US ‘Reduction in Violence’ in Afghanistan to Start Saturday

WASHINGTON (CN) — A permanent ceasefire between U.S. forces and the Taliban in Afghanistan is on the horizon as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Friday plans to sign a peace accord next week.

Pompeo has led regular talks for the past year and Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed just last week that the initial proposal for a seven-day “reduction in violence” in Afghanistan was finally struck.

The Afghan National Security Council on Friday said Pompeo’s announcement means that the violence-reduction campaign could start as soon as this Saturday. This weeklong period is not described specifically as a “ceasefire,” however, because it will not interrupt anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan by the U.S. military.

Afghan security personnel gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

After the seven-day period, U.S. and Taliban officials are expected to sign the peace deal on Feb. 29. The Afghan government will not be a party to the signing. Instead, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is expected to engage in talks with the Taliban only after the U.S.-Taliban deal is done.

That prospect is very likely to be fraught with difficulties since Afghanistan is now embroiled in a complex political crisis: Afghan held its presidential elections in September but it was not until this Tuesday — following nearly five months of deliberations — that victory was finally declared.

By two people.

Both incumbent President Ghani and challenger Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive of the Afghan government, claimed they won the election this week. This prompted Abdullah to announce that he would form an “inclusive” government of his own that runs parallel to Ghani’s administration.

Abdullah upped the ante further on Wednesday when he issued a decree barring election officials from leaving the country.

The State Department did not immediately return request for comment on how this evolving political crossroads may impact the U.S.-Taliban peace deal.

The violence-reduction campaign could include the drawdown of U.S. troops from the region.

With 13,000 service members stationed in Afghanistan, the new deal could see the total drop to 8,600 over the course of 135 days. American forces have been stationed in the region consistently since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Defense Department reports that more than 2,400 troops have been killed and, according to an estimate by the Pentagon last year, the cost of the two-decade war hovers around $737 billion. Another estimate from Brown University’s Costs of War project, puts the price tag for taxpayers closer to $1.5 trillion.

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

Similar steps are not unprecedented, but violence has caused disruptions each time.

In September, special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad announced an imminent peace agreement “in principle.”

But on the heels of the envoy’s announcement, a suicide car bombing killed a U.S. servicemember in Kabul near a NATO check point. The Taliban ultimately took credit for the attack, prompting President Trump to cancel previously scheduled and secret talks at Camp David with Taliban officials.

Weeks later, peace talks were seemingly back on when Trump, during an unexpected Thanksgiving visit to Bagram Air Base, revealed that the Taliban wanted to “make a deal.”

“It’s got to be a real deal, but we’ll see,” Trump said in November. “But they want to make a deal.”

While NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg lauded the prospect of the historic peace deal on Friday, he also noted that it would be a critical test of the Taliban’s willingness to “reduce violence and contribute to peace in good faith.”

Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban, published an op-ed in The New York Times on Thursday speaking to the very sentiment.

“Even when President Trump called off the talks, we kept the door to peace open because we Afghans suffer the most from the continuation of the war,” Haqqani wrote. “No peace agreement, following on the heels of such intensive talks, comes without mutual compromises. That we stuck with such turbulent talks with the enemy we have fought bitterly for two decades, even as death rained from the sky, testifies to our commitment to ending the hostilities and bringing peace to our country.”

Trump made ending war in Afghanistan a part of his 2016 campaign platform; a successful deal could be a boon for his 2020 campaign.

The gamble for peace comes with high stakes since historically successful deals are hard to win in Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan Papers, published by The New York Times in December, highlighted the ways in which the Taliban and Afghan government have been sharply at odds for years and the ways in which the Afghan military, despite decades of direct U.S. intervention and training, is still underprepared to defend itself from the Taliban should the network opt to shred brokered diplomacy.

Since 2018, U.S. and Taliban officials have met formally at least nine times in Qatar in hopes of striking a peace deal.

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