- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2019

An Islamic State suicide bombing that killed 63 people in Kabul has underscored Afghanistan’s violent state even as the Trump administration nears a peace deal with the nation’s other major militant group, the Taliban, that could take thousands of U.S. troops out of the country.

Although the Taliban have denied involvement and condemned the bombing that hit a wedding Saturday and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has vowed to eliminate Islamic State safe havens in the country, the incident added to skepticism of the administration’s push for a deal and a rapid U.S. troop drawdown.

President Trump said Sunday that he wants to decrease the U.S. force level of roughly 13,000 troops but leave behind a significant intelligence-gathering operation to prevent Afghanistan from becoming once again “a laboratory for terror,” the Taliban-led country that harbored al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

“We’re having very good discussions with the Taliban. We’re having very good discussions with the Afghan government. We’ll decide whether or not we’ll be staying longer or not,” Mr. Trump told reporters, although he stressed that he is “not trusting anybody” and said “it’s a horrible situation that’s going on in Afghanistan.”

The president made the comments after the latest round of talks with the Taliban ended last week in uncertainty. Several key Republican lawmakers, as well as analysts on both sides of the aisle, expressed unease toward the overall policy of pursuing a deal with the militant Islamist group that U.S. forces have been battling for the past 18 years.

With rumors swirling that Taliban negotiators are demanding a complete withdrawal of all American military personnel, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, warned that a bad deal with the group would put “the radical Islamist movement all over the world on steroids.”

“Any agreement which denies the U.S. the ability to have a meaningful counterterrorism force capability — based on conditions on the ground for as long as needed — is a recipe for disaster,” Mr. Graham tweeted.

Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican, a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, warned that “the Taliban continues to support, harbor and fight alongside al Qaeda.”

“They are not a partner for peace,” she tweeted. “Any deal that fails to prevent America’s enemies from establishing safe-havens on Afghan soil is a phony deal that threatens our security and risks another 9/11.”

Despite the Taliban’s condemnation of the weekend attack in Kabul, there is debate in both Washington and Kabul over whether the radical Islamist movement can be trusted and whether it can control other militant movements in any power-sharing deal with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

The attack hit a wedding hall in a predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhood of west Kabul. Reuters reported that Islamic State operatives claimed responsibility through the messaging website Telegram and said their suicide bomber infiltrated the reception to detonate his explosives in the crowd of “infidels.”

Trust and the Taliban

Even before the latest Islamic State bombing, many analysts were expressing wariness of negotiating with the Taliban, particularly because the group refuses to speak directly with — or to recognize the legitimacy of — the elected Ghani government in Kabul.

That “presumably means the only outcome of this kind of a peace process that they would consider acceptable is one that dissolves the Afghan government,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research at the Brookings Institution.

In an interview broadcast by C-SPAN on Friday, Mr. O’Hanlon argued that there could be ways to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban, which controls significant portions of Afghanistan outside the capital.

The approach could be to “put the different forces of the two sides under some common supervision, maybe with a U.N. observation mission or peacekeeping force and then gradually create some commands that stitch together the different militias,” he said.

But the enemy, he added, believes time is on their side.

Taliban officials “are just talking to us, knowing that we’re tired of this war, that we want to leave, hoping that perhaps this can resemble the Paris talks that ended Vietnam, where we essentially just got, you know, a fig leaf cover for a withdrawal that we had already decided to make,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “I think that’s their hope.”

“I’m pretty sure they read enough American media to know how much this country is tired of the Afghanistan War. They’re hoping that can translate into what’s essentially a disguised form of defeat and withdrawal by the United States,” he added.

The talks, headed by Mr. Trump’s special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born American diplomat, have focused on getting the Taliban to publicly renounce al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other extremists and to promise that such terrorists won’t be able to stage attacks against the U.S. from any Afghan areas in the future.

The Pentagon also wants to keep a small U.S.-Afghan counterterrorism force in the country as an insurance policy after the troop drawdown.

However, reporting by the Long War Journal, a publication of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, suggests the Taliban are unlikely to tolerate such a force and remain at least partially deferential toward al Qaeda.

The journal’s editors Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio highlighted last month how one recent Taliban video blamed the U.S. for the 9/11 hijackings and attacks.

The video portrayed Americans as imperialist occupiers, said Mr. Joscelyn and Mr. Roggio, and praised al Qaeda’s 2001 attacks as a “‘heavy slap on [the occupiers’] dark faces.’”

The video made it clear that “the Taliban ‘shall never accept a single occupying soldier’ in Afghanistan — a claim that undermines the idea that the jihadists may be willing to accept a rump counterterrorism force,” Mr. Joscelyn and Mr. Roggio wrote.

A more recent Taliban video portrayed the group’s fighters training for attacks, including a montage of past attacks on Afghan and international forces by the Taliban.

“The Taliban has been churning out propaganda that shows it is prepared to continue the fight against the Afghan government and military even if a so-called peace agreement is signed with the U.S.,” Mr. Roggio wrote. “The Taliban has been clear that its main goal in the talks is to secure the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and continues to brand the Afghan government as a ‘puppet,’ ‘stooge,’ and ‘tool’ of the West.’”

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