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Taliban keep close ties with Al Qaeda despite promise to U.S.



WASHINGTON — The Afghan Taliban have kept up a close relationship with Al Qaeda despite pledging to stop cooperating with terrorist groups, permitting the militants to conduct training in Afghanistan and deploy fighters alongside its forces, according to the head of a U.N. panel monitoring the insurgency.

The Taliban’s association with al Qaeda has continued even though the insurgency signed an agreement with the United States a year ago that bans cooperation with or hosting terrorist groups — and despite a public statement by Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the Taliban had “made the break” with terrorist groups.

“There is still clearly a close relationship between Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” said Edmund Fitton-Brown, the coordinator of the United Nations panel charged with tracking the Taliban and terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The U.N. Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team’s reports are based in part on information shared from foreign governments’ intelligence services.

“We believe that the top leadership of Al Qaeda is still under Taliban protection,” he told NBC News.

According to the U.N. monitoring team’s last report in January, there are roughly 200 to 500 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan across about 11 provinces. Experts say untangling two groups that have lived and fought alongside each other for decades — and have even intermarried — will be difficult.

The Taliban’s long-established alliance with Al Qaeda will be on the agenda when NATO defense ministers meet on Wednesday and Thursday to weigh a May deadline for a troop withdrawal as required by the U.S.-Taliban deal. European allies will be looking to President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, for signals on the administration’s plans and how it intends to ensure the insurgency lives up to the deal.

NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg said on Monday that the Taliban needed to make good on its commitments under the 2020 agreement to open the way for a full withdrawal of foreign troops.

“We see that there is still a need for the Taliban to do more when it comes to delivering on their commitments … to make sure that they break all ties with international terrorists,” Stoltenberg said.

Members of the Taliban’s peace negotiation team attend a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Qatari capital Doha on Nov. 21, 2020.Patrick Semansky / Pool/AFP via Getty Images file

The U.S. has about 2,500 troops deployed in Afghanistan, and its NATO-led partners have 9,600 troops on the ground. Under the terms of the 2020 deal, the U.S. pledged to pull out its remaining forces by May. But the Biden administration has said it has not made any decision on troop levels and that officials are evaluating if the Taliban have fulfilled their commitments.

U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News that Al Qaeda and other terror groups remain an active threat inside Afghanistan. But they declined to comment on the Taliban’s relationship with Al Qaeda.

The Taliban insists it is abiding by the accord with the Americans, in which the insurgency agreed to enter into peace talks with their foes in the Afghan government in return for a withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO troops.

The agreement requires the Taliban to “send a clear message” that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan, and prohibits cooperation with groups that threaten the security of the United States. Under the deal, the Taliban is obliged to prevent terrorist groups from “recruiting, training, and fundraising” and bans the insurgents from hosting such groups.

The Taliban contend that there are no foreign fighters in Afghanistan, and that members of Al Qaeda fled the country after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led intervention. That claim is rejected by foreign governments and regional analysts as patently false.

Al Qaeda conducts training in Taliban-controlled areas though there is no clear evidence of major recruitment or fundraising efforts, Fitton-Brown said.

Al Qaeda militants also sometimes fight with their Taliban counterparts in Afghanistan, supporting the insurgency’s war against the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

“We understand that they do deploy alongside Taliban troops in certain theaters. Whether they make any decisive difference in those theaters, I could not assess,” Fitton-Brown said.

There are both working-level contacts and senior-level contacts between the Talian and Al Qaeda, and the insurency regularly seeks to reassure Al Qaeda that it will remain loyal to the militants, he said. The U.S.-Taliban negotiations in 2019 caused anxiety within Al Qaeda that the Afghan insurgents were ready to abandon them, leading to some tense discussions, the U.N. panel reported last year.

Al Qaeda, as a smaller group with fewer resources, dependent on its hosts to provide an umbrella of protection and under persistent pressure from the U.S. and Western governments, is clearly the weaker partner in the relationship, according to Fitton-Brown.

“You can see that the account is very much in the Taliban’s favor. They’re the ones who are providing almost all of the favors. They’re much, much the stronger group. Al Qaeda need the Taliban much more than the Taliban need Al Qaeda,” Fitton-Brown said.

Yet the Taliban leadership has appeared reluctant to enter into a confrontation with Al Qaeda that could cause resentment within the insurgency, he said.

“There’s a strong impulse for the Taliban top leadership, for as long as they can, to hold people together on this. In other words, not to go down a track that would be distasteful or divisive to some potentially rebellious elements within the Taliban,” he said.

The Taliban are hedging their bets when it comes to Al Qaeda, and have the ability to curtail their relationship with the group if they choose to, he added.

On March 1, 2020, former Secretary of State Pompeo said the Taliban “have now made the break” with terrorist groups and “agreed that they would break that relationship and that they would work alongside of us to destroy, deny resources to and have Al Qaeda depart from that place.”

Former U.S. officials say ties between the Taliban and Al Qaeda are deeply rooted, dating back three decades, with al Qaeda militants marrying into Pashtun tribes in Taliban-controlled areas.

“Any expectation that the Taliban’s leadership can dictate their fighters division from Al Qaeda dismisses cultural and practical realities,” said Douglas London, who served for more than 30 years in the CIA’s clandestine service and has experience in South and Central Asia.

By design, Al Qaeda trainers, fighters and leaders have built intimate, local ties to their Taliban counterparts, and the two have forged familial ties that assure mutual loyalty and obligation based on Pashtun cultural norms, said London, author of the forthcoming book, the Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.

“Even if Taliban leaders want to turn the page on Al Qaeda, and my experience managing CIA’s counterterrorist operations in the region suggests they don’t, it would be a practical impossibility to expect Taliban fighters to abandon daughters, grandchildren and son-in-laws,” said London, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute think tank.

“Now 30 years in, some second-generation children from these marriages have themselves assumed positions in both Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

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Senate to start debate over Asian American hate crime bill



WASHINGTON — The Senate is poised to start debate on legislation confronting the rise of potential hate crimes against Asian Americans, a growing problem during the coronavirus crisis that will also test whether the chamber can push past partisanship on an issue important to many constituents.

Typically, the Democratic-sponsored Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act might quickly face a filibuster, opposed by Republicans who prefer a different approach. But under the Senate leaders’ agreement struck at the start of the year, Republicans and Democrats pledged to try to at least try to debate bills to see if they could reach agreement through the legislative process.

Ahead of Wednesday’s initial votes, several leaders of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in Congress gave personal and heart-wrenching stories of the racism they and their constituents have faced, incidents on the rise during the virus outbreak.

“For more than a year, the Asian American community has been fighting two crises — the Covid-19 pandemic and the anti-Asian hate,” Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., a co-author of the bill, said Tuesday at the Capitol.

Meng described well-documented but “horrifying” images of people being shoved and beaten in public attacks, and of her own conversations with survivors, including the families of the victims of deadly shootings last month in Atlanta. Six of those killed were women of Asian descent.

“Combating hate should not be a partisan issue. It’s about the safety of all Americans,” Meng said.

The bill is the most substantive congressional response to what has been an alarming rise in racist sentiment against Asian Americans, fueled in part by derogatory language about the virus’ origins in China. Donald Trump, while president, played into that narrative with derisive nicknames for the virus. The moment harks back to earlier eras of racism against Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and others of Asian heritage in this country.

Senate Republicans have panned the legislation for various shortcomings but have signaled they will not block it with a filibuster.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said as the “proud husband of an Asian American woman, I think this discrimination against Asian Americans is a real problem.”

McConnell is married to Elaine Chao, the former transportation secretary, and he said Tuesday he was hoping to work out an agreement with Democrats to at least debate the bill and consider potential amendments.

Final passage, however, remains uncertain.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer launched the process to consider the bill this week, testing whether enough Republican senators will vote to proceed. Any one senator can halt the process, and it takes 60 votes in the Senate, which is evenly split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, to overcome a filibuster.

Schumer said he was open to considering changes to the bill. He is in conversations with McConnell on a package of amendments that could be considered, according to aides.

“We cannot and must not remain silent,” Schumer said Tuesday. “There is no reason, no reason, this shouldn’t be a bipartisan bill that passes the Senate.”

A robust floor debate is rare for the Senate, which has ground to a halt due to pervasive partisanship. The gridlock has intensified calls from Democrats to change the filibuster rules to push past the opposition. Shy of taking that step, Schumer and McConnell had reached a tentative accord earlier this year to try to push past stalemates and allow senators to discuss and amend bills.

Several Republican senators indicated they would prefer to adjust the hate crimes legislation, but they are reluctant to exercise the filibuster on this bill. Opposing it could expose senators to claims they are being racially insensitive.

Leaving a caucus luncheon Tuesday, several GOP senators said they would not block the bill, but they were still looking at the legislation and proposed amendments to figure out what they would support.

“I don’t believe we should be allowing these types of hate crimes out there, whether it’s women or Asian Americans, so we’re going to take a look at the text,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. She said she wasn’t aware of any “major objections” from Republicans.

Though timely, the legislation is also modest, what supporters see as a first step in a federal response to the rise of Asian American hate crimes. It would assign a point person within the Justice Department to expedite the review of Covid-19-related hate crimes and provide support for local law enforcement to respond to such incidents. The department would also work to limit discriminatory language used to describe the pandemic.

One bipartisan amendment would beef up support to law enforcement, and others are expected.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, the bill’s co-author, told of her own experience. She said she is no longer comfortable taking a walk with her headphones listening to audio books because of the attacks on Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the U.S.

She said she hopes Republicans join in supporting the bill.

“An attack on one group in our country is truly an attack on all of us,” she said.

Follow NBC Asian America on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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