At first, it looked like a package deal: Kellyanne Conway would join President Donald Trump’s White House staff, her husband, George, the new administration’s Justice Department.
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The former happened, but the latter did not. And now, in a Washington spectacle unseen since the wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general sounded alarms about Watergate, the spouse of a top presidential advisor is issuing urgent public warnings about Trump’s mental health.
As the Trump administration got underway, media reports placed George Conway in line to head the Justice Department’s civil division. But then Trump rocked the agency by firing FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, and within weeks George Conway withdrew as a candidate to remain a private lawyer.
Conway started publicly criticizing Trump days later. “Sad,” he tweeted, invoking the familiar Trump lament, that the president had complicated the legal defense of his travel ban with impolitic comments.
Soon afterward he sought to soften the impact. “I still ‘VERY, VERY STRONGLY’” support Trump, he assured Twitter followers, “and of course, my wonderful wife.”
By the spring of 2018, Conway’s tone had changed. After Trump called the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller unconstitutional, Conway wrote a Lawfare article rebutting that “meritless legal position.”
That summer, he ripped the president more sharply. As journalists scrutinized Trump’s dubious assertions, White House disarray and diplomacy with Russia, Conway publicly mused about the fate of a business executive behaving similarly.
“What if a CEO routinely made false and misleading statements about himself, the company, and results, and public attacked business partners, company ‘divisions’ (w/scare quotes!), employees, and analysts, and kowtowed to a dangerous competitor?” Conway tweeted.
Kellyanne Conway bristles at questions about her husband’s words as unrelated to her White House work. Trump accuses George Conway of seeking attention.
Washington cynics dismiss his stance for a different reason. While she retains Trump’s favor through unyielding public advocacy, they reason, he courts the president’s foes with an eye toward life after the administration.
But recent days make it more difficult to ignore the substance of what Conway says about the most powerful man in the world. Last week, Conway questioned Trump’s mental fitness while excoriating him for false claims about federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson.
“Have we ever seen this degree of brazen, pathological mendacity in American public life?” Conway tweeted. “Whether or not impeachment is in order, a serious inquiry needs to be made about this man’s condition of mind.”
Over the weekend, the embattled president launched a scattershot volley of attacks against General Motors, “Radical Left Democrats,” “the Fake News Media” and the late GOP Sen. John McCain. Trump retweeted mugshots, circulated by a well-known conspiracy theorist, of MS-13 gang members facing murder charges.
Monday he got more specific. Conway circulated medical criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
“Don’t assume that the things he says and does are part of a rational plan or strategy, because they seldom are,” Conway tweeted. “Consider them as a product of his pathologies, and they make perfect sense.”
Others have raised such concerns. In his unsuccessful 2016 GOP presidential campaign, Sen. Ted Cruz called Trump an “utterly amoral … pathological liar.”
Some mental health professionals that year publicly called Trump psychologically unwell. After Comey’s firing, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein mentioned the Constitution’s 25th Amendment outlining procedures for removing a president on grounds of incapacity, according to former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
Rosenstein later said publicly he doesn’t believe any basis exists for invoking the 25th Amendment and never advocated that. Conway on Monday raised the issue anew.
“All Americans should be thinking seriously now about Trump’s mental condition and psychological state, including and especially the media, Congress – and the Vice President and Cabinet,” Conway tweeted.
If his wife thinks seriously about it, she doesn’t show it.
“No, I don’t share those concerns,” Kellyanne Conway told reporters at the White House on Monday.
Team Sky are set to announce a new sponsor – owned by Britain’s richest man Sir Jim Ratcliffe.
The broadcaster said in December that it would end its decade-long commitment at the end of 2019, during which time Team Sky have won eight Grand Tours.
The team will be renamed Team Ineos – after the chemicals giant that billionaire Ratcliffe owns.
Ratcliffe is worth £21bn and has been in talks with Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford for several weeks.
Team Sky was launched in January 2010 and has since amassed 327 victories, including those eight Grand Tour triumphs.
Current riders Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas have won five Tours de France between them, and Welshman Thomas signed a new three-year deal in September after winning his first Tour last July.
Ineos is Britain’s largest privately owned company and in 2018 posted annual pre-tax profits of £2bn.
Ratcliffe has already invested £110m in Ben Ainslie’s Americas Cup team.
Former Team Sky rider Bradley Wiggins, who won the 2012 Tour de France, said the partnership between Brailsford and Ratcliffe could be “ideal”.
Talking on Eurosport’s The Bradley Wiggins Show, he said: “I think he would have been reluctant to have another multinational company that came in and wanted the control in terms of ‘this is how we advertise our company’.
“Ratcliffe is the richest man in Britain and you would imagine that the kind of money they have asked for is nothing to him.
“Dave can continue running this team with all his plans and philosophies, so it’s an ideal situation for him and you’d imagine he is answerable to one man.”
Team Sky have dominated the Tour de France in recent years, winning six of the past seven editions, while Froome also won the 2017 Vuelta a Espana and the 2018 Giro d’Italia.
However, the efficient style and big spending that underpinned Sky’s success has been unpopular with some fans, particularly in France.
The team has also been subject to allegations of cheating.
Froome, 33, had an anti-doping case brought against him and subsequently dropped by governing body the UCI, while former rider Bradley Wiggins has faced questions over his use of a medical exemption for hayfever medication.
The UK Anti-Doping Agency also conducted a 14-month investigation into a ‘mystery package’ delivered to then-team doctor Richard Freeman on the final day of Wiggins’ successful Criterium du Dauphine bid in 2011.
Team Sky, Froome and Wiggins deny any wrongdoing in all three cases.
President Donald Trump on Monday touted poll results that appeared to show more Americans than ever siding with his oft-repeated accusation that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe is nothing more than a “witch hunt.”
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But some polling experts took issue with the phrasing of the survey question, saying it may have skewed the results.
“President Trump has called the Special Counsel´s investigation a ‘witch hunt’ and said he´s been subjected to more investigations than previous presidents because of politics. Do you agree?” the new USA Today/Suffolk University poll asked 1,000 registered voters in live telephone interviews between March 13 and 17.
The survey found that 50 percent of respondents said they agreed with the president’s view of Mueller’s probe of Russian election meddling and possible Trump campaign collusion in the 2016 presidential election.
Forty-seven percent disagreed, while 3 percent were undecided, according to the survey. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for the total sample results.
Trump, who regularly decries the nearly 2-year-old Mueller probe as a politically motivated witch hunt, was quick to highlight the results of a survey that appeared to show the public on his side.
But multiple polling experts took exception to the structure of the question.
“I’m sorry to say this question violates three basic principles of questionnaire design,” said Gary Langer, president of Langer Research Associates, which polls for ABC News and others.
Langer said in an email to CNBC that the question is “triple-barreled” because it asks three things within a single question: whether the probe is a witch hunt; whether Trump has been subjected to more investigations than other presidents; and whether those probes have been lodged because of politics.
“Answers to each can differ,” Langer said.
He added that asking respondents if they agree — without asking if they disagree — makes the question “unbalanced.” And agree-disagree questions in general are “fundamentally biasing, because they lack the alternative proposition,” Langer said.
“In sum, it is a very good idea, in survey questions, to ask one thing at a time, and to do so in a balanced and neutral way,” Langer said.
Other pollsters agreed.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, tweeted his own gripes with the question.
Veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin tweeted: “This is a badly written poll question, because it is asking two different things at the same time. Are respondents agreeing that the investigation is a witch hunt or that Trump is subjected to more investigations than other presidents?”
David Paleologos, founding director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, responded to some of the criticism in an email to CNBC.
“The statement links President Trump to his viewpoint on the investigation. If respondents were conflicted in any way, they opted for ‘undecided’ or ‘refused,’” Paleologos said.
Some prior polling on the witch hunt topic showed smaller proportions of Americans identifying with the president’s rhetoric. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from December found that 54 percent of those surveyed considered the Mueller probe to be a fair investigation, compared with 33 percent who saw it as a witch hunt.
And an Economist/YouGov survey from May 2018 showed a 43 percent plurality of respondents viewing the probe a “legitimate investigation,” versus 37 percent who thought it was a witch hunt.
Strong majorities of Republicans in both of those polls called the probe a witch hunt.
Micah Roberts, a Republican pollster for the CNBC All-America Economic Survey, told CNBC that the USA Today/Suffolk survey took the right tack by using Trump’s exact language.
But “if you were gonna pick nits on the question structure,” Roberts said, “it’s that it’s asking two things that may not be exactly the same thing.”
“Basically it is what it is, and it makes perfect sense to repeat Trump’s language and test that,” Roberts added. “But the data is going to differ based on the questionnaire wording and what you use to define this term.”
USA Today did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Filmmaker and special effects artist John Carl Buechler has died at the age of 66. A much-beloved figure in the horror community, Buechler directed films including 1986’s Troll, 1988’s Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, and 1991’s Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College. He contributed special effects to a long list of genre projects, including 1998’s Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, the same year’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and 2006’s Hatchet, which featured the swamp-dwelling killer Victor Crowley.
Last month, it was revealed that Buechler had stage IV prostate cancer when his wife, Lynn Buechler, set up a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for his treatment. On Monday, the director’s death was announced in a statement on the GoFundMe page.
“John passed away Monday March 18th at 1:00am,” the statement said. “His family is absolutely devastated as are many of his fans and friends. His wife who works for the school system has been left with thousands of dollars worth of bills and the position to care for three children. Please donate to this newly captioned memorial fund [to] help them get through this terrible tough time.”
“John took Hatchet (and all of us) seriously at a point when we really had no way of proving that we actually knew what we were doing or how to make a feature film,” Green wrote. “When producer Sarah Elbert and I approached John and his shop foreman Robert Pendergraft to help us create images of ‘Young Victor Crowley’ for our mock trailer, he immediately signed on. He believed in us and in ‘Victor Crowley’ at a time when only we did. His involvement in Hatchet gave the project legitimacy within the horror genre and his mere presence on our team helped make veteran icons like Kane Hodder, Tony Todd, and Robert Englund take the film seriously enough to sign on before we had all of our funding in place.”
Buechler has also been praised by director Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here, Mohawk), Emmy-winning special makeup effects artist Mark Shostrom (Men in Black), and actress Barbara Crampton, whose film From Beyond featured some of Buechler’s most memorable effects creations.
“John Carl Buechler created the most terrifying, brutal interpretation of Jason Voorhees and countless horrific ghouls, but I’d always love his spooky little ghoulies the most,” Geoghegan wrote on Twitter. “Every creature he sculpted was filled with such life. He was a gift to all of us. Rest In Peace, man.”
“God bless you, John,” wrote Shostrom. “You did more than any person in the FX and monster business to give so many people their first jobs. You gave me mine, and I will never forget it. I will always be thankful for your friendship over the years. RIP my brother.”
“Absolutely gutted to hear the news of John Carl Buechler’s passing,” wrote Crampton. “A kind, humble genius who made two films I was in soar with his mastery. Gone way too soon. We will all miss you, love you for what you gave us.”
A suspect is in custody in the Netherlands after a shooting on a tram in the central Dutch city of Utrecht killed three people and wounded five, says the city’s police chief Rob van Bree.
Dutch authorities had raised the threat level to its highest after the shooting. It was reduced once the hours-long manhunt came to an end.
Utrecht police had earlier published a photo of the suspect, identifying him as 37-year old Gokman Tanis, who was born in Turkey.
In a tweet, Utrecht police had warned residents. “Do not approach him yourself, but immediately call” authorities it said.
After the shooting, police flooded the streets and the city was put in lockdown. Schools were told to shut their doors and paramilitary police increased security at airports and other vital infrastructure. Security was also stepped up at mosques.
The shooter’s motive was unclear. Police said they could not rule out “terrorism” but the Turkish news agency Anadolu said the suspect’s relatives believe he shot at someone close to the family due to “family issues”.
A witness told NOS he saw an injured woman running from the tram. She appeared to have been shot in the chest and had blood on her hands and clothes.
“I brought her into my car and helped her. When the police arrived, she was unconscious,” NOS cited the witness as saying.
Emergency services, including police and medical helicopters, were at the scene of the shooting.
Heavily armed police patrolled the streets of Utrecht and people were urged to stay inside. [Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters]
Political parties have announced they are suspending campaigning for the provincial elections that are due to take place on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte had convened crisis talks, saying he was deeply concerned about the incident, which came three days after the killing of 50 people in mass shootings at two mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand.
“An act of terror is an attack on our open and tolerant society,” the prime minister said. “If this is a terror attack, then there is only one answer: our rule and democracy are stronger than fanaticism and violence. We will not accept intolerance.”
Shares of British Columbia-based Tilray jumped after the bell Monday after it reported that its cannabis sales more than doubled over the last year.
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The company said fourth-quarter revenues of $15.5 million buoyed 2018 sales to $43.1 million, up 110 percent compared to last year. The surge was driven by bulk sales, the first months of the legal adult-use market in Canada and accelerated wholesale exports, according to its latest financial update. Analysts had expected fourth-quarter sales of $14.1 million.
“Our team made significant progress on our long-term initiatives including increasing production capacity, expanding and strengthening strategic partnerships, and acquiring complementary businesses to accelerate our future growth and leadership position in medical and adult-use cannabis,” Tilray CEO Brendan Kennedy said of the company’s financial report.
Net loss for the quarter was $31.0 million or 33 cents per share compared to $3.0 million or 4 cents per share for the prior year period. The company also said that the number of kilograms of cannabis and derivative products increased nearly three-fold to 2,053 from 694 kilograms compared to the fourth quarter of 2017.
Kilograms sold in 2018 increase over two-fold to 6,478 from 3,024 in the prior year. Tilray stock rallied 2.5 percent in after-hours trading following the report.
The most recent quarter was busy for Tilray, which expanded strategic partnerships with a number of global partners.
First, it expanded its alliance with Sandoz, a division of Swiss drugmaker Novartis, in an effort to increase access to medical cannabis to patients around the world. Tilray said it plans to work with Novartis’ generic drug business and supply non-smokable and non-combustible medical cannabis products where legal.
The Canadian company also disclosed a research and development partnership with Budweiser-parent AB InBev focused on non-alcohol THC and CBD beverages. Each company intends to invest up to $50 million, for a total of up to $100 million, Tilray said.
This story is developing. Please check back for updates.
Last week, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, launched into a broadside against Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American diplomat responsible for negotiating with the Taliban. Addressing reporters in Washington, Mohib insinuated that Khalilzad is seeking to install himself as the “viceroy” of a new “caretaker government.” The State Department quickly issued a sharp rebuke, saying that any condemnation of Khalilzad was really a critique of its leader, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
While Mohib’s specific charge may have been hyperbole, it almost certainly wasn’t a slip of the tongue. Mohib has been around Washington for years, including as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., so he knew how his words would be received. His harsh critique of Khalilzad reflects the Afghan government’s deep mistrust of the Trump administration’s plans. Everyone knows that President Trump wants out of Afghanistan, and the Afghans know that the State Department’s dealings with the Taliban will not deliver “peace.” Instead, Khalilzad’s talks have further empowered the same jihadists America has been fighting for nearly two decades.
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The Taliban has repeatedly dismissed the elected Afghan government as an illegitimate “puppet” of the U.S. and refused to talk with President Ashraf Ghani’s representatives. Khalilzad’s diplomacy has validated the Taliban’s claim. The State Department long maintained that the talks must be “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned,” but nobody seems to have told Khalilzad. He caved to the Taliban’s demand for unilateral negotiations with the U.S. early on, holding extensive two-party talks without any preconditions. Incredibly, though the Afghan government has never been invited to the negotiating table, Khalilzad has already announced that a “draft” agreement is in place. Only after this accord with the Taliban is “finalized” can the Afghan government hope to participate in “intra-Afghan negotiations.”
But meaningful peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government are not likely to happen. The Taliban is fighting to resurrect its totalitarian Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and has already established a shadow government throughout parts of the country. The jihadists’ rulers-in-waiting do not intend to share power with the elected Afghan government—they quite openly plan to usurp it. And they are closer to achieving that goal today than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001. With American and NATO forces preparing to leave, why would the Taliban suddenly get serious about peace? Indeed, the jihadists know that one of the last major obstacles to their victory is about to be removed.
While Afghan officials like Mohib have their own reasons to distrust Khalilzad, Americans should also be concerned. The U.S. military would have you believe that the Taliban was driven, through force, to the negotiating table. That’s not true. The Taliban contests or controls more than half of Afghanistan’s territory. This ground is sparsely populated and mostly rural, but the Taliban’s men are circling several provincial capitals, just waiting to seize at least some of them. America has little will to keep them at bay any longer. So the State Department begged the Taliban for talks – not the other way around. As a result, the jihadists are negotiating from a position of strength, and they know it.
But that doesn’t excuse Secretary Pompeo’s willingness to accept an exceptionally bad deal. In addition to alienating the Afghan government, America’s longstanding, albeit problematic ally, Khalilzad has endorsed the Taliban’s big lie concerning al Qaeda and international terrorism. This should be offensive to all Americans affected by the 9/11 wars. Let us explain.
Although he has provided few specific details, Khalilzad tweeted on Mar. 12 that the Trump administration’s draft accord with the Taliban covers two key issues: a “withdrawal timeline” and “effective counterterrorism measures.” In essence, Khalilzad has sought a Kissinger-style “decent interval” during which the U.S. can execute an orderly withdrawal in exchange for a promise that Afghan soil won’t be used as a hub for international terrorism once again. On the latter point, Khalilzad has been remarkably credulous, stating that he is already satisfied with the Taliban’s assurances.
Other than the Taliban, no one else should be satisfied – especially given the sordid history of the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda.
Afghanistan is, today, already home to international terrorist groups. Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda fight and train throughout the country. The Taliban has no control over the Islamic State’s regional arm, which operates across the Afghan-Pakistani border and has ties to the self-declared caliphate’s mothership in Iraq and Syria. Although there may be some episodic cooperation between the two sides, Islamic State loyalists clash regularly with their jihadist counterparts in the Taliban. And the Islamic State rejects the Taliban’s legitimacy, so it will not abide by any agreement struck with the U.S. Thus, the Taliban cannot guarantee that it will hold the Islamic State’s global ambitions in check.
More importantly, there is no reason to think the Taliban wants to hold al Qaeda’s global agenda in check. And this is where Khalilzad’s credulity becomes especially problematic. He has already declared the Taliban to be a de facto counterterrorism partner. This is an absurd proposition.
As the United Nations Security Council found in two recent reports, al Qaeda and the Taliban remain “closely allied” and their “long-standing” relationship “remains firm.” Al Qaeda’s leaders still view Afghanistan as a “safe haven,” and their men act like a force multiplier for the insurgency, offering military and religious instruction to Taliban fighters. Indeed, al Qaeda is operating across multiple Afghan provinces, including in areas dominated by the Taliban.
Given this current reality, Khalilzad has not explained to the American public why he trusts the Taliban to restrain al Qaeda now. As part of any final deal, the Taliban should be required to state, in no uncertain terms, its official position on al Qaeda.
Below, we outline four key aspects of the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship that the State Department should address. If Khalilzad’s final deal with the Taliban doesn’t take into these issues, in some direct fashion, then the agreement is an obvious charade.
First, the Taliban has never publicly renounced al Qaeda, by name, or accepted responsibility for harboring it before 9/11. If the Taliban has really offered an ironclad counterterrorism guarantee, as Khalilzad claims, then the group should have no problem officially disowning al Qaeda. Indeed, a disavowal should be mandatory—a key test of the Taliban’s truthfulness.
Some have tried to absolve the Taliban of any responsibility for the 9/11 hijackings, as well as a string of other terror plots hatched on Afghan soil, claiming that the group didn’t really endorse Osama bin Laden’s anti-American terrorism. But this bit of apologia falls apart when subjected to basic scrutiny. The Taliban deliberately shielded bin Laden, even as the U.S. demanded that he be turned over.
In its final report, released in the summer of 2004, the 9/11 Commission documented various American and Saudi efforts to convince the Taliban to break with al Qaeda. All of them failed. In April 1998, for instance, the Taliban’s men told a U.S. delegation led by U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson that they didn’t know where bin Laden was and, in any event, al Qaeda didn’t pose a threat to America. The Taliban told this brazen lie despite the fact that al Qaeda had already declared war on America.
On August 7, 1998, four months after Richardson’s encounter, al Qaeda’s suicide truck bombs struck the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing and wounding hundreds. It was al Qaeda’s most devastating attack prior to the 9/11 hijackings. The U.S. retaliated by lobbing some missiles into a training camp in Afghanistan and at a suspected al Qaeda facility in Sudan. The bombs missed bin Laden, but the Taliban’s lie had been conclusively disproved. Bin Laden was clearly a threat to the U.S.
Still, the Taliban didn’t budge. In late 1999, according to the 9/11 Commission, the Taliban’s senior leadership voted to continue providing safe harbor for bin Laden and his terrorists. Mullah Omar even ordered the killing of a subordinate who objected to his pro-bin Laden policy. Then, on Sept. 9, 2001, two al Qaeda suicide bombers killed the Taliban’s main battlefield opponent: Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Al Qaeda and the Taliban launched a joint offensive against the Northern Alliance the very next day. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders knew that America would rely on Massoud’s men as part of a counterattack after the kamikaze hijackings. And, in a premeditated move, al Qaeda helped the Taliban go on the offensive beforehand. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar then refused to turn over bin Laden even after the U.S. issued a post-9/11 ultimatum, deciding he’d rather lose his Islamic emirate than sacrifice the al Qaeda leader.
The Taliban has never accepted responsibility for any of this. These facts are not merely a matter of history. To this day, al Qaeda continues to praise Omar for his obstinacy in the face of a superpower. The Taliban has had more than two decades to renounce al Qaeda and it hasn’t done so. And the Taliban still hasn’t proven its willingness to hinder al Qaeda’s international plotting from inside Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. killed a senior al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan just days prior to the 2016 presidential election. This same al Qaeda figure, Faruq al-Qahtani, was not only overseeing terrorist plots against the West, he also buttressed the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan by delivering cash and weapons to Taliban fighters, while also planning attacks on coalition forces.
If Khalilzad negotiates a denunciation of al Qaeda as part of the accord, then that would be significant. If not, then everyone should be aware that the Taliban hasn’t really come clean.
As a second measure, Khalilzad’s deal needs to address al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s oath of allegiance to the Taliban’s current top leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada.
Al Qaeda’s top leaders have been loyal to the Taliban’s emir since well before 9/11. In al Qaeda’s view, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was the only religiously legitimate state in the world at the time of the hijackings. Al Qaeda deemed Mullah Omar to be Amir al-Mu’minin, or the “Emir of the Faithful,” an honorific usually reserved for the Muslim caliph. (ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi adopted the same title in 2014, after the Islamic State declared its caliphate in Iraq and Syria.) As a result, bin Laden swore fealty to Omar and encouraged other Muslims around the world to do the same.
After Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May 2016, the Taliban named Akhundzada as its emir. Zawahiri fell in line once again – publicly declaring that Akhundzada was the new “Emir of the Faithful.”
Akhundzada’s formal rejection of Zawahiri’s loyalty pledge would shake al Qaeda’s entire scheme. Al Qaeda is an international organization, with branches operating in several countries. Some of these branches have publicly endorsed the idea that Akhundzada is the true spiritual leader of the global jihad. Zawahiri has also declared that the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate will be the “nucleus” of a new global caliphate, which al Qaeda’s men are fighting to re-establish. If Akhundzada broke with Zawahiri, then it would therefore undermine al Qaeda’s foundational mythology.
Third, Khalilzad’s agreement must sever the decades-long partnership between al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, an integral part of the Taliban that has conducted many of the worst terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan. This issue is especially pressing, because the Taliban’s deputy emir is an infamous character: Sirajuddin Haqqani. As part of any deal with the Taliban, the State Department should require Sirajuddin to issue a statement, in his name, renouncing al Qaeda. Here’s why this is crucially important:
Sirajuddin is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a powerbroker along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border who was one of bin Laden’s earliest allies. Jalaluddin’s eponymous network welcomed the first generation of Arab foreign fighters to the region during the 1980s jihad against the Soviets. Some of al Qaeda’s initial leaders were trained in the Haqqanis’ camps. The Haqqani Network has maintained close relations with al Qaeda in the decades since. Documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound show that al Qaeda’s men continued to cooperate with Sirajuddin in Afghanistan years after the U.S.-led war began.
Sirajuddin was named the Taliban’s No. 2 in 2015. With his assumption to that role, the Haqqanis consolidated their power in the Taliban’s hierarchy. Sirajuddin has broad military responsibilities, meaning the Haqqanis are well-positioned to expand their influence across Afghanistan after the U.S. and its allies leave.
More than a generation after the Haqqanis first embraced bin Laden, there is no hint that they are willing to break with al Qaeda or renounce global jihad.
In December 2016, the Haqqanis’ media arm released a lengthy video celebrating the unbroken bond between the Taliban and al Qaeda. After the Taliban announced Jalaluddin’s death last year, al Qaeda issued a glowing eulogy, emphasizing the elderly Haqqani’s brotherhood with bin Laden. Al Qaeda’s central leadership said it took “solace in the fact” that Sirajuddin was now “deputy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s Emir of the Faithful,” describing both Sirajuddin and Akhundzada as “our emirs.” The Taliban’s own video eulogy for Jalaluddin featured commentary from jihadists in Syria, including an al Qaeda-linked cleric from Saudi Arabia who has been designated as a terrorist by the U.S.
Sirajuddin himself is an internationally wanted terrorist, with a $10 million bounty on his head. The U.S. and the United Nations have sanctioned the Haqqani Network and multiple members of the group. These legal measures are backed by abundant evidence. Not only have the Haqqanis conducted some of the most devastating terrorist attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, they have also harbored al Qaeda’s internationally-focused operatives along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The U.S. and its allies have traced a series of global terror plots to the Haqqanis’ strongholds in northern Pakistan.
Fourth, and finally, any agreement has to take into account the many al Qaeda and al Qaeda-linked fighters embedded within the Taliban-led insurgency.
In 2014, Zawahiri announced the formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which operates throughout South Asia. AQIS’s first major terrorist plot was an attempted hijacking of two Pakistani frigates. The jihadists intended to fire the ships’ missiles at Indian and American naval vessels, possibly sparking an even more deadly international conflict. The plot was thwarted by Pakistani officials, but only after AQIS came close to taking control of the ships.
While AQIS’s audacious terror schemes remain a concern, the group’s primary mission is to help the Taliban resurrect its Islamic Emirate. AQIS has made this clear in its “code of conduct,” which stresses AQIS’s loyalty first to Zawahiri and then to Akhundzada. AQIS retains a significant footprint in Afghanistan. In 2015, for instance, American and Afghan forces raided two large AQIS training camps in the Shorabak district of the southern Kandahar province. U.S. military officials revealed that one of the camps was nearly 30 square-miles in size, making it the largest al Qaeda training facility discovered post-9/11. The Shorabak camps were hosted by the Taliban and intelligence recovered in the facilities shows that AQIS’s tentacles stretch from Afghanistan into other nearby countries, including Bangladesh.
AQIS’s leader, Asim Umar, has already declared that America’s defeat in Afghanistan is imminent. In a tract released in April 2017, Umar argued that President Trump’s “America First” policy really meant that the U.S. would “give up the leadership of the world.” Umar exaggerated America’s weakness, but he clearly saw a retreat from Afghanistan as a victory for al Qaeda. Other al Qaeda-linked jihadists, including Central Asian and Uighur groups, are eyeing a post-withdrawal Afghanistan as fertile ground for their jihadist projects as well.
Will Khalilzad’s deal with the Taliban address these al Qaeda-related issues? Or is Khalilzad going to accept the deliberately ambiguous denials the Taliban has issued for years?
The Afghan government has its own reasons to distrust Khalilzad.
But Secretary Pompeo’s diplomats shouldn’t trust the Taliban either.