The Biden administration's review of the Afghanistan withdrawal strategy under new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been complicated by a Treasury Department report that al-Qaida has been gaining strength and raising money through continuing close ties to the Taliban.
"Al Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban's protection," according to the Jan. 4 Treasury report to the Defense Department's Inspector General.
Al-Qaida also has parlayed cooperation with the Taliban to raise money through "donations from like-minded supporters, and from individuals who believe that their money is supporting humanitarian or charitable causes," states the report, which was requested by the Pentagon's IG.
"Al Qaeda capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support," it adds.
The Treasury report backs up October statements in a webinar by Edmund Fitton-Brown, the British head of the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team for al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban.
Fitton-Brown appeared to suggest that the U.S. was underestimating al-Qaida's resilience and the continuing threat posed by its fighters to the peace process.
He said that senior al-Qaida leaders "remain in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives," according to a Voice of America report on the webinar.
Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri "himself remains close to the Taliban," Fitton-Brown said, adding that "the Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaida during the negotiations with the United States and they offered informal guarantees that they would honor their historic ties with al-Qaida."
The Treasury report, and Fitton-Brown's statements, call into question the February 2020 agreement signed by the U.S. and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, which called for the Taliban to cut ties to al-Qaida and reduce levels of violence while aiming for a cease-fire and peace agreement with the Kabul government.
The deal also called for a total withdrawal of U.S. troops by May 2021, dependent on conditions on the ground and the Taliban living up to its promises.
However, Army Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, have said repeatedly that the Taliban is still attacking Afghan security forces and civilians.
In reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 in the waning days of his administration, former President Donald Trump said he was fulfilling a commitment to end the U.S.' "forever wars."
The Biden administration has now pledged a review of the withdrawal strategy and the February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban.
In a Jan. 22 call to Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib, new National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration is reviewing the strategy, with a focus on assessing "whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders."
The White House readout of the call said Sullivan also emphasized U.S. support for "protecting the extraordinary gains made by Afghan women, girls, and minority groups as part of the peace process."
The new administration will work closely with the Kabul government, NATO allies and regional partners "regarding a collective strategy to support a stable, sovereign, and secure future for Afghanistan," the White House readout added.
Military analysts have been split on whether the U.S. should continue to support an Afghan government plagued by corruption and internal divisions or go ahead with a total withdrawal of its troops in May.
In a Council on Foreign Relations virtual forum Monday, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus said, "You don't end an endless war [simply by taking U.S. troops out of the equation].
"We can easily afford, for example, 10,000 troops in Afghanistan," said Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and the former head of U.S. Central Command.
"I'm concerned about the collapse of the Afghan security forces," he said, adding that the Taliban "certainly haven't reduced the level of violence. I suspect that will be near the top of Jake Sullivan's list to assess."
However, 20 years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan have yet to result in a stable, democratic government there, and continued effort would likely be futile, said Jason Dempsey, a retired Army lieutenant colonel; veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan; and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
"I don't think we can thread the needle on this one," Dempsey told Military.com. "We're propping up a government that has failed.
"Maintaining a presence isn't a plan," he said. "All we're doing with the status quo is throwing more money at an inevitable failure."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.