WASHINGTON - The Afghan government says that the killing of a high-ranking al-Qaida leader in a Taliban safe haven in eastern Afghanistan last month is an indication that the Taliban is not keeping up with its pledge to end ties with al-Qaida.
“Unfortunately, the Taliban still provide a safe environment for these terrorist groups to operate,” Siddeq Siddiqqui, a spokesperson for the Afghan government, told VOA.
"The Taliban harbor of al-Qaida operatives is contrary to Taliban's commitment to cut ties with foreign terrorist groups,” Siddiqqui said, referring to the U.S.-Taliban deal in February that required the Taliban to stop supporting terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida.
The Afghan government said on October 24 that its forces had killed a senior al-Qaida leader, Abu Muhsin al-Masri, in a Taliban-controlled area in the eastern province of Ghazni.
The country’s National Directorate of Intelligence (NDS) said al-Masri was a close aide to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and had supported the Taliban and Haqqani Network for years. It said he was living in Ghazni under Taliban protection.
Al-Masri, who was 61 or 62 years old, is also known as Husam Abd al-Ra’uf and had been on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Most Wanted Terrorist list since December 2018. The White House has called his death “welcome news” and praised Afghan security forces for their operation.
According to Vahidullah Jumah Zada, a spokesperson for the governor of Ghazni, Taliban fighters were with al-Masri when Afghan forces conducted their raid.
“’A Taliban commander, Emran Hanzalah, and [a] few other fighters were killed,” Jumah Zada told VOA’s Afghan Service last week.
The Taliban group is yet to formally respond to the government claim that it has been sheltering al-Masri.
When asked by local Tolo News on Wednesday about the accusation, Taliban spokesperson Mohammad Naeem refused to comment on al-Masri's killing but insisted that "right now, there is no al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan.”
Al-Masri’s killing comes as the Afghan chief of army staff, Yasin Zia, said Thursday that Afghan forces have killed a number of al-Qaida members in a separate operation in the western province of Farah.
In September, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there were fewer than 200 al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan.
A U.N. report in May, however, put their numbers between 400 and 600 armed operatives. It said the group remained active in at least 12 Afghan provinces and included senior leadership that enjoyed close relations with the Taliban.
The report said the link between the two groups was “not in simple terms of group-to-group, but rather as 'one of deep personal ties (including through marriage) and long-term sense of brotherhood.'"
The Taliban then rejected the U.N. report as “baseless and bigoted,” and maintained its long-stated position that al-Qaida had no presence in the country.
The recent operations in Ghazni and Farah further deepens distrust between the Afghan insurgent group and the government in their talks to reach an enduring peace, said Subhan Mesbah, the deputy head of the Lawyers Association of Afghanistan.
“They have not kept their promises in the past, they have shown no flexibility in the peace talks; therefore, they cannot be trusted when they say that they are cutting ties with al-Qaida,” Mesbah told VOA.
Al-Qaida pledged allegiance to the Taliban’s leadership when it took power in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. According to the U.N., the ties have remained unbroken even after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Under the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement, the Taliban would cut ties with al-Qaida and negotiate a peace deal with the Afghan government in return for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by May 2021. As such, U.S. officials in the past have said that a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will happen only if the Taliban meet all the conditions set by the agreement.
The U.S. reduced its troops in July from 13,000 to 8,600, with the goal of bring the number down to 4,500 in November. U.S. President Donald Trump said in October that he intended to withdraw all troops by Christmas.
Some Afghan politicians say they fear a U.S. exit could hurt Kabul’s bargaining power when negotiating with the Islamist group. They warn the group could steer other armed insurgents into attacking Afghan government and civilian targets to force Kabul into concessions.
“As a strategic and military ally and based on the strategic partnership agreement, the U.S. should stand with the Afghan government and nation until peace and stability come to Afghanistan,” Mohammad Faisal Sami, a lawmaker in the upper branch of the Afghan parliament, known as the Meshrano Jirga, told VOA.
Talks and violence
Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban for a permanent cease-fire and a road map for the future of Afghanistan started on September 12 in Doha, Qatar. The process now faces a deadlock over disagreements on Islamic jurisprudence and whether the U.S.-Taliban agreement should serve as a basis for their talks.
While international efforts to resume the talks are ongoing, violence has increased across Afghanistan in recent months. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said Thursday that attacks by anti-government forces have increased by 50% in the third quarter of the year compared to the second quarter.
Last month, the Taliban launched an offensive in Helmand to take the provincial capital.
U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said on October 15 that the Taliban agreed to "re-set" their commitments under the U.S.-Taliban agreement and reduce violence.
Khalilzad, however, tweeted last week that he was “disappointed” that the violence has not decreased in the country.
“The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he warned.
On Monday, at least 22 people were killed and dozens injured when three gunmen stormed Kabul University.
IS Khorasan Province (ISKP) has claimed responsibility for the attack, which the Taliban called "a crime against humanity."
The Afghan government, however, is pointing the blame towards the Taliban.
While the deadly attack elevated tensions between the Afghan government and the Taliban to a new level, U.S. envoy Khalilzad has encouraged both sides to focus on the “common enemy,” ISKP.
“Deny ISIS or any other terrorist the space to carry out these inhumane acts. Unite for peace, find a path to a cease-fire, and accelerate a political settlement. These steps would be the right response to this unspeakable barbarism,” Khalilzad tweeted on Monday.
VOA's Afghanistan Service contributed to this report.