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Taliban Actions Fuel US Doubts for Afghan Peace Talks

FILE - General Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, speaks with U.S. troops while visiting Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, September 9, 2019.

Afghan Taliban leaders have yet to convince U.S. military officials they are ready to be “faithful partners” and help usher in a new era of peace for Afghanistan.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander General Kenneth McKenzie issued the latest caution Wednesday, adding that unless there are significant changes, U.S. forces are likely to remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

“The government of Afghanistan is beginning, I think, to coalesce around a potential bargaining position that will allow them to go into negotiations,” McKenzie told a forum hosted by the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “I think the Taliban needs to demonstrate that they're going to be faithful partners, too."

"It is unclear to me yet that they are fully embracing this and are ready to move forward,” he added.

There are also concerns that the Taliban may not be willing to meet other key provisions of the deal the Afghan insurgent group signed with Washington in late February, which calls for a reduction in U.S. forces in Afghanistan to fewer than 8,600 by mid-July and leaves open the possibility of a complete withdrawal by May 2021.

One key condition is the Taliban’s ability to guarantee it will not let terror groups like al-Qaida use Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against the U.S.

CENTCOM’s McKenzie said, at this point, he is not optimistic.

“Can we be assured that attacks against us will not be generated there?” he asked. “As of right now ... if you ask my opinion, those conditions have not been fully met."

And while U.S. officials have praised the Taliban’s willingness to take on the Islamic State terror group’s Afghan affiliate, IS-Khorasan, in places like Nangarhar province, questions remain there, as well.

A recent U.N. report, based on intelligence from member states, suggested the Taliban’s motivation to push IS out of Nangarhar might have been rooted in the drug trade.

“Sources highlighted that the decrease in current seizures and interdictions likely showed that, in the absence of ISIL-K [IS-Khorasan], which opposed poppy cultivation, smuggling routes formerly used by the Taliban were now back in use," the report said.

U.S. military and defense officials also continue to voice concern about the Taliban’s refusal to stop launching attacks against Afghan government forces.

With the exception of a brief cease-fire during the Eid holiday, officials say Taliban forces have been increasingly aggressive, ramping up the number of attacks against Afghan security forces even while leaving U.S. and coalition forces alone.

Just last week, U.S. forces carried out multiple airstrikes against the Taliban in defense of Afghan checkpoints in Kandahar and Farah provinces.

Still, in recent weeks, diplomatic officials have voiced a wary optimism about the deal Washington signed with the Taliban in February, and about talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, despite halting progress.

On Monday, Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan High Council for National Reconciliation, sounded a hopeful note, saying he expected talks with the Taliban to resume shortly in Doha.

But the chief Taliban negotiator on Monday rejected the possibility, arguing talks would not begin until the Afghan government completed the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, 2,000 of whom remained locked up.

And there are questions about the impact that the coronavirus pandemic will have on negotiations.

“I think the Taliban is significantly penetrated by it,” CENTCOM’s McKenzie said Wednesday. “That's an unfortunate thing, because I think anything that tends to destabilize decision-making at a critical period of time is inherently not good.”