Eager to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and end America’s longest war, the Trump administration on Friday announced a modest deal with Taliban militants to reduce violence for a week as a test of the potential for broader peace negotiations.
The Taliban agreed not to use roadside explosive devices, suicide bombs or rockets or otherwise attack for a seven-day period, the start of which was undecided but will be “very soon,” said a senior administration official attending the annual Munich Security Conference with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
“The reduction-of-violence agreement is very specific,” said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in keeping with administration protocol.
It was not clear how the brief respite would give the U.S. and the Afghan government, allies in fighting the Taliban, the confidence necessary to embark on a broader agreement. Asking the Taliban to reduce attacks for a week in the dead of an Afghan winter did not seem like a tall order, military experts said.
Administration officials had announced in September that they were near agreement with the Taliban, and President Trump even spoke of inviting the Taliban to Camp David, the presidential retreat — to the consternation of many congressional Republicans and military leaders. But he abruptly pulled the plug on talks, citing a car bombing in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a U.S. service member.
Several Americans have been killed since then, including two last weekend who were shot by a gunman in an Afghan army uniform.
While Trump’s 2016 promise to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is one of his chief unfulfilled pledges as he seeks reelection, the official in Munich said it was too soon to announce a pullout of U.S. troops. Any withdrawal would be gradual and could take more than a year, military experts say.
There are roughly 12,000 U.S. military service members in Afghanistan, and about 4,000 troops from other NATO countries, nearly 18 years after the U.S. and its allies entered Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Afghanistan served as a haven for Al Qaeda fighters.
“We don’t want Afghanistan to ever become a platform [for terrorism] that threatens the United States and our allies,” the official said. “We’re not looking to be there just to be there.”
Earlier Friday, Pompeo met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Munich conference. The two posed for cameras but didn’t take reporters’ questions.
Although the Trump administration and the Taliban leadership have been negotiating off and on for a year, the Afghan government has not joined the talks. Reports from the region quoted Taliban officials saying that “intra-Afghan” talks would begin after the week-long period of reduced violence, as early as the first week of March.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, also attending the Munich conference, sounded cautiously optimistic.
“We are ready to adjust [NATO] force level if Taliban is able to demonstrate real will and real ability to reduce violence, and we see a path to peace,” Stoltenberg said. “The best way NATO can support the peace efforts is to continue to support the Afghan army and security forces, so Taliban understands that they will never win inthe battlefield and will have to sit down and negotiate.”
Human rights activists and aid workers have expressed alarm that the administration, in a rush to extricate American forces from Afghanistan, will make concessions to the Taliban. The group enforces a strict, conservative brand of Islam, and has in the past oppressed women and denied them education, among other draconian restrictions.
A truce of sorts had been widely anticipated, with reports of details circulating at the State Department for some time.
Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilizad, met again in recent days with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, and was believed to be finishing details of the agreement. Khalilzad also joined Pompeo and Esper in Munich, along with Gen. Scott Miller, commander of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, Trump had told a broadcast interviewer that a Taliban deal was “very close.”
“We’d like to bring our troops back home. They’re really, they’re law enforcement as opposed to soldiers to a large extent,” he said. “And we shouldn’t be there.”