Taliban still working with al-Qaida as US looks to exit Afghanistan, DOD says
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban remain closely tied with al-Qaida, despite assuring the U.S. they would disavow the terrorist group in exchange for a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the Defense Department said this week.
Low-level insurgents routinely receive support from al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent — the group’s regional affiliate — and work with the terrorists to undermine the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, the DOD said in a semiannual report to Congress published Wednesday.
“Despite recent progress in the peace process, AQIS maintains close ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan, likely for protection and training,” the report said, using an abbreviation for the terrorist group.
The Pentagon’s assessment, which covers the period from December to May, follows similar findings the United Nations published last month. It also underscores the challenges the Trump administration faces as it attempts to end the U.S.’s longest war, now in its 19th year.
Under a U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February, all U.S. forces could be out of Afghanistan by next summer if the jihadis fulfill certain commitments, including renouncing al-Qaida and preventing terrorist groups from using Afghan soil to train, recruit, raise funds or plot attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
Officials believe the threat posed by AQIS to U.S. forces is “limited,” the report said, and U.S. counterterrorism measures have reduced its ability to conduct independent operations in the country without the Taliban.
But U.S. lawmakers are concerned that al-Qaida’s presence could expand and threaten U.S. national security if American troops withdraw without proof that the group’s links to the insurgents have been severed. Some members of Congress who have seen classified sections of the U.S.-Taliban deal have said it lacks ways to measure the militants’ compliance with their promises.
Those concerns led the House Armed Services Committee to approve an amendment Wednesday to next year’s defense spending bill that would require congressional oversight of further troop drawdowns in Afghanistan.
Throughout his term, President Donald Trump has pushed to end America’s “forever wars,” which he’d promised during his campaign. But the proposed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act seeks to put a new check on his power to do so.
It would require his administration to certify that troop reductions to certain levels would be done in consultation with allies, would not raise risks for remaining American personnel and would be in the best interest of the U.S.
An initial reduction of American troops from about 13,000 to 8,600 was already completed last month, weeks before a deadline set in the U.S.-Taliban deal. U.S. military officials insist future reductions will be conditional and that mounting violence may cause delays.
While the text of the agreement doesn’t specifically block the Taliban from attacking Afghan forces, U.S. officials say the insurgents made verbal assurances they’d curb violence by 80%.
Though they have not attacked U.S. forces since late February, Wednesday’s report said, they have sustained levels of violence five times higher than those seen during the week before the agreement was signed.
“U.S. Government Departments and Agencies continue to closely monitor violence levels in Afghanistan and assess whether the Taliban is sufficiently complying with its commitments under the U.S.-Taliban Agreement,” the report said.