Taliban Tell Washington to Take It or Leave It

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — The Taliban have issued an ultimatum to Washington after weeks of talks with a U.S. peace envoy, demanding a reply to their offer of a seven-day reduction of violence in Afghanistan, or they would walk away from the negotiating table, two Taliban officials said Wednesday.

A reduction in violence deal for a very short period is sought by the Taliban because they don’t want to commit to a formal ceasefire until other components of a final deal are in place. They have said a ceasefire could blunt their battlefield momentum if the United States or Kabul reneges on their promises.

Afghan soldiers stand guard at the site of a suicide bombing that killed six people near the military academy in Kabul on Tuesday. (AP photo/Rahmat Gul)

The development comes as Washington said late Tuesday that an agreement on the Taliban’s “reduction of violence” offer was days away. Also, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that he had received a phone call from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling him of “notable progress” in the talks with the Taliban.

The ultimatum came from the chief Taliban negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who met this week with White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Qatari foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, according to two Taliban officials familiar with the negotiations. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

There was no immediate response from Washington on the ultimatum, which appeared designed to focus the negotiations on Taliban demands. The Taliban maintain a political office in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where Khalilzad often meets their representatives in the talks that are seeking to find a resolution to Afghanistan’s 18-year war, America’s longest.

President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said Tuesday that he is cautiously optimistic there could be an agreement with the Taliban over the next days or weeks, but that withdrawal of U.S. forces is not “imminent.”

The agreement, which Trump would have to sign off on, calls for Taliban and U.S. forces to pledge to adhere to a weeklong “reduction of violence” that would lead to an agreement between the United States and the Taliban. That would be followed, within 10 days, by all-Afghan negotiations to set the road map for the political future of postwar Afghanistan.

The details emerging from Washington on the agreement are similar to details released weeks earlier by a Taliban spokesman in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, and appear to give the Taliban all they have asked for.

Another Taliban demand is that in any all-Afghan negotiations, representatives of Afghan President Ghani’s government cannot come to the table in an official capacity, but only as ordinary Afghan citizens. The Taliban do not recognize the Afghan government and have refused to negotiate directly with Ghani, calling him an American puppet, effectively sidelining Kabul from the process.

Ghani, whose political future remains uncertain after last September’s presidential election, which still has no official winner, has demanded that the Taliban negotiate with his government. His political opponents and his partner in the so-called Unity Government, Abdullah Abdullah, have sharply criticized Ghani’s intransigence and accused him of trying to sideline their involvement in the peace process. Ghani has also blasted the reduction of violence offer, demanding a permanent ceasefire and a halt in the near-daily attacks by the Taliban.

The Taliban have refused, saying they want agreements in place that would be guaranteed by international powers such as Gulf Arab states, Russia, China and the U.N. before agreeing to a permanent ceasefire.

The reduction of violence deal would call for the Taliban and United States to refrain from attacks or combat operations for seven days, according to a person familiar with the discussions who was not authorized to discuss the proposal and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Asked whether Trump would sign off on such an agreement, O’Brien said there has been “significant progress” in the months-long on-again, off-again talks with the Taliban and that the United States is “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 said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Other conditions in the deal would include a Taliban pledge not to associate with al-Qaida, the Islamic State group or other extremist groups.

“We have contributed a tremendous amount of blood and treasure to Afghanistan, but it’s time for America to come home,” O’Brien said. “We want to make sure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorism again.”

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with a harsh version of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001 and hosted al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden as he masterminded the 9/11 attacks, say they no longer seek a monopoly on power. They control or hold sway over roughly half of the country.

There are fears that a full withdrawal of some 20,000 NATO troops, including about 12,000 U.S. forces, would leave the Afghan government vulnerable, or unleash another round of fighting in a war that has killed tens of thousands of Afghans and claimed the lives of 2,400 U.S. servicemen and -women.

Afghan civilians have paid the heaviest price — the United Nations says that between 2009, when it began documenting civilian casualties, and October 2019, a total of 34,677 Afghan civilians have been killed, either in insurgent attacks or caught in the crossfire of battles between militants and Afghan security forces and their U.S.-led coalition allies.

The State Department declined to comment on negotiations beyond saying that the “U.S. talks with the Taliban in Doha continue around the specifics of a reduction in violence.” Ghani, Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper will all be in Munich, Germany, this week for the annual Munich Security Conference, which is expected to discuss Afghanistan.

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