- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2020

Taliban leaders confirmed for the first time Monday that a major peace deal with the Trump administration could be signed by the end of the month, although doubts swirled around the claim amid reports of ongoing attacks by the militant group in Afghanistan.

Afghan government troops backed by U.S. and allied forces came under attack Sunday night and some Taliban commanders — despite the peace deal claims by the group’s leaders — said Monday that they had yet not received orders stand down and would continue operations until ordered otherwise.

The Taliban statement came after top U.S. officials had told various news outlets that the two sides were on the verge of securing a major peace deal and had reached a short-term “reduction of violence” pact that was supposed to include a freeze on attacks by both sides in the days before an agreement could be signed.

The potential deal could end nearly two decades of civil war, bring the first direct talks between the radical Islamist Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, and allow Mr. Trump to bring home immediately about a third of the estimated 13,000 U.S. troops in the country and begin to fulfill a key campaign promise.

But amid deep skepticism about the cease-fire and a peace deal, the Trump administration’s top envoy to talks said Monday that he remains “cautiously optimistic” that a breakthrough deal remains imminent after 18 months of backroom negotiations with Taliban representatives.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters at an event in Pakistan that U.S. officials have obtained “commitments from the Talib[an] on security issues,” according to Agence France-Presse, which declining to offer specifics.

The crux of a deal is believed to center on Taliban willingness to work with the Kabul government to purge Islamic State, al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups that have found sanctuary in the country, in exchange for a withdrawal of U.S. and international combat troops. The Pentagon is reportedly pushing to keep at least a small special operations presence in the country to deal with the terrorist threat.

President Trump has yet to comment on the latest developments, although he said last week that there was “a good chance that we’ll have a deal” to wind down the longest U.S. military campaign in American history and bring home the some 12,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan. It was Mr. Trump who in September halted plans to sign an earlier deal with the Taliban after a suicide bombing by terrorists suspected of ties to the group had killed an American soldier.

Mr. Trump coincidentally will be in the region roughly when the trial cease-fire ends and a tentative deal is to be signed. He plans a two-day trip to India starting Feb. 24, the White House confirmed last week.

Taliban confirmation

Abdul Salam Hanafi, the deputy head of the Taliban’s political office, said Monday for the first time that negotiations with the U.S. had concluded and that the two sides will formally ink a major deal by the end of February.

Mr. Hanafi, a key Taliban player in direct talks with Mr. Khalilzad’s team in Doha, claimed the two sides would sign an agreement in the Qatari capital that would involve the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan and releasing some 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for about 1,000 Afghans imprisoned by the militant group.

According to a report Monday by Bloomberg, Mr. Hanafi told a pro-Taliban news website — that “Afghanistan’s neighbors, members of the U.N.’s Security Council, Islamic nations, Organization of Islamic Cooperation and other nations involved in Afghan peace issue will be invited to participate as witnesses” to the peace deal signing ceremony.

After the Taliban-U.S. deal is locked in, Mr. Hanafi was reported as saying, the militant group will then engage in talks with the Afghan government.

It was not immediately clear whether the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani has signed off on the deal. Analysts also question whether ground-level commanders in the Taliban support the agreement.

Taliban commanders in Afghanistan’s Helmand, Paktika and Nangarhar provinces said intend to carry on with attacks against Afghan forces, the Reuters news agency reported.

“Our leadership hasn’t conveyed any message about a cease-fire to us,” a Taliban commander in Helmand, a southern province that has seen some of the fiercest fighting, was quoted as saying.

Taliban fighters reportedly attacked Afghan government forces manning a checkpoint in the northern province of Kunduz on Sunday night, killing several security personnel.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Saturday in Germany that an agreement with the Taliban “looks very promising,” but is not without risks.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Mr. Esper said it was time to give peace a chance in Afghanistan through a political negotiation. “We have on the table right now a reduction in violence proposal that was negotiated between our ambassador and the Taliban,” Mr. Esper said.

However, skepticism about the proposal remains high among regional analysts, some of whom note the lack of details on how the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul will resolve their differences if and when a U.S.-Taliban deal is actually signed.

“The issue of an actual peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government remains unresolved. It’s being kicked down the road,” former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani told The Washington Times on Monday.

“That’s dangerous because the Taliban will proclaim victory. The Taliban will tell their supporters, ‘We drove out the Americans the same mujahideen drove out the Soviets decades ago,’” Mr. Haqqani said. “If anything, this will only increase the Taliban’s belligerence toward other Afghans going forward, including the Afghan government, which does not accept the Taliban’s vision of Islam.”

Mr. Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met on Friday in Munich with Mr. Ghani, whose government has not been directly involved in the talks and who has been skeptical of the prospects for a deal. Mr. Ghani said it was impossible to know how the Taliban will react to a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“The critical test is going to be: Will the Taliban accept an election?” the Afghan president said.

Mr. Ghani rejected the idea that the Taliban could be granted greater influence in certain regions of Afghanistan without participating in elections, saying it was “antithetical to the Afghan vision because we are a unified country.”

“The scope of the peace must be national,” he said. “It cannot be sub-national because otherwise it will be a recipe for another round of conflict.”

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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