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US seeking to announce a deal with Taliban as soon as this week, officials say

The Trump administration is seeking to announce a deal to deescalate violence with the Afghan Taliban as soon as this week, according to two US defense officials familiar with the discussions.

The prospective deal is being described as a “reduction in violence announcement,” which would call for a ceasefire period between the coalition and the Taliban, with hopes of a peace deal being reached in the near future.

The US is aiming for a peace deal to help execute President Donald Trump’s desire to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. The first step is expected to reduce the current level of troops from 12-13,000 to 8,600.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in Brussels Wednesday there is a “reduction in violence proposal on the table,” and said, “I’m here consulting with allies about it, and I have nothing further to announce at this time.”

Esper is meeting with NATO Defense ministers at the alliance’s headquarters where the topic of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is being discussed alongside a proposal for increasing NATO’s role in Iraq among other issues.

Asked about the prospect of reducing the number of US forces in Afghanistan in the country, Esper said he was confident that would happen.

“We have said consistently based on the recommendations of the commanders in the field that we are comfortable going down to an 8,600 number because we are confident we can accomplish our tasks at that number,” Esper said.

The officials cautioned there is deep skepticism on whether the plan is feasible given the Taliban negotiators cannot guarantee all Taliban fighters across Afghanistan would abide by the terms. The Taliban chain of command is loose in some areas.

US officials are also concerned that ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan, would take advantage of the agreement by encouraging younger Taliban members to join its fight against the US.

On Friday, Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed that US moves in the country would be conditions based.

“The conditions right now are better. Again there’s the hope word, again I usually don’t use that, but I hope that that continues along, and it’s never going to be perfect,” he said. “That’s why it wasn’t called a ceasefire. It was called a reduction in violence because that country is so dispersed and communications so difficult across that you’re always going to have issues, but I hope that it continues that way and a deal will take place this year.”

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani tweeted on Tuesday that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told him there had been “notable progress made in the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban.”

“The Secretary informed me about the Taliban’s proposal with regards to bringing a significant and enduring reduction in violence,” Ghani said, calling it “a welcoming development.”

Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also said he spoke with Pompeo Tuesday, noting the top US diplomat “expressed optimism that a reduction in violence and progress with current talks could lead to an agreement that would pave the way for intra-Afghan talks leading to durable peace.”

A State Department spokesperson said that “US talks with the Taliban in Doha continue around the specifics of a reduction in violence.” Those talks have been led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. He traveled to Brussels, Islamabad and Kabul in recent weeks to discuss US efforts, according to the State Department.

The news of a potential agreement to decrease violence comes amid continued attacks in the country. Last month, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction 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.

“Taliban attacks continued at a high tempo. According to data provided by the NATO Resolute Support mission, enemy-initiated attacks during the fourth quarter of 2019 were at the highest level for a fourth quarter of any year since recording began in 2010,” the report said, referring to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan aimed at training and advising local Afghan forces.

President Donald Trump has long sought a comprehensive agreement with the Taliban, which could bring about a diminished US presence in the region. The US and the Taliban have reached an agreement “in principle” in early September 2019, Khalilzad said at the time. Shortly thereafter, Trump called off peace talks and said he called off a secret Camp David summit with the militant group after they took credit for a deadly attack the killed a US servicemember.

In a surprise visit to Afghanistan in November 2019, Trump announced that the talks had restarted. However, in December, Khalilzad noted that the formal negotiations were on a “brief pause” after a Taliban attack on Bagram “recklessly killed two and wounded dozens of civilians.”

This story has been updated to reflect comment from Gen. John Hyten and Mark Esper.

CNN