UN report: Afghan Taliban still maintain ties with al-Qaida

KATHY GANNON
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Afghanistan

FILE - In this Feb. 29, 2020 file photo, U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader shake hands after signing a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar. An Afghan official said Thursday, May 14, 2020, that a suicide attack in eastern Afghanistan targeted a military compound but was detonated before it reached the compound killing several civilians and wounding tens of others. The Taliban took responsibility for the bombing calling it retaliation for statements Tuesday by President Ashraf Ghani blaming Taliban for a brutal attack on a maternity hospital that killed tens of people, an attack that the Taliban were quick to condemn. (AP Photo/Hussein Sayed, File)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Taliban in Afghanistan still maintain close ties with the al-Qaida terror network, despite signing a peace deal with the United States in which they committed to fight militant groups, a U.N. report released on Tuesday said.

The insurgents promptly slammed the report as “baseless and bigoted.”

The U.S.-Taliban accord, signed in Qatar's capital of Doha at the end of February, was meant to allow for American troops to gradually leave Afghanistan after 19 years of war and pave way for intra-Afghan negotiations that would shape the country's political future.

Under the accord, the Taliban pledged to combat other terror groups — including al-Qaida, which they once harbored — and prevent militants from using Afghan territory to stage attacks on America.

But the details of the Taliban counter-terrorism commitment were never publicized. Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s peace envoy and the architect of the deal, says the secrecy is necessary to protect intelligence operations involved in enforcing it.

Khalilzad told reporters in Washington on Monday that the Taliban pledge was specific “in terms of their presence, in terms of training, in terms of recruiting, in terms of fundraising in the territory that they currently control.”

He insisted that “progress has been made and our future steps in terms of force reduction and related commitments” now depend on the Taliban delivering on their promise.

The U.N. committee behind the report said several significant al-Qaida figures were killed over the past months but a number of prominent leaders of the group, once led by Osama bin Laden, remain in Afghanistan. The report said they maintain links with the feared Haqqani network, an ally of the Taliban, and still play a significant role in Taliban operations.

Jihad, or holy war, and a shared history continue to bind the two militant groups. Several top al-Qaida leaders, such as Ayman al-Zawahri who succeeded bin Laden as the terror network's leader, trace their involvement in Afghanistan to the 1980s war against the invading Soviet Union, when the Afghan mujahedeen, or holy warriors, were also financed by the U.S. to oust Moscow's troops.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued an English-language statement condemning the U.N. report. The Taliban, he said, “in accordance with the Doha agreement, will not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against anyone else or maintain training camps or use our soil to fund raise against others.”

Critics of the U.S.-Taliban deal have expressed concern at its vagueness, warning it makes monitoring the insurgents' compliance difficult.

“One of the many problems with a very flawed deal is that the demands of the Taliban on counter-terrorism are worded very vaguely," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Washington-based Wilson Center. He said the deal doesn't even mention al-Qaida by name.

“At the very least, Washington should be demanding that the Taliban cease all communication with senior al-Qaida figures,” Kugelman said.

The U.N. report, however, did note the Taliban contribution in fighting the Islamic State group's affiliate in Afghanistan. The IS has become increasingly aggressive, carrying out horrific attacks in the capital, Kabul. The group is also believed to have been behind a brutal assault on a maternity hospital last month that killed 24, mainly young mothers and also two newborn babies.

In his Monday telephone interview with reporters, Khalilzad also said the Taliban have been an important part in the battle by U.S. and Afghan forces against IS.

“Daesh is working against peace ... and they have been responsible ... for some of the most dastardly attacks recently,” he said, using the Arabic name for IS.

Still, Kugelman warned against underplaying the Taliban ties to al-Qaida.

“If the U.S. simply shrugs off the Taliban’s continued ties to the very terror group that U.S. forces entered Afghanistan to eliminate nearly 19 years ago, then you’d have some really bad optics to say the least,” he said.