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Top U.S. Commander Doubts Afghan Taliban Commitment To Peace

FILE: U.S. Central Command’s General Kenneth McKenzie (L) with the Afghan Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani in Kabul in January.
FILE: U.S. Central Command’s General Kenneth McKenzie (L) with the Afghan Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani in Kabul in January.

The United States is not ready to abandon its agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the general in charge of U.S. forces in the region says there are signs the deal ultimately may be doomed.

In a March 12 testimony, U.S. Central Command’s General Kenneth McKenzie said that despite a pledge to reduce violence, the frequency of Taliban attacks across Afghanistan remained troubling.

"I would not consider what the Taliban is doing as consistent with any path to going forward to come to a final end state agreement with the current government of Afghanistan,” McKenzie told U.S. lawmakers.

"The attacks are largely generated against Afghanistan outposts, checkpoints and isolated combat units," he said. "That level of attack by the Taliban is not consistent with an organization that intends to keep its word going forward."

The deal signed by the United States and the Afghan Taliban in Doha on February 29 requires all U.S. and coalition forces to leave Afghanistan in the next 14 months.

U.S. military officials said the first American forces began leaving this week, part of an effort to reduce the total number of troops in the country from about 13,000 to 8,600 in the next 135 days.

'Good Faith' Effort

Still, U.S. military and defense officials repeatedly have described the initial drawdown as a "good faith" attempt to keep all sides in Afghanistan on the path to peace, warning Washington is ready to change course if necessary.

"We can stop that at any moment,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters when asked about the drawdown earlier this month. “We can pause it."

On March 12 CENTCOM’s McKenzie said that the decision on whether to pause the drawdown would be a political one, though he cautioned it would be a mistake to give up on the agreement too quickly.

"My advice was to proceed with it,” he told lawmakers. “The principal reason I supported it was the conditionality that’s inherent in it.”

A number of U.S. lawmakers expressed reservations.

“I am concerned we are not appropriately leveraging U.S. and coalition military presence to support a settlement that protects U.S. security interests,” the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Democrat Jack Reed, told McKenzie.

Fallback Plan?

“Is there a Plan B if the Taliban doesn’t abide by this agreement?” asked independent Senator Angus King.

“I worry that after 17, 18, 19 years we’re going to end up exactly where we were in 2001, with the Taliban in charge of the country and open season for terrorists,” King added.

Adding to the concerns, the terror group that the Taliban had been harboring in 2001, al-Qaida, issued a statement Thursday celebrating the U.S.-Taliban agreement, calling it a "great, historic victory."

"What we see in the agreement of withdrawal of the occupying forces is an evident conquest & victory, and a humiliating defeat for America and its allies," al-Qaida said, according to a translation of the statement by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Al-Qaida also encouraged the Afghan people to rally behind the Taliban and "join its just Islamic system governed by Islamic Shariah."

During testimony before lawmakers in the House of Representatives on March 12 McKenzie was skeptical of the Taliban's desire to crack down on al-Qaida, calling it "a question of will."

"That's something that they [the Taliban] are going to have to demonstrate," he said "And that will be before we become irrevocably committed to a force presence that would not allow us to have adequate leverage in Afghanistan."

In addition to the sustained violence and the question of al-Qaida, the U.S.-Taliban agreement is facing other obstacles.

The Taliban on Wednesday rejected an Afghan government order that allows for the conditional release of thousands of insurgent prisoners, calling Kabul's move a violation of the accord the Taliban recently signed with the United States.

"It is clearly stated in the text of the [ U.S.-Taliban] agreement that all of our 5,000 prisoners would be freed unconditionally and before the commencement of intra-Afghan peace negotiations," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told VOA.

But Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi argued that the prisoner release was conditioned on a reduction in Taliban violence, the opening of intra-Afghan talks and a cease-fire.