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Esper: US, Taliban deal on reducing violence in Afghanistan ‘promising,’ but with risks

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper delivers a speech during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 18, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said a deal between the United States and the Taliban on a weeklong reduction of violence in Afghanistan “looks very promising,” but warned it was not without risk.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 15, Esper said it was time “to give peace a chance” through a political solution to the nearly 19-year conflict.

“That means taking some risk,” he said. “That means enabling our diplomats and that means working together with our partners and allies on the ground to affect such a thing.”

The Afghan presidential palace said in a statement on February 15 that the deal was conditions-based and would be finalized possibly in the next few weeks.

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The palace statement said that U.S. officials told President Ashraf Ghani that the Taliban was ready to “quit violence” and accept a “pluralistic society.”

Ghani, speaking later at the Munich conference, refused to comment on specifics of the plan but voiced cautious optimism.

He said that the Taliban’s sincerity in entering the agreement was unproven, but added, “You’re not going to find an answer to this question unless you engage in the peace process.”

The Afghan president, whose administration has been frustrated at being shut out of talks between the United States and the Taliban insisted he was “on the same page” as Washington.

The remarks came a day after a senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity, told reporters at the sidelines of the Munich conference that the United States and the Taliban had reached a deal on a weeklong reduction of violence that would take effect “very soon.”

If successful, the weeklong truce could lead to the signing of a broader agreement between the United States and the Taliban on the withdrawal of around 20,000 foreign troops from the country.

That deal would trigger the start of intra-Afghan peace negotiations over the political future of the country.

The truce deal was announced after a meeting between Esper, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of the conference.

U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and General Scott Miller, the commander of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan, also attended the meeting.

The unnamed U.S. official who addressed reporters said the Taliban had committed to stopping roadside and suicide bombings as well as rocket attacks.

The official said the deal was “very specific” and covered the entire country, including Afghan forces.

The United States would monitor the truce and determine if there were any violations, the official said.