Despite the promise of the intra-Afghan talks resolving violence and bringing peace, a senior U.S. commander said there’s no finish line in sight in Afghanistan yet for complete troop withdrawal.
Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said the Taliban has yet to meet the required criterion from a complete U.S. troop withdrawal as outlined in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed in February.
While the U.S. is ahead of schedule for an initial drawdown to 8,600 troops by July, McKenzie stressed that going down to zero troops by May 2021 is dependent on certain conditions.
“We also agreed that in May of 2021, if conditions will allow, we’re prepared to go to zero… those conditions would be: Can we be assured that attacks against us will not be generated there?” he said in an online event hosted by the Middle East Institute.
“Frankly, if you were to ask me my opinion, those conditions have not been fully met. So, we’ll continue to work that,” McKenzie added.
This comes despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s call for a quick return of American soldiers in late May. Trump urged Afghanistan to step up and defend their country themselves.
His impatience has led to speculation that he wants all the U.S. troops back before the November elections to use them as a campaign chip.
The Taliban, which are largely drawn from the Pashtun tribes of rural eastern and southern Afghanistan, are not the danger, according to McKenzie.
“It’s never been the Taliban — it’s the entities they allow to live in Afghanistan that threaten us, and really we’re talking about ISIS and Al Qaeda.”
A recent UN report also pointed out that the Taliban continued to consult with the Al Qaeda regularly even as they were negotiating with the U.S. in February. The report then said that the Islamic State in Khorasan province (IS-K) was initiating a growing number of attacks in the country.
The Taliban have battled IS-K and denounced their attacks for year, said the general. However, the Al Qaeda is another story.
“It is less clear to me that they will take the same action against Al Qaeda and only time will tell,” he said.
“We will know by observation, not things they say, but things they do and those are thing I believe that should actually inform our actions going forward.”
The Al Qaeda home base is in eastern Afghanistan, against the border with Pakistan. Though their presence is small, the CENTCOM commander said the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian militant who took over after Osama bin Laden, lives there.
“He doesn’t have the ability to talk much, but we think he’s probably physically up in that area somewhere.”
He also pointed that the Taliban has “aggressively” been attacking Afghan forces and not upholding another condition of the deal.
“We don’t have to like the Taliban, we don’t have to believe the Taliban. We have to watch the Taliban and see what they do. It is unclear to me yet that they have fully embraced this and are ready to move forward.”
While the Taliban has not attacked U.S. forces recently, their attacks against the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) have increased since the three-day Eid ceasefire. In late May, the U.S. Air Force finally had to step in with a retaliatory airstrike to protect the ANDSF.
U.S. Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger said he believed that Trump will not pull American troops from Afghanistan unless the intra-Afghan negotiations are successful and culminate into lasting peace.
Four members of the Senate Intelligence Committee also wrote to the director of national intelligence asking for an update on the withdrawal.
“A rushed and premature withdrawal would also risk losing the gains we have achieved in Afghanistan, not only in counterterrorism but also in building Afghan governance and military forces,” they wrote.
These comments were also supported by former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman and retired army general Jack Keanea who said it would be tantamount to a “humiliating surrender” to the enemy that has already been defeated.
McKenzie stressed that the Trump administration was aware and engaged in a “very robust dialogue” internally and with the NATO.
He acknowledged that it was a “a very critical time” for the intra-Afghan peace process with the Afghan government and the Taliban expected to begin talks soon.
He believes that the process is moving on the “right path” and the Taliban will have no option other than to engage in the negotiations.