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Congress OKs covering Taliban travel expenses, with conditions

Pentagon policy bill includes exemption from laws that bar aid to terrorist groups

A group of Taliban in Badakhshan province have dropped weapons and joined the Afghan government. They join the government after US-Taliban peace talks have been halted on 18 September 2019 in Badakhshan, Afghanistan. ( Mohammad Sharif Shayeq/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A group of Taliban in Badakhshan province have dropped weapons and joined the Afghan government. They join the government after US-Taliban peace talks have been halted on 18 September 2019 in Badakhshan, Afghanistan. ( Mohammad Sharif Shayeq/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Congress is allowing the Pentagon to spend up to $15 million this year for logistical support for peace talks in Afghanistan, and lawmakers have tried hard to ensure the money does not effectively benefit the Taliban.

But the Pentagon, in requesting the money earlier this year, said it is “likely” some of the funds will at least indirectly help the Taliban, and the authors of the new defense authorization measure had to explicitly exempt the proposed spending from laws that bar aid to terrorist groups.

CQ disclosed in May how the Pentagon had asked Congress for the money and statutory authority necessary to enable U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan to cover costs of possible local peace talks – for security, transportation, lodging, food, supplies, communications and other services.

Some call the spending a small price to pay for bringing warring parties to the table after nearly 18 years of conflict.

However, many in Congress recoil at the notion that some of the spending might defray costs for the Taliban, which has killed many hundreds of Americans on the battleground, harbored al-Qaida for years and earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year from illicit activity.

Collision with anti-terrorism law

A Pentagon document submitted to the defense committees earlier this year with the budget request sought to justify the new appropriation and related authorities. But the document also warned the spending could cause the Pentagon to run afoul of anti-terrorism laws.

“Facilitating and supporting this reconciliation will likely require” the United States to provide support, the request said, “to individuals or organizations in a manner that may implicate provisions concerning material support to terrorists and terrorist organizations.”

The Pentagon brass also suggested in that document some legislative language to go along with the funding. The final defense authorization bill, or NDAA, largely reflects what department officials sought.

The fiscal 2020 NDAA will become law as soon as the president signs it, and he is expected to do so Friday night.

The report accompanying the new NDAA, known as the joint explanatory statement, says the terrorist group’s expenses will not be directly paid.

“The conferees note that this provision does not authorize direct reimbursements to members or elements of the Taliban,” the report says.

But the NDAA’s bill language does not directly say that.

As for whose expenses can be covered by the $15 million, the NDAA bill says only that this question will be answered by the Defense secretary after consulting with the secretary of State.

And, the legislation says, the money can be paid out on a “non-reimbursable basis” to those designated recipients, except to other U.S. agencies.

The NDAA also stipulates that the funds cannot be spent for certain expenses, including to buy ammunition or to transport negotiators in U.S. government vehicles.

And the bill requires the Defense Department to file certain detailed reports with Congress about how the money is spent.

The NDAA provision “is not about paying the Taliban,” said a spokeswoman for the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the legislative language originated. “The bill puts extensive limitations and oversight in place as well.”

Appropriators act

Congress also weighed in on the Taliban money issue in a new Defense spending bill.

The Senate expects to clear that measure on Thursday, and the president is likely to sign it into law by Friday, when a stopgap funding bill expires.

The money bill does not provide any of the $15 million requested for the peace-talks account, so the Pentagon presumably would have to reallocate the money from elsewhere in its budget for this purpose.

The department has apparently already done so at least once before. A spokesman for Indiana Democrat Peter J. Visclosky, the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said in May that the Pentagon had notified lawmakers in March that the department was redirecting fiscal 2019 money from other U.S. military accounts to pay for logistics support for peace talks. The spokesman did not say at the time how much money was moved.

Now the new appropriations measure, covering fiscal 2020, says the spending at issue would have to abide by the NDAA’s restrictions and meet two other challenging criteria.

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be made available for any member of the Taliban,” the appropriators wrote, except in connection with peace talks that involve both Afghan government officials and women – two groups the Taliban has shown no willingness to include.

The outcome in the final versions of the two defense bills was more nuanced than – and in some ways at odds with – an amendment barring outright any aid to the Taliban, which is what the House voted overwhelmingly for in June during debate on its version of the Pentagon spending bill.

Still, Michigan Republican Tim Walberg, the author of the ban, is happy the new defense spending law will at least attach significant strings to any payments.

“The American people won’t stand for our limited taxpayer resources being sent to the Taliban, and this provision is an important step to making sure that doesn’t happen,” Walberg told CQ in a statement.

Talks in remote locales

U.S. officials and Taliban representatives have conducted on-again, off-again talks for months. President Donald Trump signaled during a Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan that he favors resuming the negotiations.

The provisions on aid to the Taliban appear focused on separate talks that could occur inside Afghanistan or even in Pakistan between local government officials and Taliban representatives.

Army Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on the matter, saying the department does not comment on pending legislation.

Earlier this year, Navy Cdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a department spokeswoman, commented on the budget request for supporting the peace talks. She said it would be needed, for example, to ferry negotiators to and from remote locales. But she said the Taliban would not be paid directly for anything.

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