MUNICH/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has reached agreement with the Taliban on a weeklong reduction of violence that could lead to a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, a senior administration official said on Friday, while cautioning that the insurgents must honour commitments for the accord to stick.
The deal was struck in protracted negotiations in the Qatari capital Doha and was announced after a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
The accord - if it holds - could pave the way for an agreement by the end of the month on a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, a long-sought objective for U.S. President Donald Trump, who has vowed to stop the “endless wars” as he seeks re-election in November.
“It was violence that derailed the signing of the agreement in September. Now we have an agreement on the reduction of violence. And, should the Talibs implement what they’ve committed to doing, we will move forward with the agreement,” the senior administration official told reporters in Munich.
The seven-day period has not yet started, but will go into effect soon, the official said.
There were no immediate comments from Ghani’s government or the Taliban.
There remains a long way to go to a peace settlement and end to the nearly two-decade-old U.S. military presence that began shortly after the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda. U.S. officials have been clear that the 13,000 U.S. troops will be cut to about 8,600 this year, with or without a withdrawal deal.
The reduction in violence agreement “is a good step on a very long road,” said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
A U.S. withdrawal agreement would be followed by negotiations on a political settlement between the Taliban and an Afghan delegation that would include government officials. One of the first issues would be a nationwide ceasefire.
The so-called intra-Afghan dialogue, however, is likely to be difficult and protracted. The Taliban have refused to speak directly to the government, which they denounce as a U.S. puppet. Kabul’s negotiating team has yet to be named, and there has been long wrangling over its composition.
It also remained to be seen if the Taliban leadership has full control over all its fighters.
The senior U.S. official made clear that a full U.S. withdrawal will depend on the Taliban fulfilling commitments to end their close ties with al Qaeda and other extremist groups.
“Our commitment, in terms of reduction of forces which is both conditions-based and in phases, is very much tied to delivery on the commitments that they have made, and will be,” said the official. “There will be no hosting, no training, no recruitment, no fund-raising.”
The official, however, noted that provision covered only Taliban-controlled territory, meaning it does not apply to Taliban sanctuaries in neighbouring Pakistan, which U.S. officials accuse of supporting the insurgents. Islamabad denies the allegation.
The official said the reduction in violence agreement was very specific and covered all Afghan forces. The U.S. military would monitor violence levels to verify whether the Taliban were honouring it.
U.S. and Taliban negotiators have been meeting in Doha since 2018 even as fighting has raged and hundreds of civilians and combatants have been killed as the insurgents have expanded their territorial control.
Last month the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government agency, assessed that there were a record-high number of attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces in the last three months of 2019.
Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Mary Milliken, Tom Brown and Daniel Wallis