ISLAMABAD - Afghanistan’s Taliban have ordered their members not to harbor “foreign” fighters in their ranks in an attempt to dispel allegations the Islamist insurgency continues to maintain close ties with al-Qaida and other terror groups in breach of a February 2020 peace deal with the United States.
The U.S.-Taliban pact, sealed in Qatar a year ago, requires all American and allied troops to leave Afghanistan by May 1, provided the Taliban are also honoring their commitments, including cutting ties with terrorist groups that threaten the United States and its allies.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s new administration is reviewing the deal to decide whether to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the May deadline to close what has been the longest war in U.S. history. NATO-led U.S. partners have fewer than 10,000 troops in the country.
“All commanders and mujahideen (fighters) are directed that they are barred from bringing foreign nationals into their ranks or giving them shelter,” the Taliban’s so-called military commissions said in an order reportedly delivered to insurgent fighters.
The Taliban statement, circulating on social media, warned that violators will face punitive action, including disbandment of their groups.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid, when contacted by VOA to confirm the authenticity of the one-page Pashto language directive, said he would respond after gathering information from his superiors.
The U.S. review of the Feb. 29 deal was prompted by allegations the Taliban have not cut their relationship with al-Qaida in Afghanistan. The insurgents are also accused of dragging their feet in ongoing peace negotiations with the Afghan government, a crucial outcome of the U.S.-Taliban accord to bring an end to decades of hostilities in the turmoil-hit South Asian nation.
Afghan leaders allege the Taliban have intensified attacks across the country against national security forces and civilians despite opening the intra-Afghan talks in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the review of the deal with the Taliban was still underway.
“We're mindful of looming deadlines here -- and everybody shares the sense of alacrity when it comes to working our way through this review,” Kirby told reporters. He defended the review process, saying the agreement was reached before the Biden administration.
“So perfectly understandable, given the stakes in Afghanistan, for us to want to come in and take a look at that and to look at the issues of compliance, and to try to make informed decisions about what the best way ahead is... We’re taking it very seriously,” stressed Kirby.
A United Nations panel monitoring the Taliban said in its latest report published earlier this month that the insurgency had maintained a close association with al-Qaida despite having promised to end cooperation with terrorist groups.
“Member states report little evidence of significant changes in relations between al-Qaida and the Taliban,” said the U.N. Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which completed its reports based in part on information shared by foreign governments' intelligence services.
The report noted that the overall number of members of al-Qaida and its affiliates in Afghanistan “is currently estimated at between 200 and 500 spread across” at least eleven provinces of the war-shattered country.
The Taliban have rejected the U.N. findings and denies the presence of al-Qaida militants in insurgent-held Afghan areas.
Skeptics say the latest Taliban directive to bar fighters from allowing foreign militants to join their ranks could be a last-minute attempt to assure the Biden administration can enact a U.S. troop withdrawal by May.
“Taliban smartly taking some new steps ahead of a Washington deliberation & review process,” tweeted Omar Samad, a former Afghan diplomat. “All sides need to be earnestly & factually held responsible for their actions, decisions & worldview…Too much is at stake,” Samad tweeted.
Taliban smartly taking some new steps ahead of a Washington deliberation & review process. All sides need to be earnestly & factually held responsible for their actions, decisions & worldview. Time to find an inclusive Afghan middle-ground after +4 decades. Too much is at stake. https://t.co/vSitj6Wlw3— Omar Samad (@OmSamad) February 24, 2021