ISLAMABAD - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asked the Taliban to uphold their commitment to cease attacks on American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Pompeo held a video conference with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the insurgent group’s deputy leader and chief of its political office in Qatar, amid growing demands from U.S. lawmakers for President Donald Trump to investigate news reports that Russia had offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
“The secretary made clear the expectation for the Taliban to live up to their commitments, which include not attacking Americans,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said Tuesday.
For its part, the Taliban said Baradar has reassured Pompeo the Islamist insurgency does not allow anyone to use Afghanistan to plot attacks against other nations.
“It is not true. We have already rejected that,” Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen told VOA from the Qatari capital of Doha when asked whether Pompeo raised the issue of alleged Russia-Taliban collaboration.
“Baradar once again reiterated that the Taliban are committed not to allow anyone to use Afghan soil (to launch attacks) against any country,” Shaheen said.
In an exclusive story published last week, The New York Times, while citing anonymous officials, reported that Trump had been told about the alleged Russian bounties but did nothing in response.
Trump has denied getting any such briefing.
“Intelligence is verified before it reaches the president of the United States. And in this case, it was not verified,’’ White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday when reporters asked why the president was not informed.
Shaheen said that Baradar also reaffirmed his group’s commitment to a peace-building agreement with Washington, which requires all U.S. and coalition forces to withdraw from Afghanistan by July 2021 in return for Taliban counterterrorism guarantees.
The pact, signed in Doha on Feb. 29, also binds the insurgents to seek political reconciliation with other Afghan groups through direct negotiations to bring an end to decades of hostilities in the country.
However, increasing battlefield violence and a controversial slow-moving prisoner swap between the Afghan government and the Taliban have delayed long-awaited intra-Afghan negotiations that were originally scheduled for March 10.
Shaheen said Baradar told Pompeo the delay in intra-Afghan talks was because the Kabul government did not release all 5,000 Taliban prisoners as stipulated in the accord.
Afghan officials say they have released about 4,000 insurgent prisoners so far while Shaheen said his group has also freed 737 out of the promised 1,000 Afghan forces being held by the Taliban.
Shaheen noted that Pompeo called for all Afghan warring sides to do more to reduce violence, claiming the chief U.S. diplomat acknowledged that the insurgent group has “lowered the war graph by not attacking cities and major military bases.”
Under provisions of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, insurgents are not supposed to attack American and coalition troops, and their required to reduce battlefield operations against Afghan security forces in the run-up to intra-Afghan peace negotiations.
Shaheen said that in the conference with Pompeo, the Taliban chief negotiator called for the release of the remaining Afghan prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay detention center. Baradar also demanded Washington release Hajji Bashar Noorzai, an Afghan drug lord serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for his role in international narcotics trafficking, the Taliban spokesman said.
State Department correspondent Cindy Saine contributed to this report.