Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

Taliban want answer from US on offer of brief 'reduction in violence'

Officials say there are recent developments in the on-again, off-again talks

Afghan Army commandos attend their graduation ceremony at the Commando Training Center on the outskirts of Kabul. AP
Afghan Army commandos attend their graduation ceremony at the Commando Training Center on the outskirts of Kabul. AP

After weeks of talks with Washington, the Taliban have issued an ultimatum: reply to an offer for a one-week reduction in violence in Afghanistan or the group will walk away from negotiations.

The US said late on Tuesday that an agreement on the Taliban’s “reduction of violence” offer was days away.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that he had a call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling him of “notable progress” in talks with the insurgent force.

Chief Taliban negotiator Abdul Ghani Baradar, who made the offer, met White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad this week, Taliban officials said.

There was no immediate response from Washington on the ultimatum, which appeared designed to focus the negotiations on Taliban demands.

The group maintains a political office in Doha, where Mr Khalilzad often meets its representatives in talks to find a resolution to Afghanistan’s 18-year war.

US President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, said on Tuesday he was cautiously optimistic that there could be a US agreement with the Taliban in the coming days or weeks.

But Mr O'Brien said a withdrawal of American forces was not imminent.

The agreement, which Mr Trump would have to approve, calls for Taliban and US forces to pledge a “reduction of violence” that would lead to an agreement signing.

That would be followed, within 10 days, by all-Afghan negotiations to set the strategy for the political future of post-war Afghanistan.

The details emerging from Washington on the agreement are similar to those released weeks ago by Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, and would seem to give the militants all they asked for.

Another Taliban demand is that in any all-Afghan negotiations, representatives of Mr Ghani’s government cannot come to the table in an official capacity but only as ordinary Afghan citizens.

The Taliban do not recognise the government in Kabul and have refused to negotiate directly with him.

Mr Ghani, whose political future remains uncertain after last September’s presidential election in which there is still no official winner, has demanded that the Taliban negotiate with his government.

His political opponents, other prominent Afghans and his partner in the Unity Government, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, have criticised Mr Ghani’s intransigence and accused him of trying to sideline their involvement in the peace process.

Mr Ghani also blasted the “reduction of violence” offer, demanding a permanent ceasefire and a halt in attacks by the Taliban.

The insurgents have refused, saying they first want agreements in place that would be guaranteed by international powers such as Gulf states, Russia, China and the UN before agreeing to a permanent truce.

The “reduction of violence” deal would call for the Taliban and US to refrain from conducting attacks or combat operations for seven days, a source said.

Asked about whether Mr Trump would approve such a deal, Mr O’Brien said the US was “cautiously optimistic that some good news could be forthcoming".

“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,” he told an event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Other conditions in the deal would include a Taliban pledge not to associate with Al Qaeda, ISIS or other militant groups.

“We have contributed a tremendous amount of blood and treasure to Afghanistan, but it’s time for America to come home,” Mr O’Brien said.

“We want to make sure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorism again.”

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and hosted Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as he plotted the 9/11 attacks, say they no longer seek a monopoly on power.

But they now control or hold sway over about half of the country.

There are fears that a full withdrawal of about 20,000 Nato troops, including about 12,000 US forces, would leave the Afghan government vulnerable, or unleash another round of fighting.

The war has killed tens of thousands of Afghans and 2,400 US servicemen and women. But Afghan civilians have paid the heaviest price.

The UN says that between 2009, when it first began documenting civilian casualties, and October 2019, 34,677 Afghan civilians have been killed, either in insurgent attacks or being caught in the crossfire.

The State Department declined to comment beyond saying: “US talks with the Taliban in Doha continue around the specifics of a reduction in violence.

Mr Ghani, Mr Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper will be in Germany this week for the annual Munich Security Conference, at which Afghanistan is expected to be discussed.

Updated: February 13, 2020 02:50 AM

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