- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2020

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday announced U.S. negotiators and the Taliban have reached an “understanding” to decrease violence in Afghanistan, in a move that brings both sides closer to an agreement to end America’s longest war.

“After decades of conflict, we have come to an understanding with the Taliban on a significant reduction in violence across #Afghanistan. This is an important step on a long road to peace, and I call on all Afghans to seize this opportunity,” the secretary said on Twitter.

In a statement later released by the department, Mr. Pompeo explained that both sides are preparing to sign a U.S.-Taliban peace agreement on Feb. 29, “upon a successful implementation of this understanding.”

Following the signing, he explained intra-Afghan negotiations between the two parties will “build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire and the future political roadmap for Afghanistan.”

“The only way to achieve a sustainable peace in Afghanistan is for Afghans to come together and agree on the way forward,” he said.

The breakthrough comes a year and a half after U.S. officials began peace talks 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 both sides have walked away once a deal appeared close.

The withdrawal of American forces has been a key demand of Taliban leaders throughout the negotiation process, while the U.S. has insisted that the group agree to a full cease-fire and negotiate directly with the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul.

Prospects for a U.S.-Taliban deal seemed imminent in early September when Mr. Trump invited Taliban leaders to a Camp David summit to announce an agreement. But the plans were scrapped at the last minute after Taliban attacks targeted Americans in Afghanistan.

Mr. Pompeo explained that while “challenges remain,” the progress “provides hope and represents a real opportunity. The United States calls on all Afghans to seize this moment.”

The announcement quickly received mixed reactions from global leaders and experts who were split on the effects of a troop withdrawal.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and former Defense Department official, argued that a troop withdrawal may risk the success of the second phase of the agreement involving the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

“Withdrawal is not calibrated to the success of intra-Afghan dialogue,” Mr. Rubin wrote in a recent op-ed. “The Taliban are not a unitary organization and there is no mechanism to prevent the Taliban from playing good-cop, bad-cop by simultaneously holding out an olive branch while ordering supposedly rogue units to attack.”

He said the understanding with the Taliban and pending agreement “makes terrorist attacks and Americans abroad and the U.S. homeland more likely. It mocks the sacrifice so many American soldiers have made since Sept. 11. It betrays a generation of Afghan women. And it rewards a government responsible for sheltering terrorists and killing Americans.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, meanwhile, welcomed the announcement and called it a “critical test of the Taliban’s willingness and ability to reduce violence, and contribute to peace in good faith.”

“This could pave the way for negotiations among Afghans, sustainable peace, and ensuring the country is never again a safe haven for terrorists,” he said.

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