Seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan to begin, US announces

(CNN) — A seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan, negotiated by the US and the Taliban, is set to begin Friday night local time, the US State Department announced.

“After decades of conflict, we have come to an understanding with the Taliban on a significant reduction in violence across Afghanistan. This is an important step on a long road to peace, and I call on all Afghans to seize this opportunity,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Friday morning.

The US is aiming for a peace deal to help execute President Donald Trump’s desire to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. The first step is expected to reduce the current level of troops from 12-13,000 to 8,600. Officials have stressed that such a reduction would be “conditions-based.”

Pompeo said Friday that the US is preparing for the signing of a US-Taliban agreement on February 29, contingent on the “successful implementation” of the reduction in violence.

“Intra-Afghan negotiations will start soon thereafter, and will build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire and the future political roadmap for Afghanistan,” he said.

Two Afghan officials also confirmed the start date to CNN.

In a statement Friday, the Taliban said it plans to sign the agreement with the US. Before the agreement is signed, both sides will work on creating a “suitable security situation” which will include arranging for a prisoner release that could pave the way for a “withdrawal of all foreign forces,” the Taliban said in a statement.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper first announced last week that the US and the Taliban had reached a proposal to decrease violence.

A senior administration official, briefing reporters in Munich last week, described the reduction in violence agreement as “very specific” and said it includes language on “roadside bombs, suicide bombs, rocket attacks.” That official suggested there would be a deconfliction channel with the US military, Afghans and the Taliban for the purposes of the monitoring compliance to the agreement.

“We have a lot of means for monitoring the situation in Afghanistan, so all of them will be engaged,” the official said, stressing the importance of such a channel given the possibility of “spoilers” to the agreement.

“There are people who prefer the status quo to a peace agreement,” the official said. “There are lots of people who benefit from the status quo and Afghanistan itself was very complex.”

US officials had previously expressed skepticism about the viability of such an agreement, given the Taliban negotiators cannot guarantee all Taliban fighters across Afghanistan would abide by the terms. The Taliban chain of command is loose in some areas.

US officials were also concerned the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan, would take advantage of the agreement by encouraging younger Taliban members to join its fight against the US.

The agreement comes amid continued attacks in Afghanistan and the announcement this week that President Ashraf Ghani is the official winner of the country’s presidential elections after results were delayed for nearly five months.

The number of attacks carried out by the Taliban and other anti-government forces reached a record high in the last three months of 2019, according to a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Trump has long sought a comprehensive agreement with the Taliban, which could bring about a diminished US presence in the region. Friday’s announcement comes following months of negotiations between US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and his team and Taliban negotiators in Doha. Khalilzad has met with key international and US stakeholders over the past several weeks.

The US and the Taliban reached an agreement “in principle” in early September 2019, Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan said at the time.

But shortly thereafter, Trump called off peace talks and said he canceled a secret Camp David summit with the militant group after they took credit for a deadly attack in Kabul that killed a US service member.

In a surprise visit to Afghanistan in November, Trump announced that the talks had restarted. The US President made the announcement shortly after the Taliban released an American and Australian professor in exchange for the release of three Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government. The State Department announced in early December that Khalilzad had rejoined talked with the Taliban in Doha.

The senior administration official last week credited Trump’s decision to cancel the talks in September for the eventual reduction in violence agreement.

“It was President Trump’s tweet, and the subsequent standard he took, which says, we just need to have a significant and lasting reduction of violence before we finalize the agreement. And now we have a roadmap that has been agreed to give that,” they said.


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