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U.S., Taliban close to ‘reduction in violence’ agreement

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 12, 2020

National army soldiers stand guard at the site of suicide attack near the military academy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. A suicide bomber targeting a military academy in the Afghan capital on Tuesday killed at least six people, including two civilians and four military personnel, the Interior Ministry said. (Rahmat Gul / AP)
National army soldiers stand guard at the site of suicide attack near the military academy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. A suicide bomber targeting a military academy in the Afghan capital on Tuesday killed at least six people, including two civilians and four military personnel, the Interior Ministry said. (Rahmat Gul / AP)
By Karen Deyoung and Susannah George Washington Post

WASHINGTON – An agreement between the United States and the Taliban on a “reduction in violence” in Afghanistan that could lead to direct peace talks between the militants and the Afghan government may be announced in the next several days, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

Realization of those plans depend on whether the United States and the Taliban, in discussions this week, can finalize the parameters of the violence reduction, including its duration – expected to be seven days – and geographic coverage. They would also need to agree on the extent to which it applies to both the militants and U.S. forces, according to current and former Afghan and Taliban officials who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.

If the reduction is implemented, current plans call for it to be followed within days by the signing of a much broader U.S.-Taliban agreement under which the militants would quickly begin direct peace talks with the government, and the United States would start withdrawing troops.

The State Department declined to comment.

“Some good news could be forthcoming,” White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said at the Atlantic Council on Tuesday. “There will have to be reduction in violence and meaningful inter-Afghan talks.”

Asked about the departure of U.S. troops, O’Brien said, “I don’t think there’s any imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

Withdrawal has been a key foreign policy priority for President Donald Trump, who approved the emerging but still tentative plan this week. Trump canceled a previous U.S.-Taliban agreement reached in September, saying the talks were “dead” after the Taliban made “a big mistake” with an attack that resulted in the death of a U.S. soldier.

U.S. Gen. Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has already said he can carry out his current mission of air, intelligence and logistical support and training for Afghan security forces, as well as counterterrorism operations, with about two-thirds of the current American force of 12,000 to 13,000 troops.

Since he took over in 2018, Miller has overseen an expanded air campaign that officials hope has made the Taliban more likely to embrace peace negotiations with the Afghan government, though Taliban attacks have markedly increased in recent months.

The Taliban has long said its goal in any negotiation is the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops, and the broader U.S.-Taliban agreement is expected to contain a timeline for gradual withdrawal, depending on militant compliance with the terms of a future Afghan government deal with the Taliban.

U.S. military leaders, recognizing that nearly two decades of fighting have failed to secure a decisive advantage over the Taliban, have voiced support for a peace deal. But they do so with an expectation that it will allow them to retain some sort of military platform in Afghanistan to go after terrorist groups, primarily the Islamic State and al-Qaida, which they believe pose a direct threat to the United States. Under the U.S.-Taliban deal, the militants would launch their own operations against terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

In addition to the Americans, smaller contingents of NATO troops – primarily German and Italian – are also in Afghanistan.

“We went into Afghanistan together, all allies and partners,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday. “We will make decisions on the adjustment of force levels together, and one day we will leave together.”

As he opened a meeting of NATO defense ministers Wednesday in Brussels, Stoltenberg said “the best way NATO can support the peace process is to stay committed to our train, assist and advise mission in Afghanistan.”

Norway and Germany have offered to facilitate the inter-Afghan talks, he said. In addition to the NATO discussions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at a security conference in Munich this week.

In its current form, the “reduction in violence” agreement consists of a week of near-peace, “almost like a cease-fire,” according to a former Afghan official familiar with the talks. Assuming it succeeds and the broader U.S.-Taliban deal is signed, U.S. negotiators are asking the Taliban to continue the reduction throughout the follow-on inter-Afghan negotiations, said the former official.

In return, the United States has agreed to reduce its own operations during the seven-day period, including airstrikes. That U.S. reduction will continue through the Afghan-Taliban talks, presuming those negotiations quickly agree to a formal cease-fire and the militants observe the terms.

A senior Taliban official briefed on the talks said the movement’s leadership has not yet committed to an ongoing violence reduction during inter-Afghan talks.

The Afghan government, still unsettled by disputed election results that should have named a new president months ago, has not identified who would engage in talks with the Taliban – a team expected to include both government officials and other political and civil society leaders.

Both the Taliban and the government, however, appear to feel increasing pressure to move a peace arrangement forward after months of stalled U.S.-militant talks. They, and the United States, the former Afghan official said, want a deal before spring, when the Taliban’s traditional fighting season is launched.

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