“Additional information suggested that discussions were held among senior Haqqani Network figures to form a new joint unit of 2,000 armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by Al-Qaida,” the report added, describing a plan in which the unit would be broken into zones in two different parts of eastern Afghanistan.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan, said he had not yet read the report but had been told that the information it contains does not extend beyond March 15, two weeks after the U.S.-Taliban agreement was signed.
“We believe that there is progress,” Khalilzad said in a telephone briefing with reporters on the compliance with the deal. He declined to specify actions the Taliban had taken to split with al-Qaeda but said “they have taken some steps. They have to take a lot more steps.”
Under the deal, the United States agreed to decrease its troop numbers in Afghanistan from about 12,000 to 8,600 by mid-July, followed by withdrawal of all foreign forces there within 14 months of the Feb. 29 signing, provided the Taliban meets its own commitments.
President Trump, seeking to deliver on a campaign promise to end America’s “forever wars,” has indicated he wants to speed up that timeline to withdraw thousands more by Election Day in November, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Khalilzad said that withdrawals continue to be tied to Taliban compliance. “We have agreed on a timeline already for withdrawal,” he said. “It’s conditions-based” but is “the prerogative of the president if he thinks that the conditions have been met and we could do it faster.”
In an overall assessment of where the deal stands, he said that “I believe we are in a more hopeful moment that validates our approach.”
A lengthy dispute over the winner of last fall’s Afghan election was resolved last month, with President Ashraf Ghani and his chief political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, agreeing on a power-sharing arrangement.
At the same time, the level of violence has remained “relatively low” following a brief cease-fire between Taliban and government forces during the late May Eid holiday at the end of Ramadan, Khalilzad said. Prisoner releases by both sides, mandated under the deal, have accelerated, although they remain far below agreed levels.
When and if those issues are resolved, the agreement calls for inter-Afghan negotiations over a permanent cease-fire and a political solution to the war. Originally scheduled to be held in Norway in March, the negotiations have been repeatedly postponed.
Khalilzad said that the two sides are now heading toward setting a new date and venue for talks. “The road ahead . . . will have challenges and difficulties,” he said. “But we’re optimistic that finally we’re moving forward to the start” of talks.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement also calls for the insurgents to sever ties with al-Qaeda in territory that it controls, and to prevent them from “recruiting, training and fundraising.”
“Our future steps in terms of force reduction and related commitments depends on the Talibs” complying with this commitment, Khalilzad said. “I can’t be very specific as to what they have done, but we are monitoring this.”
According to the U.N. report, al-Qaeda leaders have met with senior Taliban officials at least six times over the past year. In the most notable meeting, Taliban leaders met with Hamza bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden, and reassured him that the Taliban “would not break its historical ties with al-Qaeda at any price,” the report said. Trump announced last fall that Hamza bin Laden was killed in a U.S. military operation.
The agreement with the Taliban also envisions its cooperation with U.S. and Afghan forces to fight an expanding Islamic State in Afghanistan. Already, “the Talibs have been important, besides the Afghan Security Forces and ourselves, in the fight against Daesh,” Khalilzad said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.