WASHINGTON: Intelligence that Afghan militants might have accepted Russian bounties for killing American troops did not scuttle the US-Taliban agreement or President Donald Trumps plan to withdraw thousands more troops from the war.
It did give critics of the deal another reason to say the Taliban shouldn’t be trusted.
The bounty information was included in Trump’s president’s daily intelligence brief on Feb 27, according to intelligence officials, and two days later, the US and Taliban signed an agreement in Qatar. The agreement clears the way for America to end 19 years in Afghanistan and gives Trump a way to make good on his promise to end US involvement in what he calls endless wars.
On March 3, three days after the agreement was signed, the president had a 35-minute phone call with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban and head of their political office in Qatar. After reports of the bounties broke in late June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a video conference with Baradar to make it clear that the US expects the Taliban to live up to their commitments, Under the agreement, the US will pull all its troops out of Afghanistan by May 2021. So far the US has reduced US troop presence in Afghanistan from 12,000 to 8,600 a target reached ahead of schedule. Now, Trump is considering when and how quickly to further shrink the US military footprint.
The Taliban committed to reducing violence, cutting ties with Al Qaeda and sitting down with other Afghans to craft a political road map for their country’s future. The Taliban have pledged to ensure that the areas they control about half the country at this time are not used by militant groups to target the US and its allies.
On Saturday, Washington’s envoy to Afghanistan emphasised the economic benefits of the deal, which has run into new political obstacles. Zalmay Khalilzad was wrapping up a weeklong trip that included stops in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and the Gulf state of Qatar, where Taliban negotiators are headquartered.
Critics of the deal like Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., say the agreement is simply a cover for withdrawal.
"I have serious concerns with how this agreement has been pursued," Waltz said. “The Taliban has shown repeatedly through violence and bombings both before and after the deal was signed that they are not serious about adhering to their end of the bargain.
The White House insists the president was not aware of the intelligence but that the administration responded to the information to protect troops. Administration officials say Russia along with other countries, including Iran have been providing the Taliban money and guns for years, although bounties would signal stepped up Russian aggression.
Military experts note that the Taliban didn’t need any monetary incentive to kill Americans. They also point out that the US worked against the Soviets in the late 1980s, providing militants with shoulder-held anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, which turned around the course of the war and sped-up negotiated Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Bounties or not, what we judge the Taliban on is whether they honour the deal, said Scott Smith, an expert on Afghanistan peace processes with the US Institute of Peace.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, defence officials and Afghan experts claim the Taliban has not taken steps to live up to the now four-month-old agreement and they are skeptical the Taliban will ever break with Al Qaeda, which conducted the 9/11 attacks.
Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2020