Afghanistan: Taliban commit to peace deal amid Russian Federation bounty scandal

US Taliban say Afghan peace effort discussed in video talks

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 Russian Federation had paid the Taliban bounties to kill US troops.

The deal, signed by President Donald Trump's chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar on February 29, lays out a timeline for US withdrawal in exchange for Taliban commitments to prevent terror groups from using Afghanistan to attack the USA and to sit with an Afghan national delegation for peace talks on March 10.

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.

"The success of the Doha deal [signed between the United States and Taliban on February 29] & peace in Afghanistan requires an immediate reduction in violence & the start of direct talks", he said.

Amid reports that a Russian paramilitary unit offered the Taliban bounties to kill us troops in Afghanistan, the Trump administration is pushing ahead with its peace process to end America's longest war and withdraw USA forces.

Baradar told Pompeo that "according to the agreement, we do not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against the U.S. and other countries", Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said Monday in a statement on Twitter.

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

The White House has said Trump did not receive a personal briefing on the issue but has yet to squarely address whether he had received a written briefing, whether he had read it, and why he had not responded more aggressively if he had.

That month, the U.S. had signed the Doha agreement, which meant withdrawing all American troops from Afghanistan by mid-2021 in return for security guarantees in a bid to pave the way for negotiations between the two sides. Khalilzad departed on June 28 for travel to Qatar, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

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 health system is grappling with the pandemic, with the number of infections thought to far outnumber the official tally of over 31,000 cases, including 733 deaths. Some critics have blamed the issues over prisoners on the US, after its deal with the Taliban said the government would release up to 5,000 Taliban fighters while an agreement with the Afghan government made no explicit commitment.

Almost four months later, those negotiations have not even started, slowed by deadly new levels of violence and delayed releases of prisoners by both sides.

Afghan authorities have so far released about 4,000 Taliban.

Violence in Afghanistan has continued to spike since a three-day ceasefire in May for Eid al-Fitr.

The rise in violence comes as both the government and Taliban are set to engage in peace talks.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) on Tuesday blamed Afghan forces for firing mortar shells that struck a busy market in a southern province, killing at least 23 civilians.

Baradar complained about new Afghan military checkpoints in areas under Taliban control while Pompeo said Washington wanted to see a reduction in violence, according to the tweet.

It said such "indirect-fire incidents" cause thousands of deaths every year.

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