WASHINGTON – The Trump administration has reached an initial deal with the Taliban for a reduction in the deadly attacks that have ravaged Afghanistan for years, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Friday.
“The United States and the Taliban have negotiated a proposal for a seven-day reduction in violence,” said Esper, who is in Germany for an international security conference.
The seven-day clock has not started ticking, but Trump administration officials hope it will lead to a broader Afghanistan peace deal and a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops.
“We’ve said all along that the best, if not only, solution in Afghanistan is a political agreement,” Esper said. “Progress has been made on this front, and we’ll have more to report on that soon, I hope.”
There are about 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan whose mission is split between training Afghan security forces and conducting counterterrorism missions. The American military presence there dates to 2001 when U.S. troops helped topple the hardline Taliban government that had sheltered al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“It is our view that seven days, for now, is sufficient,” Esper said. But he cautioned that the next steps will be based on conditions inside Afghanistan, signaling the truce could go awry if Taliban or its allies violate the terms.
“It will be a continual evaluative process, as we go forward – if we go forward,” Esper said.
A senior U.S. official said the seven-day truce will take effect “very soon” and could lead to the withdrawal of an unspecified number of American troops from Afghanistan. The official said the “reduction in violence” agreement will be followed by peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Taliban had committed to a halt in roadside and suicide bombings, as well as rocket attacks.
A Taliban official familiar with the deal said that the second agreement would be signed on Feb. 29 and that the inter-Afghan dialogue would begin on March 10. The officials said Germany and Norway have offered to host the talks but there has been no decision on the venue.
That Taliban official added that the withdrawal of foreign troops would start gradually and would be phased over 18 months.
Friday’s announcement is no guarantee of peace in the war-torn country. In September, U.S. negotiators hailed a breakthrough in talks only to see hope for peace dissipate after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack that killed an American. President Donald Trump then scrapped a planned meeting with the Taliban at Camp David.
But Trump, visiting troops at Bagram air base north of Kabul, announced in November that he had restarted peace talks.
In 2019, the U.S.-led coalition dropped more bombs in Afghanistan than in any other year of the war, including 2011, the year of peak U.S. involvement with 100,000 troops on the ground. The air campaign was intended in part to force the Taliban to negotiate.
More than 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed there, and more than 20,000 wounded in the fighting. Last year, the Pentagon estimated the cost to taxpayers for the war there at $737 billion.
A withdrawal of American forces also would likely take several months and require that some forces remain to protect the embassy and other U.S. interests.
U.S. officials have not publicly spelled out their timetable for an initial drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but the expectation is that a reduction from the current total of about 12,000 to approximately 8,600 will begin after the signing of a U.S.-Taliban deal.
The new developments came as Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Friday in Munich with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani. They spoke on the sidelines of an international security forum in Munich.
A truce had been widely anticipated, and Trump agreed in principle to the deal, according to U.S. officials.
The final details were hammered out in recent days by U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. Khalilzad was in Munich and attended Pompeo and Esper’s meeting as did Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan.
Contributing: The Associated Press