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Officials: U.S. has 'persuasive' intel Taliban do not intend to abide by terms of peace deal

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Image: AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT-TALIBAN
Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the peace deal in Afghanistan, in Alingar district of Laghman Province on March 2, 2020.   -   Copyright  Noorullah Shirzada AFP - Getty Images
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has collected persuasive intelligence that the Taliban do not intend to honor the promises they have made in the recently signed deal with the United States, three American officials tell NBC News, undercutting what has been days of hopeful talk by President Donald Trump and his top aides.

"They have no intention of abiding by their agreement," said one official briefed on the intelligence, which two others described as explicit evidence shedding light on the Taliban's intentions.

Trump himself acknowledged that reality in extraordinary comments Friday, saying the Taliban could "possibly" overrun the Afghan government after U.S. troops withdraw from the country.

"Countries have to take care of themselves," Trump told reporters at the White House. "You can only hold someone's hand for so long." Asked if the Taliban could eventually seize power, Trump said it's "not supposed to happen that way, but it possibly will."

The intelligence described by the American officials is consistent with what Taliban sources have been telling an NBC News reporter in Pakistan. Those Taliban representatives say the Taliban views the peace process as a way of securing the withdrawal of American "occupiers," after which it will attack the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

"'We will ask the Afghan leadership and other political factions that since the U.S. has accepted us and recognized our position, it is time for you to accept us and give us the country peacefully," one Taliban member who was not authorized to speak to the media told NBC News.

The agreement signed Saturday envisions something very different. In exchange for an American pledge to withdraw all troops in 14 months, the Taliban promised to stop harboring terrorists and to enter into peace talks with an Afghan government-led delegation.

"Look, we all hope they follow through with their side of the agreement, but we believe we know their true intentions," one official familiar with the intelligence said.

One former U.S. official directly familiar with planning acknowledged to NBC News that the administration understands the risks of a "Vietnam War" style ending to the Afghan war, in which the Taliban reneges on the deal and overruns the country. But no one is saying that publicly.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the media at the State Department in Washington on March 5, 2020.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the media at the State Department in Washington on March 5, 2020.Yuri Gripas

Asked about the prospects for peace on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "We still have confidence the Taliban leadership is working to deliver on its commitments," despite its fighters having carried out more than 70 attacks on Afghan government forces since the agreement was signed on Feb. 29.

He added that that pact will not go forward if Taliban leaders break their promises, and he called for a reduction in violence without explicitly condemning the Taliban.

Two defense officials told NBC News that a recent intelligence assessment says the Taliban will continue to attack Afghan forces as a means of pressuring the government to carry out a prisoner swap.

"We know that the road ahead will be difficult," said Pompeo. "We expected it. We were right."

"The upsurge in violence in parts of Afghanistan over the last couple days is unacceptable. In no uncertain terms, violence must be reduced immediately for the peace process to move forward."

Defense and intelligence officials told NBC News they believe Trump is determined to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan regardless of what the Taliban does.

"Zal Khalilzad is trying to give Trump cover to get him through the election," former CIA official Doug London, who studied the Taliban closely while conducting counterterrorism operations, told NBC News.

Khalilzad, Trump's special envoy, signed the deal in Qatar with a Taliban representative, Abdul Ghani Baradar, who co-founded the Taliban but spent more than eight years in prison in Pakistan until the U.S. engineered his release in 2018. London and other experts question whether he and his fellow negotiators can still speak for the Taliban's fighting forces.

Trump confirmed he spoke by phone Tuesday with Baradar, a remarkable moment after nearly two decades of war with the group that sheltered Osama bin Laden while he planned the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 against the U.S.

Trump called it a "very good talk." The Taliban said in a statement that Trump called Afghans a "tough people" who "have a great country and I understand that you are fighting for your homeland."

The Taliban sources say the group will continue to train fighters but plan to wait for the outcome of the intra-Afghan dialogue before officially announcing a spring offensive.

"Presently we are training around 15,000 fighters in our dozens of training centers across Afghanistan," one commander told NBC News. "As per our agreement with the U.S., we will not carry out attacks in the cities and district headquarters in Afghanistan. But we will continue our attacks in the rural areas of the country."

The Taliban is suspicious that Trump could back out of the withdrawal plan after the U.S. presidential election in November, multiple Taliban sources said.

"President Trump is straightforward but then unpredictable and you can expect anything from him," one Taliban representative said.

Both Republican hardliners and former Obama administration officials have criticized the deal, saying it could allow Afghanistan to turn into a sanctuary for terrorists again.

GOP Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming said Saturdaythe agreement "includes concessions that could threaten the security of the United States" and lacks a "disclosed mechanism to verify Taliban compliance."

Former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton called the agreement "an unacceptable risk to America's civilian population."

"This is an Obama-style deal," he tweeted. "Legitimizing Taliban sends the wrong signal to ISIS and al Qaeda terrorists, and to America's enemies generally."

But Susan Rice, who was Obama's national security adviser, is also critical of the agreement, saying it's not a deal the Obama administration could have countenanced.

The pact suggests the U.S. is likely to withdraw all troops before a lasting Afghan peace is achieved, she wrote Wednesday in the New York Times, which means "abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban wolves."

"Worse, after 14 months, the United States will be left without any military or counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan, effectively subcontracting America's security to the Taliban," she added.

Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who consults frequently with the Pentagon, said the group's leadership in Pakistan is not going to be satisfied with a power-sharing arrangement with the Afghan government.

"Most of the people that matter on the Quetta Shura are not going to be happy until they get Kabul," he said, referring to the Taliban leadership council.

The Afghan government, which was not a party to the U.S.-Taliban deal, is also skeptical. Afghan political leaders fear the U.S. is ready to abandon the country to the Taliban without guarantees it will keep up military and financial support for Kabul or keep its troops in place until a peace treaty is agreed, a senior Afghan official told NBC News.

The agreement is already facing serious headwinds.

The Afghan government said it was not ready to release up to 5,000 captured Taliban fighters before the start of peace talks with the insurgents, as the deal proposed. Then the Taliban said it was not ready to extend a partial truce with the Afghan government as U.S. officials had hoped, and the insurgency promptly launched attacks on Afghan security forces. On Wednesday, the U.S. military carried out its first air strike since the deal was clinched, coming to the aid of Afghan forces under fire in the country's south.

Trump has made it clear he wants to end America's foray in Afghanistan, the nation's longest war.

Last fall, NBC News reported that the Pentagon had begun drawing up plans for an abrupt withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in case Trump surprised military leaders by ordering an immediate drawdown as he did in Syria.

There is broad consensus among American foreign policy makers and legislators that the war should end as quickly as possible through a political solution. But many Pentagon and intelligence officials argue that if the U.S. withdraws all troops without a peace settlement, it will make it much more difficult to detect and destroy terrorist activity by al Qaeda and ISIS.

Some experts have expressed skepticism that the Taliban will ever stop harboring terrorists, regardless of any paper agreement.

Former CIA official London points out that that al Qaeda figures have married into Taliban families, cementing ties between the two groups.

In October, when a joint U.S. and Afghan team hunted down and killed Asim Umar, al Qaeda's South Asia chief, they found him embedded with the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, officials said at the time.

"The Taliban could not assure its followers abandonment of their terrorist guests even of they wanted," London said. "Many of these groups are inextricably tied through marriage, tribal ties and military interdependence."

Former U.S. diplomats and Western officials briefed on the Taliban talks say Trump's special envoy, Khalilzad, has made a good-faith effort at trying to hammer out a way out for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan. But Trump's impatience has meant Khalilzad has had to work under an almost impossible deadline, all the while fearing that a single presidential comment could upend the deal.

In September, with a draft agreement ready, Trump derailed the deal in a tweet, saying the pact would be called off due to an attack that killed a U.S. service member.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sign a peace agreement during a ceremony in the Qatari capital of Doha on Feb. 29, 2020.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sign a peace agreement during a ceremony in the Qatari capital of Doha on Feb. 29, 2020.Karim Jaafar

At the signing ceremony at a five-star hotel in Doha on Saturday, American officials mingled with bearded Taliban negotiators clad in black turbans. Pompeo said the U.S. withdrawal would hinge on whether the Taliban kept its word.

"We will closely watch the Taliban's compliance with their commitments and calibrate the pace of our withdrawal to their actions. This is how we will ensure that Afghanistan never again serves as a base for international terrorists," Pompeo said.

As a Republican congressman from Kansas, Pompeo in 2014blasted the Obama administration for exchanging five detained Taliban leaders in return for the release of a U.S. soldier, Bowe Bergdahl.

But in aninterview with Fox News on Monday, Pompeo rejected criticism that the deal was driven by President Trump's re-election campaign and said that it was aimed at ensuring the Taliban cut ties with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.

"I met with them myself when I was in Doha. I looked them in the eye. They revalidated that commitment," to break with al Qaeda, Pompeo said.

"Now they've got to execute it. Now we'll be able to see, the world will be able to see, if they truly live up to that obligation."

Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Pakistan.