their aims by force,” the report says.
Toward that end, “al-Qaeda and the Taliban held meetings over the course of 2019 and in early 2020 to discuss cooperation related to operational planning, training and the provision by the Taliban of safe havens for al-Qaeda members inside Afghanistan,” the report says. The Taliban and al-Qaeda even discussed forming “a joint unit of 2,000 armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by al-Qaeda” that would patrol key areas of the country in the future, it says.
At one of meetings between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in early 2019, Taliban leaders personally reassured Hamza Usama Muhammad bin Laden, Bin Laden’s son, “that the Islamic Emirate would not break its historical ties with al-Qaeda for any price.” (In September 2019, the White House stated Hamza bin Laden had been killed in a “U.S. counterterrorism operation,” but released no date for his demise.) Al-Qaeda’s current leader al-Zawahiri met with members of the Haqqani Network in February 2020, to consult with him “over the agreement with the United States and the peace process,” the report says.
Joscelyn says al-Qaeda remains a threat to the United States, and the Taliban’s loyalty to it extends to the group’s other branches, including Yemen’s al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the FBI and Justice Department recently revealed were behind the deadly attack on U.S. servicemen at Pensacola Air Station in Florida on Dec. 6. The FBI said AQAP had been in constant contact with the Saudi Air Force officer Mohammed Alshamrani, who shot and killed three people at the base where he was training. FBI Director Christopher Wray told reporters on May 18 that Alshamrani, “wasn’t just coordinating with (AQAP) about planning and tactics—he was helping the organization make the most it could out of his murders. And he continued to confer with his AQAP associates right until the end, the very night before he started shooting.”
Joscelyn says the Taliban lauded AQAP in a 2016 video, and venerates its current leader Khalid Batarfi, who was trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. “The Taliban incubated a generation of Jihadis, and there’s no evidence they’ve renounced that,” he says.
If the U.S. is successful in getting the Taliban to honor its pledge to split from al-Qaeda, that could cause a schism between its pro- and anti- al-Qaeda camps, the report says. The U.N. monitoring group has tracked the creation of a new rebel Taliban party of senior dissident members mainly residing outside Afghanistan, who refuse to make peace with the U.S., called the Hizb-i Vilayet Islami, or “Islamic Governorate Party.” A senior Afghan official told TIME that Afghan security services had tracked the formation of the offshoot group that pledged to “continue fighting as the Taliban join peace” talks, and confirmed that in their estimation, in many parts of the country, al-Qaeda and the Taliban “are inseparable.” The official spoke anonymously to discuss the sensitive security matter.
While the report’s data was only gathered through mid-March, there has been no discernable change since then in the close cooperation between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, says a senior western official familiar with the matter, speaking anonymously to share confidential assessments. Another sign of the Taliban’s unwillingness to temper most other militant groups’ activity — other than its own enemy, ISIS-Khorasan — is its failure to help the Trump Administration find two Americans still missing in the country. Navy veteran Mark Frerichs was kidnapped by elements of the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan on Jan. 31 and Paul Overby was presumed to have been kidnapped in 2014.
“The fact that they have continued to deny involvement or knowledge of the Frerichs case is another knock on their credibility as a counterterrorism partner,” a senior Administration official tells TIME, speaking anonymously to discuss the Trump Administration’s private frustrations with the Taliban.
Longtime advisors and observers of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan say the Taliban has done nothing to show it can be trusted to protect U.S. security after U.S. troops have departed. “A drawdown of U.S. troops below the threshold of 8,600 puts at risk the counterterrorism operations under way in Afghanistan that keep Americans safe from Al Qaeda and its external attack plots,” says Kim Kagan, founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War.
Without a U.S. counterterrorism platform in Afghanistan, the U.S. won’t just be unable to pursue terrorist targets in that country, it will risk its monitoring of South Asia, adds Frederick Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute, who fears President Trump is intent on a 100% drawdown of all U.S. forces possibly before the election. Unlike Yemen, Libya and other countries where the U.S. is able to strike from afar, Afghanistan is landlocked.
“We won’t be able to thump al-Qaeda after we’ve left because we won’t be able to get there,” says Kagan. “They will not be able to conduct those kind of operations from boats 600 to 700 miles away….If and when we pull out of it completely, our counterterrorism operations in South Asia will end.”