The Trump administration has reached initial agreement with the Taliban to reduce violence in Afghanistan for seven days as a prelude to signing a peace deal before the end of the month that could lead to the drawdown of US troops.
“Now we have an agreement on the reduction of violence,” a senior US official told reporters at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, adding that the truce would take effect “very soon” and could lead to the troop withdrawal.
The official said Pakistan had used its “influence” over the Taliban to encourage its agreement, adding that the pact required the militants to reduce violence “nationwide” against both US and Afghans. The US would expect any final agreement to stipulate the Taliban would stop hosting, training and recruiting terrorists in areas it controlled, according to the official.
Trump administration officials have spent months trying to craft a deal that would enable Donald Trump to make good on his election pledge to pull US troops out of Afghanistan and bring America’s longest running war to a close. US troops are already due to be reduced from 13,000 to fewer than 9,000 this year, with further phased withdrawals possible as talks progress and conditions improve.
“It’s important for the Taliban [leadership] to demonstrate that they have control over their fighters. It’s a test for all of us to see what they’re capable of,” a senior diplomat familiar with the matter told the Financial Times, adding this element was critical in order to move to the next step.
The senior diplomat said that intra-Afghan talks would then be due to take place in Europe, “probably” in Norway or possibly Germany, several days after the signing of any agreement between the US and the Taliban. “The idea is to find a solution to end this conflict,” said the senior diplomat.
the number of US troops that Washington hopes to remain in Afghanistan by the end of this year
Veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Afghanistan who was born in Afghanistan, joined the Trump administration as special representative towards the end of 2018 and has spent months negotiating the deal in Qatar, which has hosted Taliban leaders for talks. He has faced deep criticism from the government in Kabul, which has expressed concerns over the terms of any possible wider deal.
Intra-Afghan talks would probably be protracted and complicated by demands from the Taliban for a mass release of “many, many thousands” of prisoners and for inclusion of its leadership into the Kabul government in some form, according to the senior diplomat, alongside concerns that the Kabul government was not ready for such talks.
The official added that Washington would like the Afghan government to select an “inclusive” delegation to go to negotiations and be able to negotiate a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire to end the Afghan war. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and US defence secretary Mark Esper met Afghan president Ashraf Ghani for a “very good meeting” earlier on Friday in Munich, according to the senior US official.
Mr Trump had sought to hold a surprise summit with the Taliban at Camp David to agree a peace deal in September, but it was cancelled after a hoped-for ceasefire was marred by violence.
Talks repeatedly hit a snag over divisions within the Taliban and disagreements over the sequencing of any deal, including the demands for a mass prisoner release, according to two people familiar with the matter.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told reporters on his way to the Munich Security Conference that the US had had “a pretty important breakthrough over the last few days”, adding it could be a prelude to “the real serious discussion, which is all the Afghans sitting at a table, finding a true reconciliation path forward — a difficult set of conversations, but one that’s long overdue”.
Observers worry that any deal that might ultimately include the Taliban in the Afghan government could pose problems for the country’s emergent national security forces, if Taliban forces were folded into the police, army and intelligence apparatus.
A Quetta contact close to the Taliban says its leaders are still insisting on a US visit to “regain their honour” lost the last time when talks were cancelled by Mr Trump.
Another source in Peshawar said that the US was very concerned about the Taliban gaining further victories against the Afghani army and therefore no agreement would be acceptable to the US without ironclad guarantees that the Taliban will neither directly nor indirectly through their proxies make further advances.
The Trump administration has made clear its aim is to ensure it can reach a deal that will prevent the likelihood that Afghanistan will harbour violent extremist groups that would plot to attack the US on home soil in a repeat of 9/11.
“[W]e have said we will not allow Afghanistan to become a threat to the United States ever again,” said the senior administration official.
Some defence officials fear that any Taliban fighters who reject the peace deal could take a more extremist position and make common cause with Isis, which still has a small foothold in the country, or al-Qaeda.
Experts have said that the deal could also risk handing control over rural areas and potentially some urban areas to the Taliban, which already controls more than a dozen districts.
Guy Snodgrass, former Trump administration official whose work at the department of defence included Afghanistan policy, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the initial truce between the US and the Taliban.
“If fulfilled, this is a significant and positive milestone towards an ultimate withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, a move which would finally answer one of President Trump’s most important campaign promises — to bring US forces home from a two-decade war.”
Additional reporting by Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad