US and Taliban agree to truce

US-Taliban peace agreement could be signed within 10 days, senior officials say

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo
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The United States and the Taliban have agreed to a temporary truce.

It could now open the way for a deal that would bring American troops home from Afghanistan and end 18 years of war.

The peace deal would call for negotiations between Afghans on both sides of the conflict to start next month, an eventual countrywide cease-fire and a commitment from the Taliban not to harbour terrorist groups like al Qaida, while setting a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.

The truce marks a milestone in efforts to end America’s longest-running conflict and fulfill President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to bring US troops home from foreign conflicts. But prospects for a real and lasting peace remain unclear.

Details were provided separately on Friday by a senior US official and a Taliban official, who were not authorised to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The US official said the agreement for a seven-day “reduction in violence” is “very specific” and covers the entire country, including Afghan government forces.

There were indications a formal announcement could come as early as the weekend.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Saturday that a truce agreement between the United States and the Taliban that could lead to the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is not without risk but "looks very promising."

Ahead of a formal announcement of the seven-day "reduction in violence" deal, Mr Esper said it was time to give peace a chance in Afghanistan through a political negotiation.

"So we have on the table right now a reduction in violence proposal that was negotiated between our ambassador and the Taliban," Mr Esper told an audience at the Munich Security Confererence. "It looks very promising."

He spoke a day after a senior US official said the deal had been concluded and would take effect very soon.

The official said the Taliban had committed to a halt in roadside and suicide bombings as well as rocket attacks.

If the Taliban uphold their commitments, a US-Taliban peace agreement would be signed within 10 days.

The Taliban official said the signing had been tentatively set for February 29, with the start of the Afghan talks planned for March 10. The official said Germany and Norway have offered to host the talks but there has been no decision on the venue.

That Taliban official said the agreement would provide for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners before the start of the negotiations.

Much will depend on the results of the all-Afghan negotiations, if and when they get off the ground.

The new developments came as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper met on Friday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of an international security forum in Munich.

US officials have not publicly spelled out their timetable for an initial drawdown of US 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 US-Taliban deal.

The Taliban official said the withdrawal of foreign troops would start gradually and be carried out over 18 months.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy on Friday called the US agreement a first step in the process.

“It’s going to take several weeks for this to unfold, but it’s very encouraging that we’re heading down a path to a political solution,” he said.

A truce had been widely anticipated, and Mr Trump agreed in principle to the deal, according to US officials.