US, Taliban close to ‘reduction in violence’ agreement

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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. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s national security adviser said Tuesday he is cautiously optimistic that there could be a U.S. agreement with the Taliban over the next days or weeks, but a withdrawal of American forces is not “imminent.”

Robert O’Brien was asked whether Trump would sign off on an agreement where both the Taliban and U.S. forces would pledge to adhere to a “reduction in violence” — a move that could lead to all-Afghan negotiations to end the decades-long conflict and outline a political future for the country.

The agreement would call for the Taliban and U.S. forces to refrain from conducting attacks or combat operations for seven days, according to a person familiar with the ongoing discussions who was not authorized to discuss the proposed agreement and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

“I think that we’re making significant progress,” O’Brien said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington. “It’s something we’re keeping the president appraised of on a very regular basis. You hate to make predictions when it comes to Afghanistan … but I’ll say that we’re cautiously optimistic that some good news could be forthcoming on that front.”

If a reduction in violence holds, the U.S. and Taliban would be expected to sign an agreement to begin talks within 10 days involving the Taliban and Afghans from across the nation, including some who hold government positions but don’t represent the government, the person familiar with the negotiations said.

“The president had made it very clear that there will have to be a reduction in violence and there will have to be meaningful intra-Afghan talks for things to move forward,” O’Brien said. “If both those things and a number of other conditions are met and we are able to get agreement on them, I think we could have some good news coming out of Afghanistan — so we’ll have to wait and see over the next several days and weeks.”

The other conditions include the Taliban pledging not to associate with al-Qaida, the Islamic State or other malign organizations, he said.

“We’ve been in Afghanistan for 18-19 years. (Trump) would like to get out of Afghanistan,” O’Brien said. “We have contributed a tremendous amount of blood and treasure to Afghanistan, but it’s time for America to come home.

“We want to come home, but we want to come home under conditions that keep in place protections for our colleagues and our partners in Afghanistan and we want to make sure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorism again,” O’Brien added. “So we’re working very hard … to put in place the conditions to allow a withdrawal over time, but I don’t think there is any imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

Still, the Taliban would appear to have gotten everything they asked for in this possible deal. They have refused to step away from the seven- to 10-day timeline for a reduction in violence despite weeks of effort by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and outright demands by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Ghani has also been demanding the Taliban talk directly to his government, which he has insisted be in the lead. The intra-Afghan negotiations being discussed don’t officially include the Ghani government, which is in disarray since last September’s still undeclared election results.

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with a harsh version of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001 and hosted Osama bin Laden as he masterminded the 9/11 attacks, say they no longer seek a monopoly on power. But the militant group now controls or holds sway over roughly half of the country.

There are fears that a full withdrawal of some 20,000 NATO troops, including about 12,000 U.S. forces, would leave the Afghan government vulnerable to collapse, or unleash another round of fighting in a war that has killed tens of thousand. America’s longest war, which has claimed the lives of 2,400 U.S. service men and women.

Many questions about the expected agreement remain unanswered and it’s unclear if Trump will sign off on the deal. Trump abruptly broke off the on-again, off-again U.S. talks with the Taliban in September after nearly a year of discussions with the insurgent group. Trump announced he had canceled a secret meeting with the Taliban leaders and the Afghan president at Camp David after a Taliban car bomb exploded in Kabul and killed 12 people, including a U.S. service member.

News of progress in talks comes after Trump and Vice President Mike Pence traveled Monday evening to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to pay respects to two U.S. soldiers killed Saturday in Afghanistan when a soldier dressed in an Afghan army uniform opened fire with a machine gun.

The State Department declined to comment on negotiations beyond saying, “U.S. talks with the Taliban in Doha continue around the specifics of a reduction in violence.”

But on Tuesday, Ghani tweeted that he had received a call from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “informing me of the notable progress made in the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban.”

“The Secretary informed me about the Taliban’s proposal with regards to bringing a significant and enduring reduction in violence,” Ghani said.

Ghani, Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper will all be in Munich, Germany, this week for a security summit.

The Taliban launched 8,204 attacks in the last three months of last year — up 17.6% over the 6,974 attacks initiated in the same time period in 2018, according to the most recent report issued in January by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

In 2019, the U.S. Air Force dropped 7,423 bombs on Afghanistan — up slightly from 2018, when it dropped 7,362 bombs on the war-shattered country, according to statistics from the U.S. Central Command Combined Air Operations Center.

Afghanistan’s 18-year war has been deadly for civilians. The United Nations calculates that between 2009, when it first began documenting civilian casualties, and October 2019, a total of 34,677 Afghan civilians have been killed in insurgent attacks and caught in the crossfire between militants and Afghan security forces and their U.S.-led coalition allies.

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Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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