A recent US Department of Defense report indicates that the Taliban continues to hold relations with Al Qaeda, forcing the Trump administration to reconsider its deal with the powerful armed Afghan movement.
The Pentagon has released a crucial report ahead of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan under the US-Taliban deal, saying that the armed group still maintains its contacts with Al Qaeda.
The report appears to be a slap in the face for the Trump administration, which is keen on pulling American troops out from the war-torn Central Asian country before the critical US presidential elections in November. For Trump, the exit will be proof to American voters that he has fulfilled one of his campaign promises to end the endless wars.
According to the US-Taliban deal, the Afghan group will stop targeting US and Western-led coalition troops, promising to give no support to groups like Al Qaeda.
"AQIS (Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) routinely supports and works with low-level Taliban members in its efforts to undermine the Afghan government, and maintains an enduring interest in attacking US forces and Western targets in the region," said the strongly-worded Pentagon report, which has been prepared for the US Congress.
"Despite recent progress in the peace process, AQIS maintains close ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan, likely for protection and training," the report stated.
In recent months, there have been some tensions between the Trump administration and the US military over several issues, ranging from the response to the Floyd protests, to the Syrian policy and the Taliban deal.
US military vs. Trump
The Pentagon's recent Taliban assessment shows clear differences between the Trump administration and the US military, according to experts on the long conflict.
“The Pentagon and the US Defense establishment do not want to deal with the Taliban. They don’t want to leave Afghanistan. Leaving Afghanistan in peace talks is pretty much Trump's project,” said Kamal Alam, a military expert on the Middle East’s history and Central Asian conflicts.
Alam also finds a connection between the recent Pentagon report, which accuses the Taliban of continuing to ally with Al Qaeda, and the recently revealed allegations made by US intelligence sources that Russia has offered bounties to the Afghan group to kill US and UK troops in the Central Asian country.
“This is not also a coincidence that both reports are coming out at this particular time to put pressure on Trump to cancel Taliban peace talks and extend US military stay in Afghanistan,” Alam analyses.
“In fact, yesterday, there was a hearing in the US Congress, which said that any troop withdrawal must be delayed in Afghanistan. ‘We must keep in mind that Russians and the Taliban are working together’ was the main line there,” Alam told TRT World.
Russia’s Afghan connection
According to the Pentagon report and the latest US intelligence concerning a Russian bounty program, there is an orchestrated Russian effort to facilitate an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. It, in effect, incentivises the Taliban to kill US troops, forcing Trump to leave, while it also encourages Washington to reach a deal with the Afghan group to help realise US pullout.
"As of February, the Russian government was working with the central government, regional countries, and the Taliban to gain increased influence in Afghanistan, expedite a U.S. military withdrawal, and address security challenges that might arise from a withdrawal," said the Pentagon’s briefed report to the Congress.
In the last two years, both Russians and Iranians have been supporting the Taliban, says Alam. He says he finds the claim that Russians pay the group to kill American soldiers “a bit too extreme”.
Concerning the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, “there is a growing divide in the US”. Trump and his allies think that the Afghan war has been the longest and most wasteful American war, according to Alam.
“However, the US defense establishment disagrees. The top US generals want to continue the war. This is not secret,” he says.
“My feeling is that Defense people might prevail because it seems that Trump is coming under a lot of pressure from all sides. He will still try to prevail, but given coronavirus, Black Lives Matter and all other pressure on Trump, I don’t see how he could prevail,” he adds.
Does the Taliban have connections with Al Qaeda?
In recent months, since the US-Taliban deal in March, there have been increasingly conflicting accounts emerging from different US official voices regarding what the Taliban is doing in relation to fighting terrorism.
“One person is saying Taliban is helping fight terrorism and the other person is saying that Taliban has ties with Al Qaeda. There is not one unified view on this issue in Washington,” the analyst says.
But the Taliban denies both any involvement regarding the Russian bounty program, and attacks against US troops.
“These kinds of deals with the Russian intelligence agency are baseless — our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we did it on our own resources. That changed after our deal with the Americans, and their lives are secure and we don’t attack them,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman.
There was not, however, a specific response to the recent Pentagon report. In early June, the group rebuked a previous UN document which also claimed that the Taliban holds connections with Al Qaeda.
"The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties. Al-Qaida has reacted positively to the agreement, with statements from its acolytes celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy," the UN report asserted.
Alam is certain “they have some connections.” He remains unsure, however, as to whether it is a strong one.
“The Taliban is purely an Afghan movement with no interest beyond its borders while Al Qaeda is an international organisation [with global aspirations],” he concludes.