U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Saturday that consultations were still underway on setting a start date for a seven-day trial of reduced violence negotiated with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“That is a moving date because we are still doing consultations, if you will, ... so I can't give you a hard date right now,” Esper told reporters in Munich, Germany, after attending a security conference there.
U.S. officials have said a successful implementation of the temporary reduction in violence would pave the way for a comprehensive peace deal with the insurgent group that could end America’s longest war and bring home about 13,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
“Where we are right now is on the doorstep of a reduction-of-violence period. If we decide to move forward, if all sides hold up — meet their obligations under that reduction in violence — then we'll start talking about the next part, whether to move forward [with the comprehensive peace agreement],” Esper said.
As part of the short-term agreement, he added, the United States will suspend “a significant part of our operations," though the Pentagon chief declined to discuss details.
U.S. officials say the deal binds the Taliban to halt major attacks, including roadside and suicide bombings, against Afghan and U.S.-led international forces anywhere in the country.
Some risk, but 'promising'
Earlier, Esper told an audience at the Munich Security Conference the reduction in violence was not without risk but looked “very promising” and “we have to give peace a chance.”
He went on to reiterate that “the best if not the only way forward in Afghanistan is through a political agreement, and that means taking some risk.”
Taliban sources have said the seven-day period will begin February 22 and the comprehensive peace agreement is expected to be signed on February 29.
U.S. and Taliban representatives negotiated the draft peace agreement during months of meetings in the Gulf state of Qatar. If signed, it immediately could lead to a gradual withdrawal of forces, bringing the U.S. presence to 8,600 personnel in the initial few months. Taliban sources say the agreement would require all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan within two years.
Insurgent sources say international guarantors such as the United Nations, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Germany, Norway and Qatar will witness the signing ceremony.
The agreement will require the Taliban to open negotiations within 10 days with an inclusive Afghan delegation that represents all political and ethnic groups in the country, including the government in Kabul.
That intra-Afghan dialogue will discuss a permanent nationwide cease-fire and power-sharing in postwar Afghanistan. Germany and Norway have both offered to host Taliban-Afghan negotiations, but no final decision has been made.
U.S. officials have stressed that the troop drawdown plans, however, will be linked to progress in intra-Afghan negotiations and effective implementation of Taliban undertakings, including a further reduction in insurgent violence.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also spoke Saturday at the Munich conference and reiterated his skepticism about the U.S.-led peace process.
“The concern that the Taliban could be using a peace process as a 'Trojan horse strategy' is there, but you can’t end this war without engaging in a process and testing them,” Afghan media quoted Ghani as saying.
Between the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal and the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, the insurgent group and Afghan authorities would be expected to release prisoners. Taliban officials say they already have given their list of thousands of insurgents being held in Afghan prisons.
The troop drawdown agreement was expected to be signed last September, but continued deadly Taliban attacks on Afghan and U.S. troops prompted President Donald Trump to halt the peace process. The negotiations resumed in December, and marked progress has been achieved since then.