US touts partial ceasefire with Taliban in push for election-year troop reduction
The US and Taliban are close to agreeing to a partial week-long ceasefire in Afghanistan intended to be a precursor to broader peace talks and withdrawal of at least some US troops.
Negotiators from both sides have been discussing the deal in Qatar and have said that an agreement is close. The Associated Press quoted two Taliban officials as saying they would walk away from the negotiating table if the offer of a seven-day “reduction of violence” was not accepted.
Donald Trump is reported to have given a green light to a deal that would cut US troop numbers, if the Taliban deliver on their offer of a lull in their attacks as a gesture of good faith. The US national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said he was “cautiously optimistic that some good news could be forthcoming”.
“The president had made it very clear that there will have to be a reduction in violence and there will have to be meaningful intra-Afghan talks for things to move forward,” O’Brien told the Atlantic Council thinktank on Tuesday.
Details of what a reduction in violence would look like and when it would start are unclear. The kidnapping last week of a US contractor – reportedly by a Taliban-allied faction – may also complicate the talks.
A state department spokesperson said only: “US talks with the Taliban in Doha continue around the specifics of a reduction in violence.”
According to sources familiar with the discussions, the partial ceasefire would usher in a more formal agreement by which the US would reduce its 12,000-strong military presence in Afghanistan and the Taliban would agree to enter into comprehensive talks with Afghan officials on a political settlement.
Trump is eager to show progress in winding down America’s longest war and ship troops back to the US during his re-election campaign. Afghanistan experts warned, however, the president risks handing a propaganda coup to the Taliban, while doing little to stop the bloodshed.
Several analysts pointed out that a temporary suspension of fighting during a harsh winter was not much of a concession.
“It’s frankly ludicrous. It’s snowing. Who wants to go fighting when it’s snowing?” said Michael Semple, a former EU special representative to Afghanistan with long experience of Taliban negotiations. He said the leadership was still dedicated to toppling the Kabul government and showed little appetite for a comprehensive peace deal.
“The Taliban haven’t changed anything,” Semple, now a professor at Queens University in Belfast, added. “They are all merrily preparing for the spring offensive. As far as we can tell from talking to them both in Doha and in Pakistan, they assume that regardless of whether they get their signing ceremony, they expect to go ahead with that.”
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, called the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and his main rival, the government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, on Tuesday, to inform them of progressive in the Doha talks.
“The secretary informed me about the Taliban’s proposal with regards to bringing a significant and enduring reduction in violence,” Ghani said in a tweet, calling it a welcome development.
“The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will manage the next steps in a manner that positively supports the overall peace process and will report to the public.”
The US and the Taliban have been close to a ceasefire deal before. In September, Trump declared that Taliban leaders had been about to come to a signing ceremony at Camp David but he called it off at the eleventh hour in the wake of a Taliban attack in Kabul. The Ghani government had been suspicious of the talks, saying they had not been properly briefed. This time, the presidential palace has expressed appreciation for being kept in the loop.
Laurel Miller, former acting US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said she thought the week-long violence reduction proposal was intended as a compromise with Ghani, who had demanded a full ceasefire, and to justify returning to a deal Trump had abandoned last year.
“I think after President Trump ended the talks in the beginning of September, there had to be some explanation given for turning them back on,” said Miller, now director of the Asia programme at the International Crisis Group. “And the explanation can now be: they got something more.”
The Taliban has hitherto refused to negotiate with the Ghani government, saying they would only negotiate if members of the government came to broader political talks as ordinary Afghan citizens.
There are currently about 20,000 Nato troops in Afghanistan, including 12,000 US forces. The Pentagon has said about 4,000 of them could be withdrawn, whether or not there is a deal with the Taliban.
It is not clear whether Washington would send troops back into Afghanistan if the Taliban continued to carry out attacks or pulled out of broader peace talks.
Kate Clark, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said that a US withdrawal might tip the military balance in the Taliban’s favour, which could prove dangerous if it has no intention of pursuing a comprehensive settlement.
“At the moment, the Taliban are on the back foot, because of the airstrikes and the night raids – and one result of that is a lot of civilians are getting killed as well,” Clark said. “There’s a bit of an impasse in the war, and if you remove the Americans from that equation, the Taliban become relatively stronger. And if they’re not actually interested in peace, then the Afghans are in trouble.”