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UN report: Taliban, al Qaeda 'remain close' despite deal with US

UN report: Taliban, al Qaeda 'remain close' despite deal with US
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The Taliban has maintained ties with al Qaeda despite signing an agreement with the United States the Trump administration has touted as a commitment from the insurgents to break from the terror group, according to a United Nations report released Monday.

The report, prepared by the U.N.’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, says the Taliban assured al Qaeda of continuing ties even as it negotiated with the United States.

“Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network ... and al Qaeda remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage,” the report said.

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“The Taliban regularly consulted with al Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties,” the report added.

The Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban in February that committed the U.S. military to drawing down to 8,600 troops in Afghanistan by mid-July. The agreement also stipulated a full U.S. withdrawal from the country within 14 months if the Taliban meets its counterterrorism commitments.

The Taliban committed to not allowing its members or other groups, including al Qaeda, to use Afghan soil to threaten the United States and its allies. The Taliban also must instruct members not to associate with groups that threaten the United States and not give shelter to those who threaten the United States, according to the agreement.

The document did not explicitly commit the Taliban to renouncing al Qaeda, but the Trump administration has framed it as such.

“The gentleman that I met with agreed that they would break that relationship and that they would work alongside of us to destroy, deny resources to and to have al Qaeda depart from that place,” Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit King of Jordan becomes first Arab leader to speak with President-elect Biden Central Asia is changing: the Biden administration should pay close attention MORE said on CBS shortly after the agreement was signed.

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In a briefing with reporters Monday afternoon, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the agreement with the Taliban, downplayed the U.N. report, saying the Taliban has taken steps to break from al Qaeda.

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

Khalilzad would not detail any specific steps, saying they were "sensitive issues."

Monday’s report — based on information collected from member states, regional officials and think tanks — said the monitoring team was told of six meetings between al Qaeda and Taliban senior leadership over the past 12 months.

The most notable meeting, according to the report, was one in spring 2019 where a former adviser to Taliban founder Mullah Omar reportedly met with Hamza bin Laden to “reassure him personally that the Islamic Emirate would not break its historical ties with al Qaeda for any price.”

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The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is the official name the Taliban uses for itself. The Trump administration said in September that Hamza bin Laden, the son of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, was killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation.

Some member states also told the monitoring group the Taliban “appear to have strengthened their relationship with Al-Qaida rather than the opposite,” the report said.

“One member state reported that the regularity of meetings between al Qaeda seniors and the Taliban ‘made any notion of a break between the two mere fiction,’” the report added. “The link was described not in simple terms of group-to-group, but rather as ‘one of deep personal ties (including through marriage) and long-term sense of brotherhood.’”

Monday’s U.N. report is the latest sign of trouble for the U.S.-Taliban deal. While the Taliban have refrained from attacking U.S. troops, violence between the insurgents and Afghan forces has increased since the deal’s signing. Afghans got a respite last week with a three-day cease-fire to mark the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

The agreement was also meant to precede talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government that would start with a prisoner swap. But the intra-Afghan talks have yet to begin, despite the deal setting a March 10 target, amid a halting prisoner exchange process.

Still, the Pentagon has said it remains on track to draw down to 8,600 troops by mid-July, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Trump's remaking of the judicial system Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit MORE has continued to be vocal about wanting a full withdrawal.

“We are acting as a police force, not the fighting force that we are, in Afghanistan,” Trump tweeted last week. “After 19 years, it is time for them to police their own Country. Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary!”

Updated at 5:47 p.m.