Taliban, al Qaeda retain ties despite U.S.-Taliban deal, U.N. monitors say

FILE PHOTO: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, shake hands after signing an agreement at a ceremony between members of Afghanistan’s Taliban and the U.S. in Doha, Qatar February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem al Omari

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Ties between the Taliban, especially its Haqqani Network branch, and al Qaeda remain close, independent U.N. sanctions monitors said in a report made public on Monday, despite a U.S.-Taliban pact Washington hoped would sever them.

“The Taliban regularly consulted with al Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties,” they said in a report to the U.N. Security Council, saying ties stemmed from friendship, intermarriage, shared struggle and ideological sympathy.

Under the Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban deal that could pave the way toward a full withdrawal of foreign soldiers from Afghanistan, the Taliban promised to prevent al Qaeda from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.

The deal also committed the United States to reduce its military footprint in Afghanistan to 8,600 troops by mid-July – a level U.S. and NATO officials said it had nearly reached last week – and, conditions permitting, to zero by May 2021.

U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. The Taliban had provided a safe haven in which al Qaeda planned the attacks.

“The success of the agreement may depend upon the Taliban’s willingness to encourage al Qaeda to put a stop to its current activities in Afghanistan,” the U.N. monitors said, saying if the Taliban honored the pact, “it may prompt a split between pro – and anti-al-Qaeda camps.”

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said he believed the report covered the period through March 15, about two weeks after the U.S.-Taliban pact, and it may take time for the Taliban to deliver.

“They have taken some steps. They have to take a lot more,” he told reporters, saying if the Taliban failed to keep its promises, Washington could reconsider its own.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols at United Nations and Arshad Mohammed and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis