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UN report says Taliban is maintaining relations with al Qaeda despite deal with US

Updated 5:15 PM ET, Mon June 1, 2020

Washington (CNN) - A new United Nations report says that the Taliban assured al Qaeda that it would maintain their close links despite the "peace" deal with the organization which the Trump administration has touted as signifying a break between the Taliban and the terror group responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks.

"The senior leadership of Al-Qaida remains present in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives, Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, and groups of foreign terrorist fighters aligned with the Taliban," the UN report said, estimating that some 400 to 600 armed al Qaeda operatives are currently in Afghanistan.

"The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties," the report added.

The report was sent to the UN Security Council late last month and was produced by the UN's Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.

The Trump administration has said that its February deal with the Taliban signified the group's break with al Qaeda, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying shortly after it was signed that the Taliban had "agreed that they would break that relationship and that they would work alongside of us to destroy, deny resources to and have al-Qaeda depart from that place."

Pompeo also asserted that the agreement has a "deep, complex, well-thought out, multi-month negotiated verification complex and mechanism by which we can observe and hold every member of the agreement accountable."

The Taliban's jettisoning of its ties with al Qaeda was cited as a key outcome of the Trump administration's negotiations with the Taliban, justifying the US military withdrawing some 4,000 troops from Afghanistan, nearly a third of US forces in the country.

However, the UN report released Monday says that the Taliban and al Qaeda have maintained close links and that in a series of meetings the Taliban regularly assured the terror group that it would not abandon its ties with al Qaeda during its negotiations with the United States.

Taliban told bin Laden's son they 'would not break its historical ties'

The report said that one such meeting took place in Afghanistan's Helmand Province during spring 2019, where a former adviser to the Taliban's founder, Mullah Omar, "reportedly met with Hamza Usama Muhammad bin Laden to reassure him personally" that the Taliban "would not break its historical ties with Al-Qaida for any price."

The Trump administration said in September that Hazma bin Laden, the son of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, was "killed in a United States counterterrorism operation in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region."

"Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network, and Al-Qaida remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage," the report said. The Haqqani Network is closely tied to the Taliban and members of the network hold leadership positions with the Taliban.

The report said that some countries "reported that the Taliban appear to have strengthened their relationship with Al-Qaida rather than the opposite," with one member state saying "that the regularity of meetings between Al-Qaida seniors and the Taliban "made any notion of a break between the two mere fiction."

Asked about the report's findings later on Monday, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, did not directly address questions whether the US had been aware of the meetings between the Taliban and al Qaeda but repeated that US commitments to the deal were based on the Taliban fulfilling their agreed-upon obligations.

Khalilzad noted he had not read the report yet, but had been briefed on it, saying they were "monitoring Taliban compliance with the agreement."

"We believe that there is progress, but we will continue to monitor those activities very closely," he said.

He noted that the report covers only the period going up to March 15, and the deal was signed at the end of February.

"We recognize it takes time to take the steps necessary operationally to deliver on their commitments," Khalilzad said. "If the Talibs do not deliver, and I'd rather not speculate, then as I said before, the commitments that we have made is also then subject to change, if the other side doesn't deliver on its commitments."

While Pompeo claimed that the Taliban would help "destroy" al Qaeda as part of its agreement with the US, the text of the accord says only that the "Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa'ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies."

It also says that "the Taliban will prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies, and will prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising and will not host them in accordance with the commitments in this agreement."

News of the continued links between al Qaeda and the Taliban comes amid some progress in other areas.

While the Taliban had ramped up its attacks on Afghan soldiers and police in the weeks and months following the signing of its deal with the US, the insurgent group recently announced it would participate in a brief three-day cease fire during the Eid holiday.

The Afghan government, despite not being party to the US-Taliban deal, has also moved to release up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners, an action that the accord had called for.

Yet despite the absence of a longer ceasefire or progress in talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, several defense officials tell CNN that senior US military commanders have been discussing options for significantly reducing the US troop presence in Afghanistan earlier than planned, according to several defense officials.

President Donald Trump said last month that while he did not have a target withdrawal date in mind, "we're acting as police and we're not sent there to be policemen, but we're there 19 years and, yeah, I think that's enough, and they understand. We're having very positive talks. We want to bring our soldiers back home."

The Pentagon has long insisted that any further reduction of US troops in Afghanistan below 8,600 would be contingent on the Taliban meeting additional conditions.

Khalilzad said Monday that it was Trump's prerogative to determine if the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan are being met, which could speed up the pace of the US troop withdrawal.

"The issue of whether -- if the conditions are made at a faster pace, or sooner than the timeline that we have agreed to in the agreement," Khalilizad told reporters. "It is the prerogative of the President if he thinks that the conditions have been met, and we could do it faster."


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