(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday voiced optimism about the Afghanistan peace talks process currently underway, but said contrary to Taliban’s assertions, the U.S. has not yet agreed on a timeline for withdrawing its troops from the country.
“While we’ve made clear to the Taliban that we are prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear we have not yet agreed on a timeline to do so,” he told reporters in Kabul, where he paid a surprise visit en route to India.
“This should come as no surprise, but sometimes our adversaries announce things that just aren’t true.”
Asked again about the Taliban claim, he stressed again: “I understand what the Taliban said. My statement was very clear: We have not yet provided them with a timeline.”
Last January U.S. chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad reached an agreement in principle with Taliban officials dealing with four issues – a U.S. troop withdrawal, preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, a nationwide ceasefire, and national peace talks.
A seventh round of negotiations is due to begin in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday.
A key element in the talks has been a U.S. demand for a Taliban pledge that Afghanistan will never again become a haven for terrorists, and that it cut ties with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
The fundamentalist group’s continuing sheltering of al-Qaeda after 9/11 prompted U.S. military intervention in the first place. More than 2,400 U.S. personnel have been killed in Afghanistan since October 2001, almost 1,900 of them in combat.
For its part, the Taliban is demanding the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces.
Pompeo said “real progress” has been made in the talks regarding terrorism.
The two sides were “nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban’s commitments to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists,” he said.
Apart from the Taliban’s own deadly attacks, which spiked after this year’s spring offensive was announced in April, recent indications are that al-Qaeda remains active in Afghanistan, with the Taliban’s support.
“We have seen al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Scott Miller, told the country’s TOLO News last month. “In different parts of Afghanistan, we can find them, so it’s not one particular region, it’s across the country.”
‘Operating under the Taliban umbrella ‘
A U.N. Security Council monitoring committee reported less than a fortnight ago that the Taliban continues to cooperate with and “retain strong links” to al-Qaeda, as well as to at least four other U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations (the Haqqani network, Lashkar e-Toiba, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent)..
“Al-Qaeda continues to see Afghanistan as a safe haven for its leadership, based on its long-standing strong relationship with the Taliban,” it said. “Al-Qaeda has grown stronger operating under the Taliban umbrella across Afghanistan and is more active than in recent years.”
Noting the Taliban’s ongoing support from and endorsement of al-Qaeda, the report said, “it remains to be seen whether they will be willing to give this up in favor of progressing peace talks.”
Another major element in the peace talks process is the U.S. insistence that agreement must ultimately be reached between the Taliban and the Afghan government – not the United States.
The Taliban, however, views the Kabul government as illegitimate and refuses to meet with its representatives.
Pompeo said on Tuesday that “finalizing a U.S.-Taliban understanding on terrorism and foreign troop presence will open the door to inter-Afghan dialogue and negotiation.”
“We are not and will not negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of the government or people of Afghanistan,” he stressed. “Rather, we’re working to bring Afghans together at the negotiating table to decide the future of their own country collectively.”
“It’s not America’s role to dictate the outcome of those negotiations.”
Afghan reporters asked Pompeo about the presence in the country of ISIS terrorists, and whether the U.S. would keep any forces there, post a deal with the Taliban, to counter that terrorist group.
According to U.N. estimates, between 2,500 and 4,000 ISIS fighters are in the country, mostly concentrated in the east. A majority of the foreign fighters are believed to come from Central and South Asia, rather than from the erstwhile ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
Pompeo conceded that “the terror threat will remain” and said that “President Trump has made clear that ensuring that terrorism, wherever we find it, is something America can address adequately.”
“America’s presence here will always – we will always do the right thing to protect American interests,” he said. “So whether that’s ISIS here, whether that’s a risk of al-Qaeda resurgence, the United States will always take the actions that it needs to take to protect its interests.”
Pompeo said he did not want to talk about troops levels, deferring to the Pentagon.
“But I don’t think any terrorist should ever underestimate America’s will and capacity to show that we protect American interests from terrorism.”
The U.S. currently has around 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, some for counterterror operations, but most forming part of NATO’s 20,000-strong Resolute Support mission to “train, advice and assist” Afghan forces.