The Daily 202: Taliban prisoners linked to killing U.S. troops are released ahead of 9/11 anniversary

President Trump warned in characteristically over-the-top terms during a political rally in Michigan on Thursday night that Joe Biden, if elected, would invite “terrorists” into the suburbs by raising the cap on the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States.

He made these comments as the Afghan government – under pressure from his administration – reluctantly released high-value Taliban prisoners who were allegedly involved in killing American troops.

That jarring split screen happened on the eve of the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which originated in Afghanistan, where the Taliban provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the plot that killed nearly 3,000 people.

“We’re getting along very, very well with the Taliban,” Trump said at a news conference earlier Thursday.

The president announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will fly to Doha, Qatar, for the start of formal peace talks this weekend between the Taliban and the Afghan government. As the precondition for starting these talks, six Taliban prisoners accused of playing a role in the killings of American, French and Australian nationals were released from Afghan custody on Thursday and flown to Doha. Three of the six are accused of involvement in the deaths of U.S. troops in so-called insider attacks. “The negotiations are a result of a bold diplomatic effort on the part of my administration in recent months and years,” Trump boasted.

“Despite objections from U.S. allies to the transfer of the men accused of killing the foreign nationals, U.S. officials did not raise formal concerns,” my colleague Susannah George reports from Kabul. “The six men who landed in Doha are the last of thousands of Taliban inmates released by the Afghan government in a prisoner swap process that was the central issue delaying peace talks for months. The U.S.-Taliban deal called for the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters in exchange for 1,000 members of their security forces. … In Doha, the six prisoners will be kept under house arrest through November, after which their stay could be extended or they could be returned to Afghanistan … It is unclear if the prisoners would be placed under house arrest if returned to Afghanistan or if they would be set free like thousands of other Taliban fighters.”

As part of its deal with the United States government, the Taliban said it will cut ties with international terrorist groups. But there are concerns that the group is not upholding that pledge and cannot be trusted to do so in the future. Nevertheless, Trump has persisted in pushing to withdraw as many U.S. troops as possible from Afghanistan before the November election so that he can argue he kept his 2016 campaign promise to end America’s longest war.

The top American commander in the Middle East, Gen. Frank McKenzie, announced on Wednesday that the U.S. military will reduce the number in troops in Afghanistan from 8,600 to about 4,500 by early November. ”We don’t want to be an occupying force in this country, but we do have strategic interests, vital interests, that compel us to be certain that these entities such as al-Qaeda and ISIS can’t be guests there to attack the United States,” McKenzie told Voice of America.

U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since the weeks after 9/11 when Mullah Omar, then the Taliban’s leader, rejected President George W. Bush’s demand to hand over bin Laden.

Biden said in an interview with Stars and Stripes on Thursday that he supports drawing down troops in the Middle East but promised that he would keep a small force in the region to prevent the reemergence of the Islamic State and to stop other anti-American extremists from finding safe harbor. “These ‘forever wars’ have to end,” the former vice president told the newspaper. “But here’s the problem: We still have to worry about terrorism.”

The Democratic nominee added that conditions in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are too complicated for him to commit to fully withdraw U.S. troops anytime soon. Stars and Stripes reported that he said there should be a maximum of “1,500 to 2,000” on the ground, which would a smaller force than what he would likely inherit from Trump. “I think we need special ops capacity to coordinate with our allies,” Biden said.

“However, Biden said the military should not meddle in the political dynamics of the countries where they operate. He said U.S. forces must be able to coordinate with allies to train and lead to ‘take out terrorist groups who are going to continue to emerge,’” according to the newspaper’s account of the telephone interview. “Despite the ongoing operations abroad, the pandemic at home, and increased government spending, Biden does not foresee major cuts to the Pentagon budget. In fact, he said defense spending could increase in a Biden Administration.”

On Thursday, Trump also nominated William Ruger to be the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, a post that has been vacant since the last ambassador left in January. Ruger has been a strong proponent for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in his perch as a senior official at the Charles Koch Institute and the vice president overseeing foreign policy at Stand Together, the new name for the network of groups funded by the billionaire libertarian industrialist. Ruger, who served in Afghanistan and remains a Naval Reserve officer, said in a statement last year: “There is no longer a sound reason for the United States to continue sacrificing precious lives and treasure in a conflict not directly connected to our safety or other vital national interests.”

Meanwhile, six Senate Democrats introduced a bill on Thursday called the Russia Bounty Response Act of 2020. The measure is designed to force the Trump administration to respond to the Russian government’s reported program to pay bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American and other allied troops in Afghanistan. Trump has said the intelligence is not solid enough to raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This legislation would require Trump to impose new sanctions on any Russian person, government official or entity involved in the program.

“Donald Trump’s silence in the face of reported Russian bounties on the heads of our troops is a complete dereliction of duty,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who became a double amputee in 2004 when Iraqi insurgents shot down the helicopter she was co-piloting over Iraq. “This bill will force Trump to act by putting important policies in place to ensure our nation addresses the threat of Russia’s alliance with the Taliban.”

Pompeo defended Trump’s push to get the Taliban to the table. “This opportunity must not be squandered,” he said in a statement after Trump announced his Doha trip. “Immense sacrifice and investment by the United States, our partners, and the people of Afghanistan have made this moment of hope possible. I urge the negotiators to demonstrate the pragmatism, restraint and flexibility this process will require to succeed. The people of Afghanistan and the international community will be watching closely. The United States is prepared to support as requested.”

The secretary of state butted heads last year with former national security adviser John Bolton, who opposed these talks and didn’t think the Taliban could be trusted to follow through on anything. Ahead of last year’s 9/11 anniversary, Trump planned to bring members of the Taliban to Camp David. But he canceled that summit in the face of blowback from hawks inside this administration. Bolton soon left the administration and wrote a memoir that includes sharp criticism of Trump’s approach to Afghanistan.

Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said that “remnants” of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization that launched the 9/11 attacks “remain active throughout the world,” but he added that “it is now possible to see the contours of how the war against al-Qaeda ends.”

“Al-Qaeda can still direct others to commit acts of violence, as seen by the heinous killing of three Americans in Florida at Naval Air Station Pensacola last year, but it is no longer capable of conducting large-scale attacks,” Miller writes in an op-ed for our newspaper today. “The group’s leadership has been severely diminished by U.S. attacks. Its sole remaining ideological leader is Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy on 9/11, who lives in hiding, no doubt fully aware of his vulnerability. … The defeat of these terrorists is near, but experience has taught us that prematurely declaring ‘mission accomplished,’ as we did with the war in Iraq in 2003, is to invite this Hydra-like beast to regenerate. The only counterterrorism truth is that constant pressure must be maintained on terrorist groups that have the intent or capability to attack us.”

The pandemic complicated tribute traditions.

In New York, disputes over coronavirus precautions led to split-screen remembrances on Friday morning, one at the 9/11 memorial plaza and another on a nearby corner. The Pentagon’s morning observance was so restricted that not even victims’ families could, though small groups can visit the memorial later in the day. “The New York memorial is changing one of its ceremony’s central traditions: having relatives read the names of the dead, often adding poignant tributes. Thousands of family members are still invited. But they’ll hear a recording of the names from speakers spread around the vast plaza,” the AP reports. “But some victims’ relatives felt the change robbed the observance of its emotional impact. A different 9/11-related group, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, set up its own, simultaneous ceremony a few blocks away, saying there’s no reason that people can’t recite names while keeping a safe distance.

“The two organizations also tussled over the Tribute in Light, a pair of powerful beams that shine into the night sky near the trade center and evoke its fallen twin towers. The 9/11 memorial initially canceled the display, citing virus-safety concerns for the installation crew. After the Tunnel to Towers Foundation vowed to put up the lights instead, the memorial changed course with help from its chairman, former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.”

Biden and Trump are separately visiting Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 crashed into a field. “The Sept. 11 attacks targeted the cities that molded the two men, Washington and New York, reinforcing the clashing worldviews they now offer the American electorate: Biden’s embrace of U.S. institutions and global alliances, Trump’s distrust of foreigners and insistence that America must go it alone,” Matt Viser reports. Biden pulled his commercials off the air for Sept. 11. It is unclear whether the Trump campaign did so, as well.

“The Trump administration has secretly siphoned nearly $4 million away from a program that tracks and treats FDNY firefighters and medics suffering from 9/11 related illnesses,” the New York Daily News reports. “The Treasury Department mysteriously started withholding parts of payments — nearly four years ago — meant to cover medical services for firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics treated by the FDNY World Trade Center Health Program … The payments were authorized and made by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which oversees the program. But instead of sending the funds to the city, the Treasury started keeping some of the money. … For some reason, Treasury decided to stiff the FDNY. Neither the Treasury Department nor the White House answered requests for comment.”