Intelligence compiled by the United Nations shows member states have growing doubts about the Taliban’s intent to stick to the terms of a landmark agreement with the United States that was supposed to set the stage for an end to the nearly two-decade-long war in Afghanistan.
The assessment, in the latest report from the U.N. Sanctions Monitoring Team, points not just to what had been a steady increase in Taliban attacks on Afghan forces but also to the group’s internal messaging, which remains “hard-line.”
"The Taliban remain confident that they can take power by force," the recently released report said. “The risk exists that they will continue to find reasons to delay intra-Afghan negotiations as international forces supporting the government of Afghanistan continue to leave."
The U.N. report states international support for Afghan forces, specifically “close air support” from the U.S.-led coalition, has been essential to keeping Taliban forces at bay.
"The sudden or unexpected withdrawal of such support would endanger several provinces," the report noted, warning that 21 districts in Afghanistan are already under full Taliban control while as much as 60% of Afghan territory is contested.
U.S. officials stopped sharing data on the so-called district-level stability assessments in 2019, arguing it was “of limited decision-making value.”
But the U.N. data seems to track with the assessments shared with the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction in late 2018 and early 2019, which showed Afghan forces slowly losing control of an increasing number of districts.
Despite the bleak outlook from United Nations members, a top U.S. official remained optimistic that the deal with the Taliban will hold and that negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government can succeed.
“We’re in a good place,” Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, told reporters Monday, though he added the U.S. continues to watch developments on the ground.
“We have a monitoring group that monitors in detail what's happening with regard to their commitment, the Taliban’s commitments, on terrorism," he added. "We believe that there is progress, but we will continue to monitor those activities very closely."
Whether U.S. optimism holds, intelligence provided by U.N. member states indicates that the Taliban’s readiness to take on Afghan forces is more than just words.
The report estimates the Taliban has anywhere from 55,000 to 85,000 fighters at its disposal, with up to an estimated 15,000 facilitators and non-combatants stationed across the country.
Despite some dissent within the ranks, recruitment efforts are also thought to be supplying the Taliban with a steady stream of new fighters.
Reports of Taliban financial woes may also be overblown.
The U.N. monitoring team concluded the Taliban is bringing in anywhere from $300 million to $1.5 billion a year, and that prospects for increasing revenue look good, both from taxes on the use of roads across northern Afghanistan and from a growing drug trade.
"While heroin cultivation and production have provided the bulk of Taliban revenue for many years, the emergence of methamphetamine in Afghanistan is giving impetus to a major new drug industry with significant profit margins," the report said.
Taliban relationship with al-Qaida
Additionally, U.N. member states continue to be wary of the Taliban relationship with al-Qaida, saying that if anything, the relationship between the terror group and the insurgent group is growing stronger.
"One member state reported that the regularity of mtgs btw al-Qaida seniors and the Taliban 'made any notion of a break between the two mere fiction,'" the report said.
“The Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties," it added.
U.N. member states are not alone when it comes to such doubts.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told U.S. lawmakers in March that he was “less optimistic” about the Taliban’s willingness to confront al-Qaida as part of its pledge to counter terror groups on Afghan soil.
"I defer to no one in my distrust of the Taliban," he said at the time.
State Department Correspondent Nike Ching, VOA’s Afghan Service contributed to this story.
The U.N. report also casts doubt on the Taliban’s motives for taking on the Islamic State terror group, especially in Nangarhar province, where U.S. officials said Taliban fighters played a key role in helping to wipe out the IS presence.
"The occupation by ISIL-K of key smuggling routes in Nangarhar blocked access to traditional growing areas and routes used by Taliban-affiliated networks," the U.N. report said. “The retaking of large poppy-cultivating areas in #Nangarhar was expected to counter financial losses."
Recent hopes for progress in talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government were briefly buoyed by a temporary cease fire during the three-day Eid festivities last week, but since then, fighting has resumed.
“I think it is incumbent on the Taliban to continue that ceasefire in every possible way and that the government [of Afghanistan] continue to build on the progress that has been made toward a unified government that will set the stage for these talks among Afghan people,” the U.S. permanent ambassador to NATO told VOA’s Afghan Service at the time.
U.S. defense officials declined to comment about the U.N. report, deferring to the U.S. State Department.
Under the agreement with the Taliban, the U.S. is scheduled to bring troops levels in Afghanistan to 8,600 by July.