Taliban may not honour Doha deal, says US intel

Updated March 08, 2020

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Members of the Taliban delegation gather ahead of the signing ceremony with the United States in the Qatari capital Doha, on February 29. — AFP/File
Members of the Taliban delegation gather ahead of the signing ceremony with the United States in the Qatari capital Doha, on February 29. — AFP/File

WASHINGTON: The US government has collected persuasive intelligence that the Taliban do not intend to honour the promises they have made in the recently signed deal with the United States, NBC News reported on Saturday. On Friday, US President Donald Trump also acknowledged that the Taliban could “possibly” overrun the Afghan government after US troops withdrew from the war-ravaged country.

NBC News based its report on interviews with three US officials who were briefed on intelligence assessments the Trump administration has received since signing the peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar on Feb 29.

“They have no intention of abiding by their agreement,” said one official, while two others described the intelligence they had seen as “explicit evidence shedding light on the Taliban’s intentions.”

In the Doha agreement the Taliban promised to stop harboring terrorists and to enter into peace talks with an Afghan government-led delegation. In return, the United States pledged to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in 14 months.

“We all hope they follow through with their side of the agreement, but we believe we know their true intentions,” one official familiar with the intelligence told NBC News.

A former US official directly familiar with planning told the news channel that the administration understood the risks of a Vietnam style ending to the war in Afghanistan, in which the Taliban renege on the deal and overrun the country but no one was saying that publicly.

But President Trump, while talking to reporters at the White House on Friday, indicated that he was aware of this possibility.

“Countries have to take care of themselves. You can only hold someone’s hand for so long,” said Mr Trump when asked if the Taliban could eventually seize power. “It’s “not supposed to happen that way, but it possibly will.”

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who attended the signing ceremony in Doha last Saturday, however, said that it’s still too early to pass a judgment.

“We have seen the senior Taliban leadership working diligently to reduce violence from previous levels during similar time periods. And so, we still have confidence that the Taliban leadership is working to deliver on its commitments,” he told journalists in Washington on Friday.

He said that his special envoy Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who signed the deal with the Taliban, was now in Kabul working to “develop the confines against which we will begin the intra-Afghan negotiations (and do) the work to get the prisoner releases.”

The deal requires the resumption of intra-Afghan talks and the release of thousands of prisoners by both sides, but the Afghan government has said that it’s not yet ready to release more than 5,000 Taliban prisoners it’s holding.

Two defence officials, who spoke to NBC News said that according to a recent intelligence assessment, the Taliban would continue to attack Afghan forces as a means of pressuring the government to carry out a prisoner swap.

Other defence and intelligence officials said they believed President Trump was determined to pull US troops out of Afghanistan regardless of what the Taliban did after the withdrawal.

“Mr Khalilzad is trying to give Trump cover to get him through the election,” said former CIA official Doug London, who studied the Taliban closely while conducting counter-terrorism operations.

After the publication of the NBC News report, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted, “We categorically reject allegations by US intel officials … that the (Taliban) has no intention of abiding by the agreement. The...implementation process is going good so far and such comments by US officials cannot be justified.”

NBC News, however, insisted that the US intelligence assessment was consistent with what Taliban sources have been saying since signing the agreement.

“Those Taliban representatives say the group views the peace process as a way of securing the withdrawal of American ‘occupiers,’ after which it will attack the US-backed government in Afghanistan,” the report added.

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2020