- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2020

President Trump expressed fresh optimism Sunday about the prospects for a lasting peace deal with the Taliban, as a weeklong reduction in violence pact with the militant group entered its third day without reports of any major incidents in Afghanistan.

While hard-liners in Washington warned the administration against moving too eagerly achieve its goal of withdrawing U.S. troops and ending America’s longest war, Mr. Trump said the Taliban are “tired of fighting” and expressed confidence that a major deal was imminent.

“We want to make a deal,” the president told reporters Sunday as he left the White House for a trip to India. “I think it’s going to work out.”


SEE ALSO: Robert O’Brien: Taliban attack this week would ‘likely’ kill peace deal


National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien offered a more cautious assessment. He warned in a television interview that hope for a lasting deal will likely collapse if the radical Islamist Taliban carries out any attacks during the fragile cease-fire.

Mr. O’Brien told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the president’s response to an attack may be the same as that in September, when Mr. Trump abruptly pulled back from the brink of a deal with the Taliban after a strike by militants killed an American service member in Kabul.



“The president made it very clear the last time we were close to signing a deal with the Taliban and they engaged in some malign activity. They had a vehicle-borne [improvised explosive device] that killed a number of people, including one American, and the president pulled back from signing the deal,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Mr. Trump and his national security adviser made the comments in the wake of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement Friday that U.S. negotiators and the Taliban had reached a temporary reduction in violence pact after nearly two years of delicate talks.

Mr. Pompeo said in a statement that the U.S. and the Taliban are preparing to sign a formal peace agreement Saturday if the cease-fire holds.

After the deal is signed, the secretary of state said, intra-Afghanistan negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul will commence with the goal of delivering “a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire and [a] future political road map for Afghanistan.”

Such a development could pave the way for Mr. Trump to succeed on his 2016 campaign promises to end 19 years of war in Afghanistan and bring home most, if not all, of the more than 12,000 U.S. troops stationed there.

The crux of a deal centers on the Taliban’s willingness to work with the Kabul government going forward to purge the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups that have found sanctuary in Afghanistan, in exchange for a phased withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign combat troops. The Pentagon is pushing to keep at least a small contingent of U.S. special operations forces in the country to deal with the terrorist threat.

But major uncertainties remain.

The deal reportedly would set into motion a 135-day timetable for the initial U.S. troop drawdown and the start of the Taliban-Afghan government talks that analysts say are likely to play out in the course of years, not months.

The Taliban has refused to recognize the legitimacy of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, and some believe the militant group is poised to exploit rampant infighting among political leaders in Kabul if and when negotiations do take place.

At issue specifically is an escalating clash between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his chief political rival, Abdullah Abdullah. The release last week of long-delayed September election results gave Mr. Ghani a second term in office, allowing him to avoid a runoff against Mr. Abdullah by the narrowest of margins.

Mr. Abdullah, who serves as chief executive in a shaky unity government with Mr. Ghani, has rejected the results and announced his intention to now form a parallel administration.

Beyond such political squabbling, the Kabul government still does not control much of the country and international efforts to build up Afghanistan’s economy and military have consistently fallen short.

Mr. Pompeo offered an optimistic but cautious assessment of the situation in his statement Friday. He acknowledged that “challenges remain” but said the prospect of a U.S.-Taliban deal signing Saturday “provides hope and represents a real opportunity.”

“The only way to achieve a sustainable peace in Afghanistan is for Afghans to come together and agree on the way forward,” said the secretary of state, adding that “the United States calls on all Afghans to seize this moment.”

Friday’s announcement received mixed reactions from global leaders and U.S. lawmakers. Some expressed wariness about the timetable for any serious U.S. troop withdrawal.

“I hope the Trump Administration will not give into absurd Taliban demands for U.S. withdrawal within 18 months — regardless of conditions on the ground,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, tweeted Friday.

Mr. Graham and others have warned that a hasty withdrawal could send a dangerous signal to the Taliban that if it stalls long enough in intra-Afghanistan talks, the Americans eventually will be gone and the militants will have an opening to try to topple Kabul.

Mr. O’Brien appeared eager to dispel such concerns Sunday. He said the Trump administration is “not going to reduce troops to a level below what is necessary to protect American interests and our partners in Afghanistan.”

“I can assure you of that,” the national security adviser said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, meanwhile, welcomed the cease-fire pact in remarks Friday but 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,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

Mr. Trump said Sunday that he is ready to sign a major deal and end the war.

“Time to come home,” he said, asserting that the Taliban fighters also “want to stop.”

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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