US, Tal­iban agree to tem­po­rary truce

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - FRONT PAGE - By Matthew Lee and Kathy Gan­non

MU­NICH >> The United States and the Tal­iban have agreed to a tem­po­rary truce that, if suc­cess­ful, would open the way for a deal that would bring Amer­i­can troops home from Afghanista­n and end 18 years of war.

The peace deal would call for ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Afghans on both sides of the con­flict to start next month, an even­tual coun­try­wide cease-fire and a com­mit­ment from the Tal­iban not to har­bor ter­ror­ist groups like al Qaida, while set­ting a timetable for the with­drawal of U.S. troops.

The truce marks a mile­stone in ef­forts to end Amer­ica’s long­est-run­ning con­flict and ful­fill Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign pledge to bring U.S. troops home from for­eign con­flicts. But prospects for a real and last­ing peace re­main un­clear.

De­tails were pro­vided sep­a­rately Fri­day by a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial and a Tal­iban of­fi­cial, who were not au­tho­rized to pub­licly dis­cuss the mat­ter and spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

The U.S. of­fi­cial said the agree­ment for a seven-day “re­duc­tion in vi­o­lence” is “very spe­cific” and cov­ers the en­tire coun­try, in­clud­ing Afghan gov­ern­ment forces. There were in­di­ca­tions a for­mal an­nounce­ment could come as early as the week­end.

The of­fi­cial said the Tal­iban had com­mit­ted to a halt in road­side and sui­cide bomb­ings as well as rocket at­tacks. If the Tal­iban up­hold their com­mit­ments, a U.S.-Tal­iban peace agree­ment would be signed within 10 days.

The Tal­iban of­fi­cial said the sign­ing had been ten­ta­tively set for Feb. 29, with the start of the Afghan talks planned for March 10. The of­fi­cial said Ger­many and Nor­way have of­fered to host the talks but there has been no de­ci­sion on the venue.

That Tal­iban of­fi­cial said the agree­ment would pro­vide for the re­lease of 5,000 Tal­iban pris­on­ers be­fore the start of the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Much will de­pend on the re­sults of the all-Afghan ne­go­ti­a­tions, if and when they get off the ground. The pres­ence of “spoil­ers” — those happy with the sta­tus quo — will re­main a threat to peace ef­forts through­out the process, the U.S. se­nior of­fi­cial ac­knowl­edged.

Also un­cer­tain are the gains made for Afghan women and girls since the fall of the Tal­iban months af­ter the U.S. mil­i­tary re­sponse to the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks or­dered by Osama bin Laden from Afghan soil.

But, for the Tal­iban, the pro­posal rep­re­sents a way to gain the po­lit­i­cal le­git­i­macy they never had in the late 1990s when they first came to power.

The new de­vel­op­ments came as U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo and De­fense Sec­re­tary Mark Esper met Fri­day with Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani on the side­lines of an in­ter­na­tional security fo­rum in Mu­nich.

To make good on its prom­ise to re­lease Tal­iban pris­on­ers, Washington is go­ing to need the co­op­er­a­tion of Ghani, who has been crit­i­cal of the way U.S. en­voy Zal­may Khalilzad has con­ducted the talks with the Tal­iban, com­plain­ing about be­ing kept in the dark.

Ghani has also bick­ered with his part­ner in the cur­rent Unity Gov­ern­ment, Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah, over who will rep­re­sent Kabul at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. Ghani has in­sisted he lead the talks, while his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents and other prom­i­nent Afghans have called for more in­clu­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tion at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

The Tal­iban and those fa­mil­iar with the de­tails of the Afghan ne­go­ti­a­tions say the rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Kabul will in­clude gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials but they will sit across from the Tal­iban as or­di­nary Afghans and not as gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

U.S. of­fi­cials have not pub­licly spelled out their timetable for an ini­tial draw­down of U.S. troops in Afghanista­n, but the ex­pec­ta­tion is that a re­duc­tion from the cur­rent to­tal of about 12,000 to ap­prox­i­mately 8,600 will be­gin af­ter the sign­ing of a U.S.-Tal­iban deal. That ini­tial re­duc­tion is likely to stretch out over a pe­riod of weeks or months.

The Tal­iban of­fi­cial said the with­drawal of for­eign troops would start grad­u­ally and be car­ried out over 18 months.

A se­nior U.S. mil­i­tary officer told a small group of re­porters that U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions in Afghanista­n against the Is­lamic State group and al-Qaida will con­tinue, sep­a­rate from the truce agree­ment. The of­fi­cial spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive as­pects of mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions ahead of an ex­pected an­nounce­ment of the U.S.-Tal­iban deal.

He also said the United States has suf­fi­cient in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing as­sets to be able to de­ter­mine within the seven-day pe­riod whether the Tal­iban is mak­ing a good-faith ef­fort to re­duce vi­o­lence, even if some limited vi­o­lence per­sists.

Army Sec­re­tary Ryan McCarthy on Fri­day called the U.S. agree­ment a first step in the process.

“It’s go­ing to take sev­eral weeks for this to un­fold, but it’s very en­cour­ag­ing that we’re head­ing down a path to a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion,” he said in re­sponse to a ques­tion dur­ing re­marks at the Na­tional Press Club.

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