By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States should extend the May 1 deadline for pulling all its troops from Afghanistan, and make force cuts contingent on progress in peace talks as well as by the Taliban in reducing violence and containing al Qaeda, a bipartisan report to Congress said on Wednesday.
Washington should not abandon the Afghan peace process, the report said. But conditions for its success will not be met by a May 1 deadline set in a 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement. Withdrawing all U.S. troops then could lead to civil war, destabilising the region and reviving the al Qaeda threat.
The United States "should not...simply hand a victory to the Taliban," said the Afghanistan Study Group report, reflecting criticism that the Trump administration conceded too much to the insurgents in a bid to end America’s longest war.
Congress commissioned the group, whose co-chairs included retired Marine General Joseph Dunford, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, and Republican former Senator Kelly Ayotte.
Dunford told reporters the report was shared with aides to President Joe Biden, including Zalmay Khalilzad, the peace negotiator kept on from the Trump administration, who "found it helpful."
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Biden administration "plans to support" the peace process, and is assessing the Taliban's commitment to cutting ties to al Qaeda, lowering violence and engaging in peace talks.
Former President Donald Trump ordered a drawdown to 2,500 U.S. soldiers by last month even as violence surged; U.S. officials said the Taliban maintained ties with al Qaeda; and intra-Afghan peace talks stalled.
The Taliban say al Qaeda fighters are no longer in Afghanistan. The Taliban also have indicated they will resume attacks on foreign forces if they remain past May 1.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading Republican defense hawk who had concerns with Trump's deal with the Taliban, praised the report. He added in a statement that after initial discussions with the administration, "it looks like they will be very receptive to the recommendations."
Graham added: “This year marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and I will never forget how this war started. We took our eye off Afghanistan, and that can never happen again.”
U.S. policy should be revised to help ensure that the peace talks in Doha between the Taliban and a delegation that includes Afghan government officials produce a durable settlement, the report said.
"Achieving the overall objective of a negotiated stable peace that meets U.S. interests would need to begin with securing an extension of the May deadline," said the report, urging an "immediate" U.S. diplomatic push to rally regional support for a delay.
An extension would let the Biden administration revise policy, including conditioning further U.S. troop cuts on the Taliban reducing violence, ending cooperation with al Qaeda and progress in the Doha negotiations, the report said.
A delay also would give Washington time to restructure U.S. civilian aid and offer Kabul incentives "to play a constructive role" in peace efforts and advancing women's and minority rights.
The February 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal made the U.S. withdrawal contingent on ground conditions and on the Taliban ending the hosting of al Qaeda fighters and halting the group’s "recruiting, training and fund-raising."
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and David Gregorio)