US, Taliban Reach Deal for 7-Day 'Reduction of Violence,' SecDef Says

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Mark Esper NATO headquarters
U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper, center, prepares to greet Afghan Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid prior to a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday that a tentative deal has been reached between the U.S. and the Taliban on a seven-day "reduction of violence" in Afghanistan.

"The U.S. and the Taliban have negotiated a proposal for a seven-day reduction in violence" Esper said in a brief statement and news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels. The deal appears to fall short of a full ceasefire.

"I think peace deserves a chance," he said. "The best, if not only, solution in Afghanistan is a political agreement."

Esper declined to give details on when and how the reduction in violence would begin. He said the agreement was only a proposal at this stage and would require consultations with the Kabul government and allies.

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However, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief negotiator with the Taliban, has said that a U.S. deal on a ceasefire could set the stage for a long-term peace agreement between the insurgent group and the Afghan government to end the war that has cost the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. troops since 2001.

"In our view, seven days is sufficient" to determine whether the basis for moving forward with a long-term peace agreement had been established, Esper said.

Esper also made no mention of how a reduction in violence would affect the tentative plan for a drawdown of the estimated 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In December, Esper said that the U.S. was considering a drawdown to 8,600 troops with announcements to be made "in the coming weeks."

The only previous ceasefire in 18 years of war in Afghanistan came in June 2018, when the Taliban and the Kabul government of President Ashraf Ghani agreed on a three-day ceasefire to mark the end of the holy observance of Ramadan.

The U.S. was not part of that agreement, which quickly fell apart as the war resumed. The Taliban have since rejected negotiations with the Kabul government, seen as a puppet of the U.S. by the insurgents.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone with Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to inform them of progress made by Khalilzad in his long-running negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.

Ghani later tweeted to confirm his talks with Pompeo on "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" aimed at an enduring peace deal."

In remarks to the Atlantic Council Tuesday, White House National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said that President Donald Trump was on board with a reduction in violence arrangement that could lead to progress on a permanent settlement.

"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."

In his brief remarks, Esper emphasized that the agreement with the Taliban was tentative and implementation would depend on a firm Taliban commitment to limit attacks.

"In all things, our approach to this process will be conditions-based. Let me say it again -- conditions-based," he said. "So it will be a continual, evaluative process as we go forward, if we go forward."

Esper's caution reflected the on again-off again nature of the talks with the Taliban and Trump's frustration with what he calls the "endless wars" following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

By Sept. 2019, Khalilizad's efforts had reached the point where Trump felt confident enough to invite Taliban representatives to the Camp David, Maryland, presidential retreat to finalize a deal, but Trump scrapped the meeting when a U.S. soldier was killed in a Taliban attack.

Ahead of Esper's announcement, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news briefing in Brussels Wednesday that the alliance welcomed "any step towards a reduction of violence in Afghanistan," but stressed that the Taliban eventually will have to drop their refusal to negotiate with the Kabul government.

"The only way to create lasting and sustainable peace in Afghanistan is, of course, to have the Afghans owning the peace process and agreeing on the way forward," Stoltenberg said.

The tentative deal to reduce the level of violence "makes sense," but will depend on whether the Taliban leaders Khalilzad has met with can actually control the disparate factions within the insurgent group, said retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, a 22-year infantry officer who served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.

"We're definitely looking for the door," Dempsey, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said of the Trump administration's intention to end U.S. involvement in the Afghan war. But "we owe the Afghans some effort at not leaving chaos behind us."

"Nobody has planned for what the ANSF looks like, post-deal," Dempsey said.

The risk, he said, is that the Afghan army and police would fracture into ethnic factions without some level of continued U.S. military support.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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