- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2020

The U.S. appears on the verge of finally securing a peace agreement in Afghanistan, top Trump administration officials said Thursday, as they announced a short-term pact with the Taliban that calls for a seven-day reduction in violence across the country to clear the way for intensive direct talks.

The breakthrough comes 18 months after U.S. officials began backroom negotiations with the radical Islamist group in an effort to wind down the longest military campaign in American history and bring home more than 12,000 U.S. troops still in the country. But the announcement also comes with major questions, chiefly whether the Taliban is fully willing or able to control its various splinter groups, break decisively with jihadi groups such as al Qaeda, and make good on a promise to reduce violence.

U.S. officials were careful Thursday not to describe the seven-day test period as a full-fledged cease-fire, suggesting that even they are skeptical that the Taliban and its affiliates will go a full week without perpetrating attacks on American, NATO or Afghan military targets.

Still, the administration expressed optimism that a sweeping agreement could finally be within reach. Defense Secretary Mark Esper first announced there was a deal “on the table” after a key summit with NATO leaders in Brussels.

“The best, if not only, solution forward is a political agreement,” Mr. Esper told reporters. “We have the basis for one on the table and we are asking for a hard look at it. We are consulting with our allies, we are consulting with Congress and others. … But it will demand that all parties comply with our obligations if we move forward.”

Mr. Trump, who torpedoed the signing of a previous Taliban deal at the last minute in September, took a wait-and-see approach to the latest diplomatic flurry in a radio interview Thursday with Geraldo Rivera.

“I think we’re very close,” Mr. Trump said. ” … That doesn’t mean we’ll have [a deal] but we’ll know over the next two weeks,” he said, though it was unclear if the president was referring to the cease-fire or the larger peace accord.

If the seven-day reduction in violence holds, a final U.S.-Taliban agreement would likely include calls for a permanent cease-fire, a drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan, and a framework for direct talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, which the Taliban thus far has refused to recognize or engage with directly.

Mr. Trump, who campaigned on winding down the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan, has made clear that he wants to cut that number by about 5,000, and even some of the most outspoken foreign policy hawks in Congress now support the president’s goal.

“If the Trump administration decides to reduce U.S. forces to around 8,600 in Afghanistan, I would totally support such a decision as conditions on the ground justify a reduction,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.

But a final deal, and an accompanying U.S. withdrawal, are hardly sure things.

Mr. Trump claimed he canceled the September deal, which reportedly included a Camp David summit with leaders of the Taliban and the Kabul government, after a terrorist attack claimed the life of a U.S. service member in Afghanistan.

That incident led the U.S. to dramatically ramp up its military pressure on the Taliban. Last year, the U.S. dropped 7,423 bombs on targets in Afghanistan — the highest number over the past 10 years.

Continued violence across Afghanistan has frustrated Trump administration officials, some of whom stressed Thursday that the path forward is wholly dependent on the Taliban’s ability to make good on its word and halt attacks.

Despite nearly two decades of American military involvement, the Taliban today controls as much Afghan territory as it did during the run-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Getting the Islamist group to the bargaining table, some say, means the hard work is just beginning.

“Frankly, this is probably going to be a simpler step than what comes next, which is the intra-Afghan dialogue piece, which is going to be quite complicated,” Pakistani U.S. Ambassador Asad Khan said recently. “For this process to move to the next level, I think it is important that the deal is finalized.”

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