U.S., Taliban could sign peace deal in February if Taliban reduces violence: sources

KABUL/DUBAI (Reuters) – A U.S.-Taliban peace deal could be signed this month if the Taliban significantly reduces violence, which could lead to an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, two Afghan government sources and a Western diplomat said on Wednesday.

The tentative timeline shared by sources came a day after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said there had been a possible breakthrough in U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar.

The talks had been deadlocked in part over a U.S. demand that the insurgents agree to sharply reduce violence as part of any American troop withdrawal accord.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar’s capital, Doha, said progress has been made, but refused to share further details.

Doha has been the venue for talks between the warring sides since 2018 even as fighting has continued across the country, killing hundreds of civilians and soldiers as the Taliban have expanded their territorial control.

A third Afghan official said the United States has agreed in principle to a deal, but that it would not be signed until the Taliban could demonstrate a reduction in violence (RIV).

The deal could be signed as soon as this month, the official said, requesting anonymity.

A Western diplomat in Kabul said U.S. negotiators were working on idea that the Taliban should agree on a reduction in violence for at least 10 days with no major violation.

“It is after those 10 days of RIV that both sides can hold talks and firm up plans to hold intra-Afghan dialogue,” said the source, on condition of anonymity.

TROOP WITHDRAWALS

There are about 13,000 U.S. forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops in Afghanistan, 18 years after a U.S.-led coalition invaded the country following the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

The United States is aiming to reduce troop numbers to about 9,000, the diplomat said.

The news of a potential agreement to decrease violence comes amid continued attacks in the country by the hardline insurgent group that controls about 40% of the country, according to Afghan defence officials.

Last month the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government agency, assessed that there had been a record-high number of attacks carried out by the Taliban and other anti-government forces during the last three months of 2019.

The Taliban stage near-daily attacks and though they are negotiating with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the armed group refuses to talk directly to Ghani’s government, calling it a “puppet” of the West.

The ongoing negotiations mark the highest level of talks between the two sides since the U.S ramped up peace efforts in 2018.

“We will stop all attacks in return for U.S. commitment to cease all their operations against us in Afghanistan,” said a Taliban commander, speaking on condition on anonymity.

Earlier this month, Taliban religious leaders delivered a strong message to the United States through their negotiation team and asked them to sign the peace accord before the onset of the “fighting season” in spring.

“They (U.S.) have wasted a lot of our time and energy in the name of peace talks. The leadership should decide to either make it happen or stop the peace process forever and give importance to the battlefield,” said a second Taliban commander.

The commanders said they were prepared to launch a spring offensive and had recruited more than 6,000 fighters and suicide bombers if the peace talks fail.

The annual spring offensive announcement is something the militant group does every year to intensify their attacks, even though Taliban violence never really ceases during the harsh winter months.

A senior Afghan defence official said Kabul was ready to continue fighting if the talks fail.

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