Trump-Afghan deal passes key deadline, but peace elusive

Trump-Afghan deal passes key deadline, but peace elusive
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The Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban has passed its first major deadline, but hopes for peace in Afghanistan remain as dim as ever.

The U.S.-Taliban deal this past week hit the 135-day mark, the point by which the U.S. military needed to draw down to 8,600 troops and withdraw from five bases. Both objectives were met, the Pentagon said.

At the same time, the firestorm over whether Russia offered bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops, and a brazen Taliban attack on an intelligence complex in northern Afghanistan, dropped already low expectations for ending America’s longest war even lower.

A day after the 135-day market was met, the top U.S. general in the region painted a grim picture of prospects for further progress.

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“We expected to see a reduction in violence,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told Voice of America this past week. “And while the Taliban have been scrupulous about not attacking U.S. or coalition forces, in fact, the violence against the Afghans is higher than it's been in quite a while. It's one of the highest, most violent periods of the war that we've seen today.”

The agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban was meant to precede talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, seen as essential for a true peace in Afghanistan. The document specified a March 10 start date for talks.

But months later, those talks have yet to begin amid a halting prisoner exchange and stepped up Taliban attacks on Afghan forces.

In Monday’s high-profile attack, the Taliban detonated a car bomb outside an Afghan intelligence complex in the city of Aybak and then battled Afghan forces inside the compound for hours, killing 11 and wounding more than 60 others.

“The current level of violence – driven especially by Taliban attacks against Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, remains unacceptably high, causing instability and undermining confidence in the peace process,” NATO’s North Atlantic Council said in a statement this past week.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the deal with the Taliban, condemned Monday’s attack even as he hailed the “key milestone” of the deal reaching 135 days.

“There has been major progress, albeit slow, on prisoner releases,” he tweeted. “The Taliban & the Islamic Republic negotiating teams have made progress on logistics for intra-Afghan talks. No American has lost his/her life in Afghanistan to Taliban violence. Regional relations have improved.”

“But more progress is needed on counter terrorism,” he added. “And violence has been high, especially in recent days & weeks. Afghans continue to die in large numbers for no reason.”

The U.S.-Taliban deal also called for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban fulfills its commitments to prevent terrorists from using the country to launch attacks against the West.

But in addition to heightened levels of violence, McKenzie also cast doubt on the Taliban fulfilling the counterterrorism commitments.

“The biggest conditions, of course, are that we need to be assured that ISIS and al Qaeda do not have the opportunity to be hosted in Afghanistan and develop attacks against the West,” he told Voice of America. “Right now, it is simply unclear to me that the Taliban has taken any positive steps in those areas. They still may get to it, and time is not out. But I just haven't seen that actually develop yet. So I think we're coming up on a pretty important time in this process.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE, who campaigned in 2016 on a promise to end America’s so-called endless wars, has indicated he wants U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the 2020 election in November regardless of the status of the Taliban deal.

But he’s facing additional pressure not to withdraw following revelations that U.S. intelligence indicated a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Critics argue it’s another piece of evidence the Taliban can’t be trusted.

Retired Gen. John Nicholson, who commanded U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan from 2016 to 2018, recommended in congressional testimony and a Washington Post op-ed that part of the U.S. response to the bounties should be to halt any further drawdown.

“Our long war in Afghanistan will have an enduring end only if agreement is reached at the peace table,” Nicholson wrote this past week. “In recent months, each time progress is made at the table, it is met with increased violence on the ground by the Taliban, who are supported by Russia.”

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTurkey's search for oil may spill over into conflict with Greece The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden, Harris's first day as running mates Watchdog: Trump's UK envoy made inappropriate remarks on religion, race, sex MORE spoke this past week with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, where he said he “made clear to the Russians we needed their support” to end the war in Afghanistan.

“We talked about Afghanistan a great deal and the need to achieve the outcome that President Trump has set forth, which is to get America’s role there greatly reduced as quickly as possible, ultimately get our combat forces out of Afghanistan in a way that leads to a peaceful reconciliation among all the Afghan people,” Pompeo said at an event hosted by The Hill.

“We have made clear to our Russian counterparts that we ought to work together to get a more sovereign, more independent, peaceful Afghanistan,” he added.

Pompeo also said he spoke with Khalilzad about “the progress we’re making” in Afghanistan.

“It’s tough work, but I believe we’re making real progress there,” Pompeo said.

But lawmakers in both parties remain deeply skeptical of Trump’s deal with the Taliban.

Earlier this month, the House Armed Services Committee approved an amendment from Reps. Jason CrowJason CrowTrump-Afghan deal passes key deadline, but peace elusive Cook shifts 20 House districts toward Democrats Congressional inconsistency continues regarding war powers MORE (D-Colo.) and Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyGOP leaders go into attack mode against Harris Republicans fear disaster in November Gaetz set to endorse primary opponent of fellow Florida GOP lawmaker MORE (R-Wyo.) that would require the administration to make several certifications to Congress before it can further draw down in Afghanistan. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) amendment was approved in a 45-11 committee vote.

“We need to make sure that we're denying terrorists safe havens. We need to make sure that we are able to continue counterterrorism activity,” Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, said at the time.

Responding to criticism that the amendment would tie Trump’s hands, Cheney argued the measure “lays out, in a very responsible level of specificity, what is going to be required if we are going to in fact make decisions about troop levels based on conditions on the ground and based on what's required for our own security, not based on political timelines."

Meanwhile, in the Senate, lawmakers easily rejected an NDAA amendment from Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulWatchdog calls for probe into Gohmert 'disregarding public health guidance' on COVID-19 Massie plans to donate plasma after testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies After trillions in tax cuts for the rich, Republicans refuse to help struggling Americans MORE (R-Ky.) to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan within a year. The Senate at the beginning of the month voted 60-33 to table Paul’s amendment, effectively killing it.

As it stands now, the Senate’s version of the NDAA warns against a “precipitous withdrawal” from Afghanistan and would require a report on threats to the United States emanating from Afghanistan, as well as what the plan is to transfer security-related tasks to Afghan forces.

Non-interventionist Republicans such as Paul and progressive Democrats, though, say it is far past time to bring U.S. troops home from the 19-year-old war.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieMassie plans to donate plasma after testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies Gaetz set to endorse primary opponent of fellow Florida GOP lawmaker The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Progress slow on coronavirus bill MORE (R-Ky.) earlier this month urged Trump to withdraw from Afghanistan, as well as Iraq.

“You will be best served if you listen to your gut instincts on this momentous decision,” they wrote in a letter to Trump. “The American people have paid dearly in both blood and treasure for past mistakes. We will stand solidly in your corner when you decide to bring our forces home.”