US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper attends a NATO defence ministers' meeting in Brussels on Feb 13, 2020, to address key issues including the Alliance’s training mission in Iraq and the fight against international terrorism. (ARIS Oikonomou / AFP)
BRUSSELS / WASHINGTON — US Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced on Thursday that the United States and the Taliban have negotiated a proposal for a seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan.
We've said all along the best, if not only, solution in Afghanistan is a political agreement
Mark Esper, US Defense Secretary
"We've said all along the best, if not only, solution in Afghanistan is a political agreement," Esper told reporters following a two-day NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels.
Without giving any clear timetable, Esper only said "progress has been on this front, and we have more to report on that soon."
Esper also said during the press conference in Brussels that if the process goes forward there would be continuous evaluation of any violence.
America and the Taliban were on verge of a similar deal in September, but Trump suddenly called off the talks, citing a Taliban attack which led to the death of an American citizen.
Esper said consultations have been made with US allies about the proposal, and bilateral and collective meetings have been held to discuss the path forward.
Wrapping up the ministerial meeting, during which the situation in the war-torn country was high on the agenda, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reaffirmed the alliance's support for the peace process.
"We welcome any steps that can lead to the reduction of violence -- the Taliban have to show a real will and a real ability to deliver a reduction of violence on the ground," said Stoltenberg.
Trump sees 'good chance'
US President Donald Trump said on Thursday he thinks there is a “good chance” the United States would reach an agreement with the Taliban by the end of February on a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Trump said on Thursday he thinks there is a “good chance” the United States would reach an agreement with the Taliban by the end of February
Trump’s comments were the latest indication of significant progress in negotiations that the United States and the Taliban have been holding since December in Qatar.
“I think we’re very close,” Trump said on a podcast broadcast on iHeart Radio when asked if a tentative deal had been reached. “I think there’s a good chance that we’ll have a deal ... We’re going to know over the next two weeks.”
Earlier, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the talks had achieved “a pretty important breakthrough.”
Sources had told Reuters a US-Taliban peace deal could be signed this month, a move that would pave the way for a withdrawal from Afghanistan of some 13,000 US troops and thousands of other NATO personnel, 18 years after a US-led coalition invaded following the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States.
The demand to sharply reduce violence has been partly why the talks had been deadlocked, according to a Western diplomat in Kabul.
Sharply reduce violence
Speaking to reporters traveling with him to Munich, where he will attend a security conference, Pompeo expressed both optimism and caution.
The demand to sharply reduce violence has been partly why the talks had been deadlocked, according to a Western diplomat in Kabul
“We have made real progress over the last handful of days and the President gave us the authority to continue to have the conversations,” Pompeo said, adding: “We are not there yet.”
“We hope we can get to a place where we can get a significant reduction in violence, not only on a piece of paper but demonstrated ... and if we can get there, if we can hold that posture for a while, then we’ll be able to begin the real, serious discussion which is all the Afghans sitting at a table,” Pompeo said.
He is expected to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Munich, a former senior Afghan official said on Wednesday.
The news of a potential agreement comes amid continued attacks by the Taliban, who control about 40% of Afghanistan, according to Afghan defense officials.
Last month the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a US government agency, assessed that there had been a record-high number of attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces in the last three months of 2019.
Although the Taliban is negotiating with US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, it refuses to talk directly to Ghani’s government, which it denounces as a puppet of the West.
US Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski, who has expressed deep reservations about the talks with the Taliban, said he viewed the proposal of a reduction in violence as a test of the Taliban leadership.
“We also need to see whether the Taliban leadership conducting these negotiations actually can control what their forces in the field do. And I’m glad to see that intra-Afghan talks are supposed to start if this test is passed,” he said.
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