US could sign Taliban peace deal this month

The deal hinges on the Taliban agreeing to sharply reduce violence

epa08204980 An Afghan Army soldier stands guard at a check point near the Shirzad district, in Hogyani district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, 09 February 2020. At least two American soldiers were killed and six wounded in an alleged internal attack carried out by someone wearing an Afghan soldier's uniform in Nangarhar province in east Afghanistan, the United States military said 09 February. This incident comes amid peace talks in Qatar in recent months between US and Taliban delegations, which the latter say are very advanced with the signing of an agreement increasingly drawing closer.  EPA/GHULAMULLAH HABIBI
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A US-Taliban peace deal could be signed this month if the Taliban significantly reduces violence, which could lead to an eventual withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, two Afghan government sources and a western diplomat said on Wednesday.

The tentative timeline came a day after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said there had been a possible breakthrough in the ongoing US-Taliban talks in Qatar.

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

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

A former senior Afghan official said on condition of anonymity that Mr Ghani would discuss the negotiations with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later this week on the sidelines of an annual security conference in Munich, Germany.

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

Another Afghan official told Reuters 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.

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

The two sides are negotiating on the length of the reduction in violence.

The Taliban issued an ultimatum to Washington on Wednesday, offering a seven-day reduction of violence, or they would walk away from the negotiating table, two Taliban officials told the Associated Press.

But a western diplomat in Kabul said US negotiators were working on the idea that the Taliban should agree on a reduction in violence for at least 10 days with no major breaches.

There are about 13,000 American troops as well as thousands of other Nato personnel in Afghanistan.

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

The news of a potential agreement to curb violence comes amid continued attacks by the Taliban, which controls about 40 per cent of Afghanistan, according to Afghan defence officials.

Last month, a US government agency assessed that there had been a record number of attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces in the last three months of 2019.

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

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