- The Washington Times - Monday, December 30, 2019

Leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban movement on Sunday said they have agreed to a temporary cease-fire, reopening a window for a peace deal after President Trump abruptly broke off talks in September aimed at ending the longest war in U.S. history.

The U.S. has been engaged in direct talks with Taliban leaders for nearly a year, but the jihadi group has long resisted a cease-fire in advance of a deal, arguing it would undercut its leverage in the talks.

While details are scarce, Sunday’s announcement presents a window of opportunity for the U.S., the Taliban, and eventually the U.S.-backed government in Kabul to negotiate a long-awaited peace agreement and allow Mr. Trump to fulfill a critical campaign promise by bringing home the bulk of the American troops who remain in the country.

But the announcement came just one day after the Taliban launched an attack in northern Afghanistan that killed at least 17 local militiamen, and just a week after an American soldier was killed in the northern Kunduz province. Mr. Trump said he called off a planned Camp David summit in September to ink an initial peace deal after a similar Taliban attack killed a U.S. serviceman.

Although the group was ousted from power by U.S. forces in late 2001, the Taliban has remained a stubborn insurgent force over the past decade and a half. The Taliban’s comeback has gained steam over the past several years, and the group has regularly clashed with Afghan security forces and expanded control of much of the countryside and outlying provinces.



But veteran Afghan-born U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, Mr. Trump’s special envoy to the Afghan peace process, has vigorously pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, with the U.S. demanding the Islamist group cut all ties to al Qaeda, ISIS and other terror groups and agree to enter power-sharing talks with the Kabul government.

The cease-fire is expected to last at least a week and up to 10 days, The Associated Press reported. The U.S. and the Taliban are likely to sign an agreement first, once the Taliban chief approves the decision. Talks then would begin directly with the Afghan government.

The intra-Afghan talks will potentially form the structure of a post-war Afghanistan and are set to address various human rights issues from free speech to women’s rights, and a potential change of the Afghan constitution.

Washington has insisted that any agreement will ensure that the Taliban will not use Afghanistan as a base from which radical Islamist terrorist groups can attack the West. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda famously used the sanctuary provided by the Taliban to plan and carry out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Bringing home the troops

While no formal details of the deal have been released publicly, early drafts of a U.S.-Taliban peace agreement would allow about 5,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to come home immediately, along with the closing of five American military bases in the country. The U.S. has roughly 12,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan.

NATO allies have about 8,000 forces.

The Taliban has consistently rejected previous cease-fire offers by the Afghan government aside from a three-day pause in June of last year for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, while U.S. officials have stressed that a diplomatic solution is the only way to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan.

Mr. Trump sparked confusion on a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan when he appeared to suggest the Taliban had already agreed to a cease-fire and that direct talks were being planned.

“The Taliban wants to make a deal,” Mr. Trump said at the time. “We’ll see if they want to make a deal. It’s got to be a real deal, but we’ll see. But they want to make a deal.”

He has since reportedly considered pulling 4,000 troops from the country in the coming weeks, but the Pentagon is pushing for some American forces to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely to advise and assist the Kabul government and conduct some direct counterterrorism operations.

Lawmakers and experts alike have cautioned that a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country could destabilize the region once more.

Just over one year ago, Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement to pull forces out of the region, including Afghanistan, contributed to the decision by then-Defense Secretary James N. Mattis to resign.

Sunday’s apparent progress came after four members of the Taliban’s negotiating team conferred with the group’s council at their political office in Qatar, before they announced the cease-fire.

Mr. Khalilzad, who has been leading the talks since September 2018, returned to Doha this month to restart negotiations of the cease-fire after a three-month pause. He reportedly suggested the temporary halt to make progress on the peace deal.

Washington has remained silent on the cease-fire agreement since the announcement.

• This story is based in part on wire reports.

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