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Friday February 21st, 2020 7:15AM

US and Taliban agree to truce, way forward in Afghanistan

By The Associated Press
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MUNICH (AP) — The United States and the Taliban have agreed to a temporary truce that, if successful, would open the way for a deal that would bring American troops home from Afghanistan and end 18 years of war.

The peace deal would call for negotiations between Afghans on both sides of the conflict to start next month, an eventual countrywide cease-fire and a commitment from the Taliban not to harbor terrorist groups like al Qaida, while setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The truce marks a milestone in efforts to end America’s longest-running conflict and fulfill President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to bring U.S. troops home from foreign conflicts. But prospects for a real and lasting peace remain unclear.

Details were provided separately Friday by a senior U.S. official and a Taliban official, who were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The U.S. official said the agreement for a seven-day “reduction in violence” is “very specific” and covers the entire country, including Afghan government forces. There were indications a formal announcement could come as early as the weekend.

The official said the Taliban had committed to a halt in roadside and suicide bombings as well as rocket attacks. If the Taliban uphold their commitments, a U.S.-Taliban peace agreement would be signed within 10 days.

The Taliban official said the signing had been tentatively set for Feb. 29, with the start of the Afghan talks planned for March 10. The official said Germany and Norway have offered to host the talks but there has been no decision on the venue.

That Taliban official said the agreement would provide for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners before the start of the negotiations.

Much will depend on the results of the all-Afghan negotiations, if and when they get off the ground. The presence of “spoilers” — those happy with the status quo — will remain a threat to peace efforts throughout the process, the U.S. senior official acknowledged.

Also uncertain are the gains made for Afghan women and girls since the fall of the Taliban months after the U.S. military response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks ordered by Osama bin Laden from Afghan soil.

But, for the Taliban, the proposal represents a way to gain the political legitimacy they never had in the late 1990s when they first came to power.

The new developments came as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper met Friday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of an international security forum in Munich.

To make good on its promise to release Taliban prisoners, Washington is going to need the cooperation of Ghani, who has been critical of the way U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has conducted the talks with the Taliban, complaining about being kept in the dark.

Ghani has also bickered with his partner in the current Unity Government, Abdullah Abdullah, over who will represent Kabul at the negotiating table. Ghani has insisted he lead the talks, while his political opponents and other prominent Afghans have called for more inclusive representation at the negotiating table.

The Taliban and those familiar with the details of the Afghan negotiations say the representatives from Kabul will include government officials but they will sit across from the Taliban as ordinary Afghans and not as government representatives.

U.S. officials have not publicly spelled out their timetable for an initial drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but the expectation is that a reduction from the current total of about 12,000 to approximately 8,600 will begin after the signing of a U.S.-Taliban deal. That initial reduction is likely to stretch out over a period of weeks or months.

The Taliban official said the withdrawal of foreign troops would start gradually and be carried out over 18 months.

A senior U.S. military officer told a small group of reporters that U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida will continue, separate from the truce agreement. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive aspects of military operations ahead of an expected announcement of the U.S.-Taliban deal.

He also said the United States has sufficient intelligence-gathering assets to be able to determine within the seven-day period whether the Taliban is making a good-faith effort to reduce violence, even if some limited violence persists.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy on Friday called the U.S. agreement a first step in the process.

“It’s going to take several weeks for this to unfold, but it’s very encouraging that we’re heading down a path to a political solution,” he said in response to a question during remarks at the National Press Club.

A truce had been widely anticipated, and Trump agreed in principle to the deal, according to U.S. officials.

The final details were hammered out in recent days by Khalilzad and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. Khalilzad also was in Munich and attended Pompeo and Esper's meeting, as did Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan.

___

Gannon reported from Islamabad. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns and Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

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