The Taliban admitted this week that current negotiations with the “arrogant” U.S. – often billed as “peace talks” that will purportedly end the fighting in Afghanistan – are merely being conducted to facilitate “the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.”
The Taliban made the statements in its latest commentary, titled “Powerless shall always remain shareless…!” which was published in English on Jan. 20 on its official website, Voice of Jihad.
In addition, the terrorist group called the Afghan government “impotent,” “powerless,” “incapable,” “a tool of the invaders,” and a host of other insults in the statement. The Taliban was clear, as it has consistently been clear, that it would not deal with the Afghan government, which has been “sidelined [by the U.S.] in every major decision regarding Afghanistan.”
The statement opened with the Taliban referring to itself as “the Islamic Emirate,” the name of its government. The Taliban has repeatedly stated that the only acceptable outcome to the war is the re-imposition of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and a return to its brutal form of “islamic governance.”
“After nearly two decades of armed struggle and resistance by the Islamic Emirate against foreign occupation, the invaders have come to the conclusion that this war unwinnable …” the Taliban said. “It is due to this realization that arrogant America has pursued negotiations with the Emirate and is holding talks about the withdrawal of their forces …”
The Afghan government is an “an impotent and incapable governing system” that “has consistently been sidelined in every major decision regarding Afghanistan,” including ongoing negotiations.
“[Y]et again the stooge administration remains marginalized and has not even yet even been informed about the latest developments by the lead American negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad,” it continued.
Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, has desperately been attempting to cut a deal with the Taliban and has excluded the Afghan government numerous times in an attempt to make it happen. While billed as a “peace” deal, an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban would not bring peace to the country.
The Taliban has refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan government, which it holds in contempt, but has agreed to consider vague “intra-Afghan talks.” As part of that accord, the U.S. was willing to accept the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurances, despite the fact that the Taliban has harbored al Qaeda to this day and refuses to denounce the group by name. In fact, the Taliban has glorified al Qaeda’s attack on Sept. 11, 2001 in its propaganda as recently as July 2019..
Over the past decade, the Taliban has consistently stated that it will not share power with a “puppet” Afghan government that it considers “impotent” and “un-Islamic.” A statement released as far back as Jan. 2016 highlighted that position.
“The Islamic Emirate has not readily embraced this death and destruction for the sake of some silly ministerial posts or a share of the power,” the group said in an official statement.
“The people of Afghanistan readily sacrifice their sons to achieve this objective [the ejection of U.S. forces and the restoration of the Islamic Emirate]. And the Emirate – as the true representative of our people – will not end its peaceful and armed endeavors until we have achieved this hope of Afghanistan.”
The Taliban drove this point home by quoting what it calls “a famous Afghan proverb,” as the headline to its statement…
Full text of the Taliban statement:
Powerless shall always remain shareless…!
After nearly two decades of armed struggle and resistance by the Islamic Emirate against foreign occupation, the invaders have come to the conclusion that this war unwinnable and that Afghanistan is not a place that can be used as a permanent outpost. It is due to this realization that arrogant America has pursued negotiations with the Emirate and is holding talks about the withdrawal of their forces with them as a decisive force shaping the future of Afghanistan.
From the very onset of the invasion, America sought to create an impotent and incapable governing system with the aim of attaining their objectives in Afghanistan in tandem with deceiving its people; a fact that has explicitly been made clear by the former head of this administration (Hamid Karzai) in multiple media interviews. This supposed administration has consistently been sidelined in every major decision regarding Afghanistan and has been used as a mere tool by the invaders for their own interests over the course of this protracted period.
At this very moment, negotiations between Talib envoys and America about the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan has entered a crucial stage and hopes are high that both sides shall reach an agreement about the withdrawal of America forces from Afghanistan. And yet again the stooge administration remains marginalized and has not even yet even been informed about the latest developments by the lead American negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad as evidenced by the remarks of Ghulam Siddique Siddiqui, the spokesperson for the incumbent head of the Kabul administration Ashraf Ghani.
A famous Afghan proverb says “Powerless shall always remain shareless” and this saying distinctly describes the Kabul-based administration. They have continually remained loyal to the interests of the invaders and toed the official line of their masters over the past two decades and therefore, they shall continue to remain an insignificant party when it comes to major issues.
WASHINGTON – A Taliban delegation reportedly met earlier this month with Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation. The alleged gathering came during an official Taliban visit to Islamabad to meet with Pakistan officials.
It was the first known contact between the U.S and Taliban insurgents since U.S. President Donald Trump canceled peace talks with the insurgents in September, citing increased violence in Afghanistan perpetrated by the militants in an attempt to gain more leverage at the negotiation table.
A senior Pakistani official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the topic publicly, told Reuters “Pakistan played a big role in it to convince them [Taliban] how important it [the meeting] was for the peace process.”
The official said the meeting was a confidence-building measure between the two sides and did not include formal negotiations.
Although the U.S. State Department has declined to comment on whether Khalilzad met with the Taliban, a U.S. official told Reuters that Ambassador Khalilzad has met with Pakistan officials for consultations. The official said the peace talks have not resumed.
The U.S. and Taliban have held nine rounds of direct talks in Qatar’s capital city, Doha, with both sides appearing closer than at any time in the past 18 years of war to striking a deal that would have brought an end to the conflict in Afghanistan, before President Trump called off the talks last month.
The deal revolved around four key issues negotiated by both sides for almost a year, including a guarantee by the Taliban insurgents that foreign militants would not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a safe haven to launch terror attacks outside the country, the complete withdrawal of U.S and NATO forces from Afghanistan, the beginning of an intra-Afghan dialogue, and a permanent cease-fire in the country.
Despite assurances by the insurgents that they would not allow foreign terror groups to operate from Afghanistan, the insurgent group seemingly is linked to the al-Qaida terror group on both operational and strategic levels.
Late last month, Afghan and U.S. forces jointly targeted a Taliban hideout in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, allegedly killing 23 militants, including six foreigners, and Asim Omar, chief of the al-Qaida terror group in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
“On the 23rd of September, there was a special forces operation conducted against an al-Qaida hideout in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province that resulted in the death of 23 militants, including six al-Qaida fighters,” Mohammad Yasin Khan, governor of southern Helmand province told VOA.
Rohullah Ahmadzai, a spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Defense told VOA the Taliban and al-Qaida continue to maintain ties at various levels. He said Umar shows their relation is still firm.
“Unlike their [Taliban] claims and promise, they are in close relation with Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and their leaders live together outside Afghanistan,” he added in a reference to neighboring Pakistan, which is accused of providing safe haven for militants, a charge denied by Islamabad.
The Taliban predictably denied that the operation in southern Helmand province killed their members and those of al-Qaida, insisting the victims were all civilians.
Javid Ahmad, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, charges that al-Qaida continues to invest in Taliban, particularly the hardliners among the militant group.
“While Western targets have long been a priority for al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the group has largely focused the bulk of its attacks and resources on local operations, benefitting the Taliban hardliners,” Ahmad said. “The main problem is that some Taliban members can’t seem to distinguish their objectives from that of al-Qaida’s. To many, those objectives, long rooted in jihad, have remained the same.”
Ahmad notes the two sides rely on shared tactics, resources, expertise and manpower. “There are also reports about a quiet rebranding of some of those hardliners into al-Qaida, which has solidified this co-dependent relationship. That’s why the Taliban promises to break ties with the group is a sheer fantasy for now,” Ahmad said.
Michael Semple, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, says expecting the Taliban to give up on their relationship with their terrorist allies is “unrealistic.”
“In 25 years, the Taliban have not cut off links with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. So, I have seen no indication that they are about to do so,” Semple said.
Semple added that the Haqqani Network, a Taliban allied U.S. designated terror group, has close working relationship with al-Qaida.
“The head of [the] Haqqani Network [Serajuddin Haqqani] is the deputy leader of the Taliban movement. The military might, which the Taliban deploys, depends partly on the Haqqani Network,” Semple said.
“We see no indication that the Taliban are ready to start, giving up their military and physical leadership … we are [a] long way away from peace agreement [between the U.S. and the Taliban] so to expect the Taliban to give up their relationship with their terrorist allies of two-and-half decades in the first step is probably unrealistic,” he added.
Some analysts, like Matt Dearing, an assistant professor at the Washington-based National Defense University, assert that the Taliban should not be trusted and taken at their word for disavowing al-Qaida. Rather, they should be required to take “real action” before a deal is struck with them.
“Taliban and al-Qaida continue to coordinate operations, strategize, and praise each other on social media and their official communications. It’s not hard to see the links between these organizations if one pays attention,” Dearing said.
Dearing added that U.S. domestic politics should be separated from how its foreign policy is implemented.
“Unfortunately, the pressure to ‘make a deal’ with the Taliban before the summer of 2020 ended is based more on politics than policy. The Taliban know this, and their negotiators will tell the U.S. what it wants to hear,” Dearing said.
“It would be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy and Afghanistan’s future if a peace deal is struck with the Taliban purely for political optics,” he added.
VOA’s Afghanistan service contributed to this report. Some of the information in this report came from Reuters.
Nearly 18 years after U.S. forces first dropped into Afghanistan, yet another administration is struggliong to get out of the quagmire.
And the struggle is not going well.
As much as he wanted to pull troops out, President Donald Trump, like his predecessors, has not found the way forward.
Quite the opposite.
When Trump took office, there were about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. Now there are about 14,000. Troop deaths have risen to the most in years, the Taliban holds more territory than ever and a new foe, ISIS-K, has emerged to add to the deadly misery.
Trump has signaled his eagerness to withdraw in recent months, lamenting that troops are acting more as police officers and public works employees than war fighters.
“They’re building gas stations. They’re rebuilding schools. The United States — we shouldn’t be doing that,” he said in July, calling on the Afghans to pick up the slack. “That’s for them to do.”
Trump authorized high-level peace talks with the Taliban and even floated the idea of a meeting at Camp David. An end to the nation’s longest war looked within reach.
But in September, President Trump declared the peace talks dead, after a car-bomb near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul killed an 82nd Airborne soldier.
Days later, at the Pentagon’s 9/11 ceremony, Trump told an audience of survivors, family members and first responders from that attack that he had responded by ramping up the pressure on the Taliban.
“The last four days, we’ve hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before, and that will continue,” he said.
For service members deployed abroad, or preparing for their next sojourn to “the sandbox,” business will continue as usual for now. But the administration has signaled its motivation to end this endless war. So what could that mean for future deployments, and the security risk for those on the ground if forces are scaled back?
A White House spokesman declined to answer questions on whether the administration was still planning a drawdown of troops to a recently proposed 8,600, or whether any amount of withdrawal would be tied to negotiations and a possible peace deal with the Taliban.
When combat troops withdrew from the country in 2014, the hope was that Afghanistan’s fresh, new, democratically elected government and American-trained security forces would be able to hold the line against another takeover by extremist groups.
While the Afghan government and its national police/national army organizations still exist, today the Taliban controls more square footage of the country than it did when Green Berets first parachuted in 18 years ago.
The resurgence of the Taliban, coupled with the rise of a local ISIS faction, has kept U.S. troops rotating into Afghanistan at a steady clip, even if their new mission set revolves around training, advising and assisting Afghan forces.
Neither U.S. Central Command nor Pentagon spokespeople responded to requests for specific numbers of airstrikes or other missions that would indicate the U.S. had increased operations.
That same week, multiple requests from the Pentagon press corps to have an on-camera briefing with Gen. Austin Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, were also denied.
Until further notice, according to officials, nothing has changed.
Business as usual
Pentagon officials say they have what they need.
“The number of troops that we will have will always be the appropriate level that we need to provide security,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters on Sept. 9. “We’re going to focus on the counter-terrorism mission, and we’re going to focus on the reason we got into Afghanistan in the first place, and that is to prevent terrorist operations or individuals from using Afghanistan as a base from which to operate against the homeland.”
There are still roughly 14,000 troops deployed to the country, a mix of train-advise-assist units partnered with the Afghan National Army, special operations teams working the counter-terrorism mission and air support personnel to back them both up.
The Army has been sending brigade and division headquarters elements to help on the ground for half of a decade. In 2017, with an eye toward that mission continuing for years to come, the service announced it would create Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB) that would focus on that mission and be available by request for any of the combatant commands.
The first SFAB deployed to Afghanistan in 2018, followed by the second this year. As of September, a 3rd SFAB is still training for an Afghanistan deployment, Security Force Assistance Command spokeswoman Maj. Christina Wright told Military Times Sept. 16. “SFABs continue to train for worldwide deployment in support of combatant command security cooperation objectives,” she added.
Meanwhile, in the south of the country, Task Force Southwest has been rotating Marines into Helmand Province since 2017. The mission is to to train, advise and assist Afghan security partners there, according to Resolute Support officials. Earlier this year, there had been rumblings that the Marines would withdraw soon.
The task force consists of several hundred Marines. Now in its fourth rotation, and the primary Marine presence in Afghanistan, the task force has helped create a security belt around the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. The city hasn’t come under considerable pressure since it arrived even though the Taliban still control most of Helmand.
In addition to training Afghan aviation forces, the Air Force provides air support to troops on the ground and runs its own missions.
The most recently available monthly data shows the Air Force launched 810 strikes and over nearly 1,000 sorties in August — that’s about one sortie every 45 minutes.
Officials from the Navy did not provide information about its current and future efforts in Afghanistan. However, nearly 18 years of constant deployments by SEALs have created a strain on the force that’s contributed to a series of scandals, former U.S. Special Operations Command honcho William McRaven said at a recent security forum.
Experts agree that Afghan security forces are not ready to secure their country from an insurgency by themselves.
Citing DoD figures, a senior RAND Corp. researcher said Sept. 18 at the New America Special Operations Forces Policy Forum in Washington, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are at 77 percent of their goal end strength.
“They’re going to need continued aid, and this was the big lesson from the Soviet Era, of course,” Linda Robinson said. “You must continue to support this force, or it will collapse in the face of a robust insurgency.”
Afghan forces are making solid progress, according to a Pentagon report from June on Afghanistan’s security, covering Dec. 1, 2018, to May 31, 2019.
During that period, the authors wrote, the Afghan Special Security Forces “achieved over 80 percent of its projected end strength planned for 2020.”
Despite “record-high” casualties — from nearly 1,000 enemy attacks in April, but generally between 600 and 800 a month, according to the report — “ANDSF recruitment and retention outpaced attrition for the first time in several reporting periods.”
Part of that progress, as well, has been an aviation capability upgrade, switching out Russian Mi-17 helicopters with U.S.-made aircraft. U.S. troops have been on hand to train the Afghan pilots, and according to the report, they are meeting their milestones.
On the other hand, the rise of ISIS-K — Afghanistan’s local Islamic State faction — has overwhelmed both U.S. and Afghan forces, gaining territory throughout the first half of this year.
“Regionally the group continues to evade, counter, and resist sustained CT pressure,” according to the report. “While ISIS-K remains operationally limited to South and Central Asia, the group harbors intentions to attack international targets.”
If the U.S. drew down or ultimately withdrew troops, Afghan forces would not be on their own, though. There are five regional train-advise-assist commands in Afghanistan, and three of them are run by Turkish, German and Italian forces.
Still, that support is crucial to their progress.
“Right now, it’s our judgment that the Afghans need support to deal with the level of violence today,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Aug. 28 in a Pentagon briefing. “If an agreement happens, that could change.”
So far this year, 17 U.S. service members have been killed in action in Afghanistan, at the hands of both Taliban and ISIS combatants. That makes this year’s casualty count the highest since former President Obama declared the end of combat operations in 2014.
Thirteen of those were members of special operations forces, which is leading the counter-terror fight, including eight Special Forces soldiers and one Army Ranger.
Of the roughly 14,000 troops deployed there, 9,000 are under the train-advise-assist mission, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Campbell told Military Times, and the remaining 5,000 are focusing on counter-terror.
Efforts to train the Afghans to take care of themselves have seen mixed results.
The build up of the Afghan commandos, for instance, has been seen as a big success while creating a self-sufficient air force has encountered problems.
Pentagon officials say the effort to train the Afghan air force has been largely successful.
Their combat capability “continues to increase as more aircraft are fielded and as Afghan pilots become more proficient,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman. “The AAF can unilaterally plan and conduct precision strike, close-air support, and MEDEVAC/CASEVAC missions. Their growing fixed wing attack fleet is proficient in conducting precision attack using laser guided munitions.”
The Afghan air force contingent of AC-208s, MD-530s and UH-60s “are now fully fielded; the remainder of their A-29s will be fielded by the end of 2020. AAF A-29s average more than 60 bombs dropped and 20 missiles fired in combat operations per month,” said Campbell. “Their MD-530s fire an average of more than 500 rockets a month during combat missions.”
The Afghans rely on contract logistical support, “as does any air force that conducts a high volume of operations; about 80 percent of their maintenance is provided by contractors,” said Campbell. “Coalition Forces continue to mentor and provide individual pilot and maintainer training as the AAF works to grow its maintenance and aircrew workforce.”
Still, U.S. and coalition forces with the NATO-led Resolute Support mission fell short in developing Afghan tactical air coordinators’ ability to coordinate airdrop operations with Afghan air forces, according to a new report.
The Pentagon Inspector General report publicly released on Aug. 12, says Resolute Support’s Train Advise, Assist Command – Air that supports the Afghan air force failed to meet goals to develop Afghan tactical air coordinators competent in coordinating air drop operations that help provide supplies to the ANDSF.
Despite the fact air-drop training was included in training curriculum, TAAC-Air advisers chose to not provide Afghan tactical air coordinators with training or advising on air-drop operations.
Additionally, the report found TAAC-Air did not have a thorough training curriculum for the Afghan air liaison officers regarding targeting for airstrikes. The absence of an in-depth training curriculum was attributed to a lack of oversight from TAAC-Air over contracted advisers.
In discussions of a drawdown, counter-terror special operations troops have been suggested as the preferred stay-behind force. But Robinson urged the presence of more conventional forces to support the Afghan troops.
“Aside from the need to convert our military pressure into political outcomes, I think the big lesson here is [counter-terrorism] only is not the only solution,” she said. “A small [counter-insurgency] approach is really the way ahead.”
For the Taliban, the White House’s very public motivation to withdraw troops might be emboldening, a former South Asia foreign area officer told Military Times.
“I see them targeting our people more and more,” retired Maj. Jason Howk, now a military columnist and author, told Military Times. “I think that’s going to be one of their higher-level missions, is to hit our folks as much as possible, as frequently as possible.”
It would be a top priority for them, he said, to use Trump’s own rhetoric against him.
“That was his base, that’s what he was pushing for — pull every troop out of every country and bring them all home,” Howk said. “That, unfortunately, is a signal to an enemy that knows that’s what you’d like to do. They’re going to speed that up for you.”
To be sure, a rising death toll in Afghanistan presents a strong argument for getting out.
“We don’t do body counts of our enemies, but the media worldwide loves to do body counts of American soldiers, and NATO soldiers,” Howk said. “That just drives everybody away from wanting to be involved in Afghanistan. That’s what the Taliban and their supporters are hoping for.”
It gives them an upper hand in any negotiations, according to a former CENTCOM chief of staff.
“Right now, they believe that they have a strategic advantage over us, and in fact, they do,” retired Maj. Gen. Jay Hood, who now runs his own consulting firm.
The U.S. would’ve had a chance during the Obama administration’s surge circa 2010, he said. But with one major drawdown in the recent past, and strong indications another is on the way, the Taliban can bet on waiting out the administration’s will to stay.
“Today it makes absolutely no sense for the United States to stay there and continue what they’re doing,” Hood said.
Stay or go
Whether Trump plans to go ahead with a drawdown or return to the negotiation table is an open question. While the U.S. posture in Afghanistan hasn’t changed, neither has the administration’s desire to end what many people are calling an “endless war.”
Staying in Afghanistan is a problem for the president politically, experts said, but pulling troops out of the country also presents a risk.
“This is still a diplomatic solution. We’re not going to kill our way to victory. Everybody knows that,” retired Army Col. Stu Bradin, a career Special Forces officer and current president of the Global SOF Foundation. “The problem is, nobody wants to make the compromise to get the ball moving in the right direction.”
So if troops were to draw down, from which bucket do you pick, and which personnel would be considered more essential than others?
A special operations forces footprint with strike capability will be key, he said, so that there are troops on the ground keeping an eye on things and air power to get them out of trouble.
“It’s going to be hard to say, hey, we’re going to have a force there that is for strike capability — at the same time you’re trying to sustain the Afghans with the training and the stuff they need to actually run the fight,” Bradin said. “I’m sure there’s stuff they can get rid of, but I don’t know what that would be.”
There will also likely be some train-advise-assist teams spread around, but striking a balance while keeping the footprint reduced will be tricky.
“If you drop 5,000 people that are trainers, that are focused on building out the Afghan forces, to maintain the strike package — it’s like eating your seed corn,” he said. “You’re accepting short-term victory for long-term issues.”
To smooth over that transition, the State Department began sending diplomats to Qatar in February, to meet with Taliban officials and map out some sort of agreement.
The understanding had been that the groups would agree to conditions, and if the Taliban met them, the U.S. would begin withdrawing. The effort was controversial, particularly because it did not include Afghan government officials, who would bear the brunt of a Taliban empowered by an agreement with the U.S.
The break down in talks, in fact, was welcomed by Afghan central government officials.
“As an Afghan woman, as an ordinary citizen of Afghanistan, I was relieved,” Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., said Sept. 18 in Washington.
Afghans didn’t feel in charge of their destiny, she said, as the U.S. and Taliban went around them to continue to try to strike a deal. The Afghans have been fighting the Taliban, too, she explained, and dying by the thousands between their security forces and the innocent civilians who are targeted in attacks.
“For any peace process to succeed … it must have popular buy-in,” she said, which it wouldn’t while the Afghan government didn’t get a say. “It must ensure that it will pave the way for a hopeful, prosperous future.”
Some, like a legendary former leader of SOCOM, also believed making concessions to be the wrong move.
“I do believe that if we negotiate some sort of settlement with the Taliban, and that settlement involves the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, that, you know, it won’t be six months or a year before all of the blood and treasure we have put into Afghanistan will have been reversed because the Taliban will come back in and do what the Taliban do,” retired Adm. McRaven said at the SOF Policy Forum.
Others share that sentiment, that a deal with the Taliban would inevitably crumble.
“I think they’re still pushing that, even knowing that the Taliban will probably renege on some of it and they’ll have to re-start the peace process,” Howk said. “Until the Taliban gives some sort of sign, some sort of effort that gives some confidence … then the Afghan people are going to look at America and go, ‘No way. We told you we couldn’t trust them. Let’s just keep killing them.”
On the other hand, said Hood, a former CENTCOM two-star, the U.S. is not going to subdue the Taliban in Afghanistan, especially not while they already control about half of the country’s districts and share an ethnic heritage with the roughly 40 percent Pashtun population.
The best hope for keeping the country from turning into another terrorist training ground could be to let the Taliban handle it, he said.
“Their response to somebody who acts out against what their directives are, is going to be — frankly, in that part of the world — far more effective than what we have been or ever will be,” Hood said. “They will take a very violent approach to dealing with ISIS, to dealing with anybody else who should oppose them in specific areas.”
And if they do go back on their promises, he added, the U.S. is much more prepared to head off a foreign attack.
“I hear some senior American leaders preaching the same old story,” he said. “‘You know, if this goes bad, can you trust them? Who’s to say they won’t allow another org in these broad, ungoverned lands to train and attack the West?’ We have a lot more systems in place that allow for much more gathering of intelligence.”
The Trump administration seems poised to give away everything America has fought for in Afghanistan since 9/11…
Last week, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, launched into a broadside against Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American diplomat responsible for negotiating with the Taliban. Addressing reporters in Washington, Mohib insinuated that Khalilzad is seeking to install himself as the “viceroy” of a new “caretaker government.” The State Department quickly issued a sharp rebuke, saying that any condemnation of Khalilzad was really a critique of its leader, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
While Mohib’s specific charge may have been hyperbole, it almost certainly wasn’t a slip of the tongue. Mohib has been around Washington for years, including as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., so he knew how his words would be received. His harsh critique of Khalilzad reflects the Afghan government’s deep mistrust of the Trump administration’s plans. Everyone knows that President Donald Trump wants out of Afghanistan, and the Afghans know that the State Department’s dealings with the Taliban will not deliver “peace.” Instead, Khalilzad’s talks have further empowered the same jihadists America has been fighting for nearly two decades.
The Taliban has repeatedly dismissed the elected Afghan government as an illegitimate “puppet” of the U.S. and refused to talk with President Ashraf Ghani’s representatives. Khalilzad’s diplomacy has validated the Taliban’s claim. The State Department long maintained that the talks must be “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned,” but nobody seems to have told Khalilzad. He caved to the Taliban’s demand for unilateral negotiations with the U.S. early on, holding extensive two-party talks without any preconditions. Incredibly, though the Afghan government has never been invited to the negotiating table, Khalilzad has already announced that a “draft” agreement is in place. Only after this accord with the Taliban is “finalized” can the Afghan government hope to participate in “intra-Afghan negotiations.”
But meaningful peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government are not likely to happen. The Taliban is fighting to resurrect its totalitarian Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and has already established a shadow government throughout parts of the country. The jihadists’ rulers-in-waiting do not intend to share power with the elected Afghan government—they quite openly plan to usurp it. And they are closer to achieving that goal today than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001. With American and NATO forces preparing to leave, why would the Taliban suddenly get serious about peace? Indeed, the jihadists know that one of the last major obstacles to their victory is about to be removed.
While Afghan officials like Mohib have their own reasons to distrust Khalilzad, Americans should also be concerned. The U.S. military would have you believe that the Taliban was driven, through force, to the negotiating table. That’s not true. The Taliban contests or controls more than half of Afghanistan’s territory. This ground is sparsely populated and mostly rural, but the Taliban’s men are circling several provincial capitals, just waiting to seize at least some of them. America has little will to keep them at bay any longer. So the State Department begged the Taliban for talks—not the other way around. As a result, the jihadists are negotiating from a position of strength, and they know it.
But that doesn’t excuse Pompeo’s willingness to accept an exceptionally bad deal. In addition to alienating the Afghan government, America’s long-standing, albeit problematic ally, Khalilzad has endorsed the Taliban’s big lie concerning al-Qaida and international terrorism. This should be offensive to all Americans affected by the 9/11 wars. Let us explain.
Although he has provided few specific details, Khalilzad tweeted on Mar. 12 that the Trump administration’s draft accord with the Taliban covers two key issues: a “withdrawal timeline” and “effective counterterrorism measures.” In essence, Khalilzad has sought a Kissinger-style “decent interval” during which the U.S. can execute an orderly withdrawal in exchange for a promise that Afghan soil won’t be used as a hub for international terrorism once again. On the latter point, Khalilzad has been remarkably credulous, stating that he is already satisfied with the Taliban’s assurances.
Other than the Taliban, no one else should be satisfied—especially given the sordid history of the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaida.
Afghanistan is, today, already home to international terrorist groups. Both the Islamic State and al-Qaida fight and train throughout the country. The Taliban has no control over the Islamic State’s regional arm, which operates across the Afghan-Pakistani border and has ties to the self-declared caliphate’s mothership in Iraq and Syria. Although there may be some episodic cooperation between the two sides, Islamic State loyalists clash regularly with their jihadist counterparts in the Taliban. And the Islamic State rejects the Taliban’s legitimacy, so it will not abide by any agreement struck with the U.S. Thus, the Taliban cannot guarantee that it will hold the Islamic State’s global ambitions in check.
More important, there is no reason to think the Taliban wants to hold al-Qaida’s global agenda in check. And this is where Khalilzad’s credulity becomes especially problematic. He has already declared the Taliban to be a de facto counterterrorism partner. This is an absurd proposition.
As the United Nations Security Council found in two recent reports, al-Qaida and the Taliban remain “closely allied” and their “long-standing” relationship “remains firm.” Al-Qaida’s leaders still view Afghanistan as a “safe haven,” and their men act like a force multiplier for the insurgency, offering military and religious instruction to Taliban fighters. Indeed, al-Qaida is operating across multiple Afghan provinces, including in areas dominated by the Taliban.
Given this current reality, Khalilzad has not explained to the American public why he trusts the Taliban to restrain al-Qaida now. As part of any final deal, the Taliban should be required to state, in no uncertain terms, its official position on al-Qaida.
Below, we outline four key aspects of the Taliban-al-Qaida relationship that the State Department should address. If Khalilzad’s final deal with the Taliban doesn’t take into these issues, in some direct fashion, then the agreement is an obvious charade.
First, the Taliban has never publicly renounced al-Qaida, by name, or accepted responsibility for harboring it before 9/11. If the Taliban has really offered an ironclad counterterrorism guarantee, as Khalilzad claims, then the group should have no problem officially disowning al-Qaida. Indeed, a disavowal should be mandatory—a key test of the Taliban’s truthfulness.
Some have tried to absolve the Taliban of any responsibility for the 9/11 hijackings, as well as a string of other terror plots hatched on Afghan soil, claiming that the group didn’t really endorse Osama bin Laden’s anti-American terrorism. But this bit of apologia falls apart when subjected to basic scrutiny. The Taliban deliberately shielded bin Laden, even as the U.S. demanded that he be turned over.
In its final report, released in the summer of 2004, the 9/11 Commission documented various American and Saudi efforts to convince the Taliban to break with al-Qaida. All of them failed. In April 1998, for instance, the Taliban’s men told a U.S. delegation led by U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson that they didn’t know where bin Laden was and, in any event, al-Qaida didn’t pose a threat to America. The Taliban told this brazen lie despite the fact al-Qaida had already declared war on America.
On August 7, 1998, four months after Richardson’s encounter, al-Qaida’s suicide truck bombs struck the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing and wounding hundreds. It was al-Qaida’s most devastating attack prior to the 9/11 hijackings. The U.S. retaliated by lobbing some missiles into a training camp in Afghanistan and at a suspected al-Qaida facility in Sudan. The bombs missed bin Laden, but the Taliban’s lie had been conclusively disproved. Bin Laden was clearly a threat to the U.S.
Still, the Taliban didn’t budge. In late 1999, according to the 9/11 Commission, the Taliban’s senior leadership voted to continue providing safe harbor for bin Laden and his terrorists. Mullah Omar even ordered the killing of a subordinate who objected to his pro-bin Laden policy. Then, on September 9, 2001, two al-Qaida suicide bombers killed the Taliban’s main battlefield opponent: Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Al-Qaida and the Taliban launched a joint offensive against the Northern Alliance the very next day. Al-Qaida’s senior leaders knew that America would rely on Massoud’s men as part of a counterattack after the kamikaze hijackings. And, in a premeditated move, al-Qaida helped the Taliban go on the offensive beforehand. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar then refused to turn over bin Laden even after the U.S. issued a post-9/11 ultimatum, deciding he’d rather lose his Islamic emirate than sacrifice the al-Qaida leader.
The Taliban has never accepted responsibility for any of this. These facts are not merely a matter of history. To this day, al-Qaida continues to praise Omar for his obstinacy in the face of a superpower. The Taliban has had more than two decades to renounce al-Qaida and it hasn’t done so. And the Taliban still hasn’t proven its willingness to hinder al-Qaida’s international plotting from inside Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. killed a senior al-Qaida leader in Afghanistan just days prior to the 2016 presidential election. This same al-Qaida figure, Faruq al-Qahtani, was not only overseeing terrorist plots against the West, he also buttressed the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan by delivering cash and weapons to Taliban fighters, while also planning attacks on coalition forces.
If Khalilzad negotiates a denunciation of al-Qaida as part of the accord, then that would be significant. If not, then everyone should be aware that the Taliban hasn’t really come clean.
As a second measure, Khalilzad’s deal needs to address al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s oath of allegiance to the Taliban’s current top leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada.
Al-Qaida’s top leaders have been loyal to the Taliban’s emir since well before 9/11. In al-Qaida’s view, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was the only religiously legitimate state in the world at the time of the hijackings. Al-Qaida deemed Mullah Omar to be Amir al-Mu’minin, or the “Emir of the Faithful,” an honorific usually reserved for the Muslim caliph. (ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi adopted the same title in 2014, after the Islamic State declared its caliphate in Iraq and Syria.) As a result, bin Laden swore fealty to Omar and encouraged other Muslims around the world to do the same.
Bin Laden was killed in 2011. Mullah Omar is thought to have passed away sometime in 2013. Nevertheless, al-Qaida continued to market its loyalty to Omar until 2015, when the Taliban finally admitted that its founder had passed away two years earlier. The Taliban then named Mullah Mansour, a powerful figure who considered al-Qaida’s men to be the “heroes of the current jihadist era,” as its leader. Bin Laden’s successor, Zawahiri, quickly swore his fealty to Mansour, and Mansjour publicly accepted Zawahiri’s allegiance.
After Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May 2016, the Taliban named Akhundzada as its emir. Zawahiri fell in line once again — publicly declaring that Akhundzada was the new “Emir of the Faithful.”
Akhundzada’s formal rejection of Zawahiri’s loyalty pledge would shake al-Qaida’s entire scheme. Al-Qaida is an international organization, with branches operating in several countries. Some of these branches have publicly endorsed the idea that Akhundzada is the true spiritual leader of the global jihad. Zawahiri has also declared that the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate will be the “nucleus” of a new global caliphate, which al-Qaida’s men are fighting to re-establish. If Akhundzada broke with Zawahiri, then it would therefore undermine al-Qaida’s foundational mythology.
Third, Khalilzad’s agreement must sever the decadeslong partnership between al-Qaida and the Haqqani Network, an integral part of the Taliban that has conducted many of the worst terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan. This issue is especially pressing, because the Taliban’s deputy emir is an infamous character: Sirajuddin Haqqani. As part of any deal with the Taliban, the State Department should require Sirajuddin to issue a statement, in his name, renouncing al-Qaida. Here’s why this is crucially important:
Sirajuddin is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a power broker along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border who was one of bin Laden’s earliest allies. Jalaluddin’s eponymous network welcomed the first generation of Arab foreign fighters to the region during the 1980s jihad against the Soviets. Some of al-Qaida’s initial leaders were trained in the Haqqanis’ camps. The Haqqani Network has maintained close relations with al-Qaida in the decades since. Documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound show that al-Qaida’s men continued to cooperate with Sirajuddin in Afghanistan years after the U.S.-led war began.
Sirajuddin was named the Taliban’s No. 2 in 2015. With his assumption to that role, the Haqqanis consolidated their power in the Taliban’s hierarchy. Sirajuddin has broad military responsibilities, meaning the Haqqanis are well-positioned to expand their influence across Afghanistan after the U.S. and its allies leave.
More than a generation after the Haqqanis first embraced bin Laden, there is no hint that they are willing to break with al-Qaida or renounce global jihad.
In December 2016, the Haqqanis’ media arm released a lengthy video celebrating the unbroken bond between the Taliban and al-Qaida. After the Taliban announced Jalaluddin’s death last year, al-Qaida issued a glowing eulogy, emphasizing the elderly Haqqani’s brotherhood with bin Laden. Al-Qaida’s central leadership said it took “solace in the fact” that Sirajuddin was now “deputy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s Emir of the Faithful,” describing both Sirajuddin and Akhundzada as “our emirs.” The Taliban’s own video eulogy for Jalaluddin featured commentary from jihadists in Syria, including an al-Qaida-linked cleric from Saudi Arabia who has been designated as a terrorist by the U.S.
Sirajuddin himself is an internationally wanted terrorist, with a $10 million bounty on his head. The U.S. and the United Nations have sanctioned the Haqqani Network and multiple members of the group. These legal measures are backed by abundant evidence. Not only have the Haqqanis conducted some of the most devastating terrorist attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, they have also harbored al-Qaida’s internationally-focused operatives along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The U.S. and its allies have traced a series of global terror plots to the Haqqanis’ strongholds in northern Pakistan.
Fourth, and finally, any agreement has to take into account the many al-Qaida and al-Qaida-linked fighters embedded within the Taliban-led insurgency.
In 2014, Zawahiri announced the formation of al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which operates throughout South Asia. AQIS’s first major terrorist plot was an attempted hijacking of two Pakistani frigates. The jihadists intended to fire the ships’ missiles at Indian and American naval vessels, possibly sparking an even more deadly international conflict. The plot was thwarted by Pakistani officials, but only after AQIS came close to taking control of the ships.
While AQIS’ audacious terror schemes remain a concern, the group’s primary mission is to help the Taliban resurrect its Islamic Emirate. AQIS has made this clear in its “code of conduct” which stresses AQIS’s loyalty first to Zawahiri and then to Akhundzada. AQIS retains a significant footprint in Afghanistan. In 2015, for instance, American and Afghan forces raided two large AQIS training camps in the Shorabak district of the southern Kandahar province. U.S. military officials revealed that one of the camps was nearly 30 square miles in size, making it the largest al-Qaida training facility discovered post-9/11. The Shorabak camps were hosted by the Talibabn and intelligence recovered in the facilities shows that AQIS’s tentacles stretch from Afghanistan into other nearby countries, including Bangladesh.
AQIS’s leader, Asim Umar, has already declared that America’s defeat in Afghanistan is imminent. In a tract released in April 2017, Umar argued that Trump’s ” America First” policy really meant that the U.S. would “give up the leadership of the world.” Umar exaggerated America’s weakness, but he clearly saw a retreat from Afghanistan as a victory for al-Qaida. Other al-Qaida-linked jihadists, including Central Asian and Uighur groups, are eyeing a post-withdrawal Afghanistan as fertile ground for their jihadist projects as well.
Will Khalilzad’s deal with the Taliban address these al-Qaida-related issues? Or is Khalilzad going to accept the deliberately ambiguous denials the Taliban has issued for years?
The Afghan government has its own reasons to distrust Khalilzad.
But Pompeo’s diplomats shouldn’t trust the Taliban either.