By Ayaz Gul
The fate of a much-anticipated peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban is hanging in the balance after both adversaries in Afghanistan’s 18-year-old war said they still have “some details” to discuss.
Taliban and U.S. negotiators in recent days have repeatedly asserted they are ready to sign a deal. The statements triggered widespread media speculation that a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his national security team this past Friday could lead to a formal announcement about a U.S. troop drawdown.
Trump shared details of the meeting with reporters on Sunday as he headed back to the White House from New Jersey, suggesting the drawdown plan is still in the works.
“We’re having very good discussions [with the Taliban]. We will see what happens. We’ve really got it down to probably 13,000 people [troops] and we’ll be bringing it down a little bit more and then we will decide whether or not we will be staying longer or not,” he said.
The U.S. plans to leave behind a “very significant intelligence” force, Trump stressed, for operations against Islamic State and al-Qaida, maintaining that Afghanistan remains “a breeding ground” for terrorists.
“I think it’s very important that we continue intelligence [operations] there, in all cases because it is somewhat of a nest [for terrorists] for hitting us… We have things under control very well and with this small force, we can probably make it a little bit smaller, and then we will decide. It will depend on the Taliban, it will depend on the Afghan government,” Trump said.
The Taliban is in talks with the U.S. on a timetable for complete withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan. Unless that happens, the insurgent group maintains it will not engage in much-sought intra-Afghan negotiations to discuss a permanent cease-fire and issues related to future political governance.
On Sunday, Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen also downplayed reports the deal with the U.S. is ready to be announced. He clarified that “some details” still needed to be worked out before a date is fixed for signing and announcing the agreement.
In exchange for a foreign troop withdrawal, the Taliban will be tasked with preventing transnational terrorists from using insurgent-controlled Afghan territory for international terrorism.
But increased attacks by Islamic State, including the recent suicide bombing of a wedding party that killed 63 Afghan civilians in Kabul, have raised questions on whether the Taliban’s counterterrorism commitments can be trusted in the event of a U.S. withdrawal.
“I am not trusting anybody. Look, I am not trusting anybody… A lot of bad things happen in Kabul, a lot of bad things are happening in Afghanistan. There’s some very positive things. But, look, we’re there for one reason. We don’t want that to be a laboratory, Okay? It can’t be a laboratory for terror, and we have stopped that,” Trump said when his attention was drawn to the IS-claimed bombing in the Afghan capital.
In a speech Monday marking Afghan Independence Day celebrations, President Ashraf Ghani blamed “sanctuaries” in neighboring countries for inflicting deadly violence and terrorism against his nation. He urged international stakeholders to help his government eliminate the alleged havens.
Ghani did not name any country, but Kabul has consistently accused Pakistan of sheltering and supporting the Taliban as well as other militants in orchestrating attacks inside Afghanistan, charges officials in the neighboring country reject as baseless.
Islamabad acknowledges, however, that insurgents might be using refugee camps that host millions of Afghans in Pakistan. The Pakistani government has repeatedly called for the repatriation of the displaced Afghan families to allow security forces to take control of those areas near the largely porous border between the two countries.