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Taliban reaffirms commitment to US deal in call with Pompeo

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo holds a press conference, in Brussels, Belgium on November 20, 2019. (Ron Przysucha/U.S. State Department)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The Taliban says it has held a video conference call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during which the militant group reaffirmed its commitment to the peace process in Afghanistan.

Spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a tweet on June 30 that the Taliban and the top U.S. diplomat held the call the day before as they look to clear the way for peace talks as laid out in a February agreement between Washington and the militants.

The two sides discussed “implementation of the agreement, foreign troop withdrawal, prisoner release, start of intra-Afghan dialogue, and reduction in [military] operations,” Shaheen said.

“We are committed to starting inter-Afghan talks, as we have said before, but delays in the release of prisoners have delayed inter-Afghan talks,” Shaheen wrote, referring to a pledge by Afghan authorities to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners as a condition to start the talks.

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The U.S. State Department has yet to confirm the call.

The U.S.-Taliban deal is at a critical stage at a time violence in Afghanistan has continued since a three-day cease-fire at the end of May. The Afghan national security council said June 30 that since February, the Taliban had on average staged 44 attacks per day on Afghan security forces.

Under the accord, the United States agreed to reduce its forces in Afghanistan from 12,000 troops to 8,600 by mid-July. If the rest of the deal goes through, all U.S. and other foreign troops will exit Afghanistan by mid-2021.

The call comes as U.S. President Donald Trump faces mounting pressure to explain why he did nothing after being reportedly told that Russian agents had offered and paid cash to Taliban-linked militants for killing U.S. soldiers.

The White House has said Trump wasn’t briefed on the intelligence assessments because they haven’t been fully verified and were not deemed credible actionable intelligence.

Shaheen did not specifically say whether the two sides spoke about the reports. However, he did say that the group’s Qatar-based chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, reiterated a pledge made in the February deal not to strike U.S. forces.

“Mullah Baradar Akhund noted that according to the agreement, we will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against the security of the United States and other countries,” he wrote in one of a series of tweets on the video call.

The New York Times reported last week that U.S. intelligence officials concluded months ago that Russian military intelligence offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. troops.

Subsequent reports by The New York Times and Washington Post reported several American soldiers may have died last year as a result of the bounties.

In particular, U.S. officials are investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy near Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan.

At the time of the attack, the Defense Department identified those killed as Marine Staff Sergeant Christopher Slutman, Sergeant Benjamin Hines, and Corporal Robert Hendriks.