The US and the Taliban will sign an agreement on February 29 at the end of a planned week-long “reduction in violence” in Afghanistan, US officials and the Taliban said, giving fresh hope for an end to the protracted conflict.
The agreement could represent a chance for peace and withdrawal of thousands of US troops in the country since US-led forces ousted the Islamist Taliban from power in 2001.
Previous attempts at negotiating peace agreements were scuttled by Taliban attacks on international forces, most recently in December last year when an attack on a U.S. military base put talks on hold.
The reduction in violence (RIV), to be observed by Afghan, international and Taliban forces will begin at midnight on Friday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in a televised address.
Written instructions from the Taliban leadership, shared with journalists, instructed all fighters to be on the defensive and not to travel to areas controlled by the Afghan government and international forces.
Instructions on what would happen after signing a deal with the US after seven days would be shared later, the Taliban spokesman told fighters and commanders.
‘SEIZE THIS MOMENT’
The US and the Taliban have been in talks aimed at a political settlement and reducing the US presence, Secretary of State Pompeo said.
He urged Afghans to “seize this moment”.
Both sides would make arrangements for the release of prisoners, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
The agreement will be signed in Doha between Taliban representatives and US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, leading the United States’ negotiation team, a senior State Department official told journalists.
President Donald Trump, who vowed to stop “endless wars” as he seeks re-election in November, has long sought to withdraw troops.
NATO, with 16 000 troops in Afghanistan, welcomed Friday’s announcement, calling the reduced violence a critical test of Taliban willingness to contribute to peace.
The UN Mission in Afghanistan also welcomed the announcement.
US and Taliban negotiators have been meeting in Doha since 2018 even though fighting raged in Afghanistan and thousands of civilians and combatants died as insurgents expanded territory under their control.
“We hope the reduction in violence is extended and opens the way for a ceasefire and intra-Afghan talks,” Javid Faisal, spokesperson for the Afghan National Security Adviser, told Reuters.
The Taliban previously refused to speak directly to the Kabul government, which they denounce as a US puppet.
NOT A ‘CEASEFIRE’
One Taliban leader in Doha told Reuters the reduction in violence could not be called a “ceasefire”.
“Every party has the right of self-defence but there will be no attacks on each other’s positions in these seven days,” he said.
Afghan forces will maintain normal military operations against groups such as Islamic State during the period, Afghan spokesman Faisal said.
He added Afghan forces would retaliate against the smallest violation by the Taliban.
“Local government and security officials have been instructed by the president on how to follow regulations agreed on for the RIV period,” he said.
Officials privy to the talks said an agreement with the Taliban would be followed by negotiations on an intra-Afghan political settlement between the Taliban and an Afghan delegation including government officials.
Members of the Afghan delegation have yet to be announced. Reaching a consensus on members could pose a challenge with fresh political uncertainty in Afghanistan after Ghani was declared winner of a disputed 2019 presidential election.
His political rivals, whose representatives expect to be included in the intra-Afghan talks, reject the election result and announced that they would form their own government.