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Top US commander voices doubt about Taliban commitments, skepticism in Congress grows

ABC News logo ABC News 3/10/2020
a man wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a crowd: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai during a signing ceremony in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29, 2020. © U.S. Department of State Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai during a signing ceremony in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29, 2020.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are voicing increasing concern about President Donald Trump's agreement with the Taliban, pressing the top U.S. commander for the Middle East and Central Asia on Tuesday about the deal's counterterrorism assurances for the United States.

In particular, lawmakers, including the third-highest ranking Republican in the House, say there are no verification mechanisms in place to ensure that the militant group breaks ties with al Qaeda, the terror group whose members the Taliban harbored ahead of the Sept. 11th attacks.

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command (CENTOM), expressed his own skepticism about that commitment, telling the House Armed Services Committee that he had strong doubts about the Taliban's ability or will to do so.

MORE: What's inside the US deal with the Taliban to end war and bring home troops

"That's something they're going to have to demonstrate that has not yet been demonstrated," he said.

But he said built into the agreement is the ability for U.S. forces to remain at sufficient levels and ensure a break, so that al Qaeda can't again threaten the U.S. homeland from Afghanistan.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the peace deal and their victory in the Afghan conflict on US in Afghanistan, in Alingar district of Laghman Province on March 2, 2020. © AFP via Getty Images, FILE Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the peace deal and their victory in the Afghan conflict on US in Afghanistan, in Alingar district of Laghman Province on March 2, 2020.

McKenzie also condemned the Taliban's recent attacks on Afghan government forces, saying the levels of violence were "not consistent with the movement toward a negotiated settlement, and they are not consistent with the undertaking they made." An Afghan Interior Ministry spokesperson told ABC News Tuesday that the militant group launched 32 attacks in 15 provinces in the last 24 hours, killing seven people -- including two civilians, and wounding 28 others.

The deal, signed on Feb. 29 by chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, requires the U.S. to draw down its approximately 13,000 troops to 8,600, and close its five major military bases by mid-July. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to enter peace negotiations with an Afghan national delegation and vowed to cut ties to terror groups, including al Qaeda, with which it has had a long relationship.

MORE: US starts to withdraw troops from Afghanistan as peace negotiations face 1st delay

Explicitly, a full U.S. withdrawal is tied to the Taliban preventing "any group or individual, including al-Qaida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies."

That means not giving them a safe haven on Afghan soil, legal status -- like asylum -- or travel documentation, such as visas or passports.

McKenzie seemed dour about the road ahead, saying if the number of violent Taliban attacks continue, "my advice would be to not continue that reduction" of U.S. troops.

a person wearing a suit and tie: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, shake hands after signing an agreement at a ceremony in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29, 2020. © Ibrahem Alomari/Reuters, FILE Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, shake hands after signing an agreement at a ceremony in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29, 2020.

But he maintained that the deal gives the U.S. that flexibility and "ample time" to ensure the Taliban follow through on its commitments.

"We don't need to trust them. We don't need to like them. We don't need to believe anything they say. We need to observe what they do," McKenzie said Tuesday.

Still, while the deal outlines that the Taliban must "instruct" its members "not to cooperate" with groups like al Qaeda, the Taliban did not outright repudiate the terrorist organization in the agreement -- and several lawmakers now have said that there is no mechanism in the deal to verify the Taliban commitment, even in the agreement's annexes that are classified.

MORE: In historic call, Trump speaks to Taliban leader amid concerns about deal with US

While the Taliban have read and agreed to those classified sections, the administration said they will not be released to the American public. Members of Congress, however, were able to read them in classified facilities on Capitol Hill starting last week.

After reading last Wednesday, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyom., said, "My concerns remain," adding "The documents do not include in them the things that Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo said they would," including enforcement mechanisms for the Taliban commitment to break with al Qaeda.

It was in response to what Pompeo had just two days earlier told Fox News in an interview, "Verification matters. We'll have the ability to see what they're doing."

Cheney added, "What we have seen with this agreement now concerns me as much as the Iranian nuclear deal did, now that I have seen the documents, now that there seems to be still no verification mechanism by which we are gonna enforce any of the so-called Taliban promises."

a man holding a guitar in front of a crowd: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai during a signing ceremony in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29, 2020. © U.S. Department of State Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai during a signing ceremony in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29, 2020.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee received an additional classified briefing by the deputy U.S. negotiator Molly Phee, a career diplomat who previously served as the U.S. ambassador to South Sudan, and acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells, who led initial talks with the Taliban before Khalilzad took over.

But the briefing left some still dissatisfied. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted afterwards that he was "more concerned" that "Trump got fleeced."

MORE: Dispute over prisoners, deadly attacks in Afghanistan threaten US deal with Taliban

"The Taliban's security guarantees are so vague as to be effectively void. It's not clear how we will track whether they are indeed renouncing terrorist groups," he added.

Criticism of keeping the annexes classified has also grown. Pompeo recently told CBS News as "military implementation documents," it was important to keep them secret "to protect our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines." However, Cheney and others have pointed out that they are available to the Taliban, which U.S. forces have battled for nearly two decades.

MORE: Afghan female mayor wants Trump admin to ensure Taliban talks protect women

"The administration is telling a terrorist group the conditions (such as they are) of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, but not telling the American people. This is wrong. And it serves no national security purpose," New Jersey Rep. Thomas Malinowski tweeted.

Still, at least one top lawmaker voiced support for the administration's approach. After meeting Pompeo on Monday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he had "complete confidence" in him, in particular praising his and Defense Secretary Mark Esper's "clear-eyed view" of the Taliban talks.

"Any deal regarding the future of Afghanistan will have a strong American homeland security component," he added.

ABC News' Aleem Agha contributed to this report.

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