U.S. And Taliban Reach 'Reduction In Violence' Deal, Setting Up Further Talks

Feb 14, 2020
Originally published on February 14, 2020 5:29 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan for almost two decades, and now the Trump administration says it has reached a deal with the Taliban. It's preliminary, and it's meant to reduce violence in Afghanistan and pave the way for eventual peace talks and the withdrawal of U.S. troops. NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now in the studio. Welcome back.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Audie.

CORNISH: What do you know so far about, I guess, a diplomatic opening?

KELEMEN: Right. So this is just a first step. It's a week-long reduction in violence. Administration officials haven't said exactly when that's going to start, and they're careful not to call it a cease-fire. But they say this reduction of violence agreement is detailed and specific, that it covers all of Afghanistan and that the U.S. military and Afghans reserve the right to self-defense during this time.

It's an agreement that U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been working on in his talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. He was in Munich today and joined Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in talks with Afghanistan's president - that's on the sidelines of a security conference there.

CORNISH: The conversation and chatter around this has been going for such a long time. I mean, what are the chances that this moment will work out?

KELEMEN: Well, what I can say is that there are a lot of spoilers in Afghanistan - ISIS, al-Qaida, various factions of the Taliban. One official told reporters today that 20% of Taliban forces - that could be many thousands - could splinter off and keep fighting in Afghanistan. And another problem is that U.S. officials don't really have the footprint to monitor all of this. One official said there is kind of a channel that the U.S. has with the Taliban and that Afghans are going to join that channel and that will be the place where they can discuss issues as they arise during this so-called reduction in violence.

CORNISH: So that's why the language is so tentative.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, officials say what happens if there's calm over the next seven-day period - again, we don't know when it begins - but then they'll be ready to sign a deal with the Taliban. And in that deal, the Taliban would have to agree to enter talks with the Afghan government and with civic leaders. That's something that they've refused to do so far.

And the U.S. is going to draw down troops, and that's something President Trump has been promising to do. The U.S. is planning to draw down from over 12,000 to about 8,600 troops. Military officials have said that's a number they can work with to train Afghans and to continue their fight against terrorist groups. A further drawdown will be based on kind of conditions on the ground.

CORNISH: Now, what happens in the weeks and months ahead if the Taliban continues to fight or doesn't come to any of the agreement with Afghans on how the country should be governed?

KELEMEN: Well, that's a big question mark hanging over all of this. Officials are really reluctant so far to talk about that at the moment. The military will only say that, you know, this withdrawal is going to be conditions-based. Again, that gives them some flexibility. And when it comes to the peace talks, I mean, experts I've spoken with are really worried that Afghans aren't ready for this. There are a lot of big topics at stake - the country's constitution, the rights of women. All these hard-won rights, it's not clear whether the Taliban will accept any of that or try to roll it back.

One official today said that the U.S. is hoping that Afghans will rise to the occasion and see these intra-Afghan talks as an opportunity. There are countries that are willing to host. And the U.S. is going to be there on the ground expected to at least monitor all of this. But again, lots of questions and no real guarantees on how or if this war, America's longest war, is really going to come to an end.

CORNISH: That's NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Michele, thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.