WASHINGTON — The U.S. and the Taliban have reached agreement on a seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan that's intended to lead to a broader accord to end America's longest war.
A senior U.S. official said Friday that the two sides have a deal on the reduction of violence that, if achieved, would be followed by a peace plan allowing the U.S. to start withdrawing forces. The seven-day curb on attacks is expected to begin soon, the official said, without providing details.
President Donald Trump is gambling that direct engagement with the Taliban, which once provided a safe haven for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, will help him meet a pledge in his 2016 campaign to get America out of what he called "endless wars."
The Taliban had ruled Afghanistan until a U.S.-led coalition ousted the group after the U.S. invaded the country in 2001. A U.S. delegation led by envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been negotiating with the Taliban since late 2018.
In September, Trump abruptly called off the talks in response to a suicide bombing in Kabul that killed an American soldier.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said "the only solution in Afghanistan is a political agreement. Progress has been made on this front and we'll have more to report on that soon, I hope."
A U.S. defense official cautioned Thursday that, even with Taliban leaders pledging a seven-day reduction in violence — a pledge stopping short of a cease-fire — attacks would be likely to continue because of the many splinter groups in Afghanistan. The official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, also said the Taliban shares U.S. antipathy toward Islamic State, viewing the terrorist group as a dangerous threat.
The administration official who spoke on Friday said that the U.S. could withdraw troops in phases but only if the Taliban meet certain conditions. The U.S. now has about 13,000 of the almost 23,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of 100,000 in 2011.
An agreement would also have to lead to a dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, aimed at agreeing on a lasting cease-fire. Work toward that dialogue should take place within 10 days of the reduction of violence taking effect, according to the agreement.
The U.S. official declined on Friday to say how many troops would remain in Afghanistan as a residual force but added that the core U.S. concern is that the Taliban make good on a commitment in a final peace deal to make sure the country doesn't become a haven for terrorists that could threaten the U.S.
That echoed statements made by Esper earlier Friday, when he said the U.S. "is fully committed to ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists to launch attacks against our homelands. And we are committed to maintain that mission at whatever resource level we need."
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Thursday that if the talks result in a significant reduction in violence — and "if we can hold that posture for a while, then we'll be able to begin the real, serious discussion, which is all the Afghans sitting at a table" to seek a broader accord.
Despite the U.S. having spent an estimated $900 billion on the Afghan conflict, the Taliban are at their strongest since being ousted from power. The group controls or contests about half the country and regularly stages attacks in Kabul. Recent reports by the Pentagon's watchdog for Afghanistan reconstruction show how opium production has soared in the war-ravaged nation, while enemy-initiated attacks reached their highest level ever in the fourth quarter since data began being collected.