US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spoken with the Taliban’s chief negotiator, a spokesman for the armed group said, amid controversy in Washington over reports that President Donald Trump knew Russia had paid the Taliban bounties to kill US troops.
Pompeo and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar held a video conference late on Monday in which Pompeo pressed the armed group to reduce violence in Afghanistan and discussed ways of moving a peace deal signed between the US and the Taliban in February forward, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted.
However, there was apparently no mention during the call of allegations that some Taliban fighters received money to kill US and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.
The call came as Trump faces mounting pressure to explain why he did nothing after being reportedly told that Russian spies had offered and paid cash to Taliban-linked fighters for killing US soldiers.
Taliban has denied its fighters received any Russian bounties, and the group’s Qatar-based chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar reiterated their pledge not to strike against the US.
Baradar told Pompeo that “according to the agreement, we do not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against the US and other countries,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a statement on Twitter on Monday.
The New York Times newspaper, citing anonymous officials, had reported last week that Trump had been told about the alleged Russian bounties but did nothing in response.
Trump denied being informed of the assessment while the White House said the claim had been kept from him because the intelligence underpinning it was unverified.
But another report from the Times on Monday said Trump had received a report about the alleged Russian bounties as early as February.
That month, the US had pledged to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by mid-2021 in return for security guarantees from the Taliban in a bid to pave the way for negotiations between Afghanistan’s warring sides.
The White House has promised to brief several Democrats in the House of Representatives at 8am (12:00 GMT) on Tuesday after being accused of only sharing information with Trump’s fellow Republicans.
Meanwhile, US peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is touring the region in an effort to advance the peace deal.
He was in Uzbekistan on Tuesday and was expected in the Pakistani capital Islamabad later in the day or on Wednesday; he is expected to travel to Qatar where the Taliban maintain a political office.
Khalilzad is also holding video conferences with Kabul leaders rather than travelling to the Afghan capital because of the dangers of COVID-19, according to a US State Department statement.
Afghanistan’s dilapidated healthcare system is grappling with the pandemic, with the number of infections thought to far outnumber the official tally of more than 31,000 cases, including 733 deaths.
The implementation of the US-Taliban deal has reached a critical stage, as the Taliban and the Afghan government are expected to hold negotiations on a framework for a post-war Afghanistan that would bring the armed group into the country’s political arena.
The talks are expected to begin in July if both sides abide by a condition to release thousands of prisoners laid out in the US-Taliban deal.
The agreement calls for Kabul to release 5,000 imprisoned Taliban while the armed group would release 1,000 government and military personnel they hold captive.
But the prisoner releases have been marked by delays. Kabul has so far released 3,500, and the Taliban have freed about 700.
Violence in Afghanistan has continued to spike since a three-day ceasefire in May for Eid al-Fitr.
As civilian casualties rise, both the Taliban and the government blame each other. On Monday, 23 civilians were killed in an attack on a busy market in the southern province of Helmand, a Taliban heartland.
In a tweet early on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid invited foreign and Afghan journalists to visit the area, which is controlled by the Taliban and has been off-limits to reporters, to independently check claims about the attack.
The Afghan government said a powerful bomb and mortar fire by the Taliban caused the deaths.