WASHINGTON, D.C. – The top U.S. commander for the Middle East painted a grim picture Tuesday of the peace process with the Taliban in Afghanistan, saying the current level of violence is higher than allowed in the plan and that he will recommend against full withdrawal if that continues.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told the House Armed Services Committee that he has plans to cut the number of troops to 8,600 by the summer, but so far the U.S. “has not developed military plans” for the full withdrawal in 14 months that is called for in the peace plan signed Feb. 29.
“To date, Taliban attacks are higher than we believe are consistent with an idea to actually carry out this plan,” McKenzie said. “If they're unable to draw down the current level of attacks, then the political leadership will be able to make decisions based on that.”
He added that he has no confidence the group will honor its commitments, but said his optimism or pessimism about the future doesn't matter because any decisions will be based on facts and what happens on the ground.
President Donald Trump last week touted what he described as a “very good talk" with a Taliban leader, and insisted the group wants to cease violence. Asked if he believes the Afghan government will be capable of defending itself by the time of a complete U.S. troop withdrawal, he said he didn't know, but noted, “eventually, countries have to take care of themselves.”
The Pentagon’s top spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, also offered a bit more optimism on Tuesday, saying Defense Secretary Mark Esper believes the U.S.-Taliban deal is holding up, despite some instances of violence, some of which is being committed by the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate.
“While levels are not as low as some would like them to be, we’ve seen progress and we hope that that continues to hold.” He said that while Esper would like to see the number of attacks drop to zero, that is not a requirement under the U.S.-Taliban agreement.
Both McKenzie and Kathryn Wheelbarger, a top Pentagon policy adviser on international affairs, said America's complete troop withdrawal is contingent on whether the level of violence is reduced and the Taliban adheres to its commitments.
McKenzie said he would recommend against that full pullout if attacks continue and the Afghan forces can't protect their own country without direct U.S. support. Wheelbarger called the full pullout “aspirational” and said Esper would reassess the matter if the Taliban doesn't abide by the agreement.
The United States has begun withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, taking a step forward on its peace deal with the Taliban. And Afghan President Ashraf Ghani promised on Monday to start releasing Taliban prisoners, but by Tuesday he had not issued a decree to free them.
The U.S.-Taliban deal was touted as Washington's effort to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan. The next crucial step was to be intra-Afghan talks in which all factions including the Taliban would negotiate a road map for their country's future.
That plan has been thrown into chaos because both Ghani and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah were each sworn in as president in separate ceremonies Monday. Abdallah and the elections complaints commission had charged fraud in last year's vote.
Ghani, however, said Tuesday that he'd start putting together a negotiating team, and he said he would announce a decree to free the prisoners. His comments on the prisoner release came after the U.S. and a number of foreign dignitaries appeared to back his claim to the presidency by sending their representatives to his inauguration.
Esper last week said “the entire process will be conditions-based, and we will retain in Afghanistan the necessary capabilities to protect our service members and allies and support the Afghan security forces.”
A key challenge will be whether al-Qaida is able to resurge in Afghanistan and present a threat once again to the U.S.
McKenzie was asked what evidence the U.S. has that the Taliban have cut ties with al-Qaida.
He said it’s pretty clear the Taliban are actively fighting the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, but added that he is “less optimistic” about al-Qaida.
“That’s something they (the Taliban) are going to have to demonstrate that has not yet been demonstrated,” he added, referring to the Taliban showing that it has severed ties to the extremist group that planned the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks from Afghanistan. He said the U.S. will have “ample time to see if they actually do that” before the U.S. completes a troop withdrawal.
He said the key threats to the U.S. continue to be the ability of al-Qaida and the Islamic State to generate attacks against the U.S.
"The best intelligence estimates tell us that if we do not maintain pressure on those two entities, that in a period of time — and you can say a year, you can say two years, you can say somewhere in between — they’re going generate the ability to do external attacks again, and that will manifest itself here in the United States,” McKenzie said.