- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Remote areas of Afghanistan remain home to “terrorist sanctuaries” and some Taliban members routinely cooperate with extremist groups such as al Qaeda, the Pentagon warned Wednesday in a sobering new report to Congress that paints a bleak picture of the security situation inside the country.

The congressionally mandated study comes as the Trump administration forges ahead with a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, a central element of a landmark peace deal struck with the Taliban earlier this year. The agreement hinges on the radical Islamist group’s guarantees that it will enter into peace talks and never again allow the nation to serve as a home base for terrorist organizations as it did in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

But more than four months after the deal was signed — and as the Pentagon accelerates the pace of America’s withdrawal after nearly two decades in Afghanistan — U.S. military leaders say that parts of the country not only are under firm Taliban control but have again become terrorist enclaves. The stark warnings could further complicate the administration’s plan to stick by its Taliban peace pact despite major warning signs that its negotiating partner is unwilling or unable to live up to its word, and that an American exit could lead to unprecedented chaos.

Some specialists argue that the information tucked inside the Pentagon documents suggests strongly that the administration is whitewashing the reality inside Afghanistan in order to protect the withdrawal schedule, which represents a key milestone in Mr. Trump’s pledge to get the U.S. out of “endless wars” in the Middle East.

“The Trump administration is engaged in wholesale politicization of intelligence. The Taliban has failed to divorce itself from al Qaeda” and won’t do so in the future, said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“The fact that the Taliban are unwilling to adhere to [the terms of the peace deal] show that they consider the United States to be a laughingstock,” he said. “The price for that humiliation will not just be paid by Americans diplomatically, but also ultimately in blood.”

Administration officials strongly reject that characterization and publicly maintain they can work with the Taliban. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week spoke via video conference with Taliban Deputy and chief negotiator Mullah Baradar to discuss the deal and the path forward in Afghanistan. During the call, Mr. Pompeo “made clear the expectation for the Taliban to live up to their commitments, which include not attacking Americans,” the State Department said in a statement.

But Wednesday’s report could add more fuel to a growing narrative that the U.S.-backed government in Kabul lacks the will or the resources to keep Afghanistan from spinning out of control while U.S. troops head for the exits.

The study comes amid ambiguous U.S. intelligence findings that Russia may be meddling inside Afghanistan by offering “bounties” to Taliban fighters for the targeting of U.S. personnel. President Trump and other top White House officials, however, have downplayed those reports, despite a growing firestorm on Capitol Hill demanding a thorough investigation.

The Pentagon report makes clear that Russia’s ultimate political aim is to secure a full American withdrawal from the country in the hopes that a subsequent power vacuum will allow Moscow to exert even greater influence in the region.

Terrorist sanctuaries

Russia’s involvement is just one piece of the complex, dangerous puzzle inside Afghanistan, where largely ungoverned portions of the country seem to once again be in danger of becoming hotbeds for terrorist activity.

The Afghan-Pakistan border region remains especially problematic, military officials said. The area was a haven for Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders who fled into the mountainous terrain to escape U.S. forces in the fall of 2001.

Al Qaeda and its affiliates, the Defense Department says, still find refuge there.

“The Afghanistan-Pakistan border region remains a sanctuary for various groups, including al Qaeda Core,” the Pentagon report states. “Terrorist sanctuaries on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border present security challenges for both countries, pose a threat to regional security and stability, and threaten U.S. national security interests.”

Other terrorist groups, including affiliates of the Islamic State, have set up operations there, according to the Pentagon.

Perhaps even more worrisome, the report flatly states that some members of the Taliban are actively working with al Qaeda and its offshoots in an effort to undermine the government in Kabul, which under the terms of the peace deal is expected to negotiate with the Taliban and craft a lasting cease-fire and unity government.

Al Qaeda “poses a limited threat to U.S. personnel and our partners in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate — al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) — poses the greatest threat to those elements,” the report reads in part. “AQIS routinely supports and works with low-level Taliban members in its efforts to undermine the Afghan government, and maintains an enduring interest in attacking U.S. forces and Western targets in the region.”

Neither military nor civilian security officials in the administration have suggested those facts represent explicit violations of the peace deal, which was signed in late February. Under the agreement, the Taliban agreed to not allow Afghanistan to become a base of operations for terrorist groups, and it also agreed to halt its own direct attacks on U.S. personnel.

While the Taliban has picked up the pace of attacks against Afghan security forces, U.S. officials say there have been few, if any, direct attacks on American personnel.

In exchange, the U.S. agreed to begin drawing down its troop presence from about 13,000 to 8,600 within 135 days — a target the Pentagon has said it essentially met in late May. If the larger agreement holds, the Pentagon is supposed to remove all American forces by next summer.

The Taliban and Afghan government also agreed to mutual prisoner exchanges as part of the pact and to hold a series of in-person negotiations. Such an agreement was seen as a major step forward, as for years the Taliban has refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Kabul government.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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