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U.S., Afghanistan And Taliban Announce 7-Day 'Reduction In Violence'

Feb 21, 2020
Originally published on February 21, 2020 9:46 am

Updated at 8:57 a.m. ET

Afghan forces, the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and the Taliban militia will begin a seven-day "reduction in violence" across the country beginning Saturday midnight local time (2:30 p.m. ET Friday) — a possible prelude to a broader peace deal following two decades of war, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

The quasi cease-fire was hammered out during protracted negotiations in Qatar that began in 2018. It could ultimately lead to a significant reduction of the approximately 12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"We are preparing for the signing (of the agreement) to take place on February 29," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement early Friday. "Intra-Afghan negotiations will start soon thereafter, and will build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire and the future political roadmap for Afghanistan."

Javid Faisal, spokesperson for the Afghan National Security Adviser, speaking to Reuters, said: "Based on the plan, the reduction in violence will start between the Taliban and international and Afghan security forces for one week."

"We hope it is extended for a longer time and opens the way for a cease-fire and intra-Afghan talks," he added.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's secretary general, called the agreement "a critical test of the Taliban's willingness and ability to reduce violence, and contribute to peace in good faith."

"This could pave the way for negotiations among Afghans, sustainable peace, and ensuring the country is never again a safe haven for terrorists," Stoltenberg said in a statement, noting that NATO currently has 16,000 troops in Afghanistan.

If deemed a success, the weeklong reduction in violence, or RIV, which will be monitored by U.S. forces, will lead next to the Feb. 29 signing in Qatar between U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban. That deal is aimed at a phased American military withdrawal — including cease-fires and talks between the Taliban and other Afghans on the future of the country.

It is a complicated balancing act, but the U.S., the Taliban and the Afghan government have said they are committed to making it succeed.

The initial agreement was hammered out by Khalilzad and the Taliban over months of negotiations in Doha. The U.S. and Taliban had reached an agreement last summer, but President Trump walked away from it before it could go into effect after a U.S. service member was killed in a car bombing in Kabul.

The Taliban had previously refused to talk directly to the Kabul government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, which they denounced as a U.S. puppet.

The spokesman Faisal said that Afghan security forces would continue normal operations against other terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State, and would respond if the Taliban violated the RIV agreement.

"Local government and security officials have been instructed by the president himself on how to follow the regulations agreed upon for the RIV period," he told Reuters.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's not a peace deal, but it may be a step in the right direction. The U.S., the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan all announced this morning that a so-called reduction in violence will start at midnight local time. It's supposed to last for seven days. It's a confidence-building measure intended to clear the way for the U.S. and the Taliban to sign an agreement leading to a U.S. military withdrawal. We've got NPR's Diaa Hadid on the line. She's just returned from Kabul. She joins us from Islamabad. Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: As you know, the peace talks have been going on for so long - right? - to bring an end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

HADID: Yeah.

MARTIN: Where does this step fit in? It feels incremental, in a way.

HADID: Well, it's incremental in one way. But in fact, this is the testing ground. It's the United States, the Taliban looking to see whether they can move forward with a broader deal. In that way, it's really important. And there does seem to be a desire, like, on all sides for this to work. If you look at the statement today from the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, he said just the negotiations to get here provided hope and represented an opportunity. And the deputy leader of the Taliban is a notorious hard-liner. His name is Sirajuddin Haqqani - wrote an op-ed in nothing less than in New York Times...

MARTIN: Right.

HADID: ...Saying every Afghan is tired of war and that the killing must stop. Those are remarkable words for a man like Haqqani. He's considered responsible for terrible violence.

MARTIN: But haven't we had - haven't we gone through this before? Hasn't there been a, quote, "reduction in violence" before?

HADID: There's certainly been less violence in Kabul at least over the past two months. And I can - we can say that what they've announced today has been left deliberately vague. And perhaps that's so it's easy for it to succeed. So if there are small incidents of violence, it can still move forward. But if you look back over the past two months, there's only been one suicide bombing in Kabul and a rocket attack near the airport on Wednesday.

Now, saying only one suicide bombing is a terrible thing because more than five people were killed, but this is incredibly quiet compared to what it's been in the past. So it does suggest that whatever it is moving forward, this reduction in violence will at least avoid violence in civilian or urban areas.

MARTIN: But what you've noted is important, the language here - it's not being called a cease-fire.

HADID: Right. And that wiggle room does seem to be so that it could be easier for these seven days to pass without it failing.

MARTIN: You were in Kabul just less than 24 hours ago, right?

HADID: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, what was the general feeling about this agreement?

HADID: Ah, there's so much hope and so much apprehension. Afghans are exhausted. They've been at war for more than four decades, and they want this to end. But, you know, human rights activists, more liberally minded women, they really worry that in any future negotiations with the Taliban, their government, that Afghan coalition, will compromise on their rights as a way to appease the Taliban. And that - they risk peeling back two decades of modest but, you know, hard-won freedoms. So there's real concerns there.

MARTIN: So this - they're supposed to sign an actual document or something on the 29, right?

HADID: That's right.

MARTIN: So what might prevent that from happening? What are the challenges moving forward?

HADID: So the challenges after the 29 is just if there's any large-scale violence that can't be sort of massaged by either side. But after the 29, that's when inter-Afghan talks are meant to begin. And then there's an immediate crisis already because in Kabul, there is a huge political problem brewing. Last week, Ashraf Ghani was declared president for a second five-year term, but that was five months after controversial elections were held.

Now, his rivals refuse to recognize the result and have declared their own parallel government. So that means Ghani's mandate to negotiate talks with the Taliban already appear weakened from the get-go. So that's the next immediate challenge that this deal faces.

MARTIN: Is getting the Taliban and the Afghan government to agree on the steps moving forward. NPR's Diaa Hadid reporting from Islamabad. Thank you, Diaa. We appreciate it.

HADID: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.