America's top general 'optimistic' U.S.-Taliban talks will resume

“I think we’re in a better place than we’ve been, doesn’t mean we are there yet though,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
Image: U.S. Army members
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump look on as U.S. Army members carry the remains of Chief Warrant Officer 2 David C. Knadle, who died in Afghanistan on Nov. 21.Evan Vucci / AP

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By Mosheh Gains and Saphora Smith

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — America’s top general has said he was optimistic U.S.-Taliban negotiations would resume, raising the prospects of a deal to end America’s longest war.

Asked whether the Taliban’s release of two Western hostages earlier this month, including an American, had increased the chance of negotiations, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley responded Wednesday that they were “higher than I’ve seen.”

“I think we’re in a better place than we’ve been, doesn’t mean we are there yet though” Milley told reporters en route to Afghanistan. “I’m optimistic, but we’ll see.”

In comments after a bilateral meeting in Bagram on Wedneday between President Donald Trump and President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, Milley said talks the Taliban were "ongoing," but it was unclear if he meant negotiations had resumed.

When asked Wednesday if peace talks had indeed begun again with the Taliban, Trump said, "No, we're talking to the Taliban, yeah." He offered no further details.

In September, Trump called off the talks that were meant to lead to wider peace negotiations and to enable the U.S. to withdraw its roughly 13,000 troops from the war-torn country. U.S. troops have been fighting in Afghanistan for 18 years.

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Since 2001, when U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government after it sheltered 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, tens of thousands of civilians and security personnel and more than 2,400 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan. Between Jan. 2009, when the United Nations began a systematic documentation of civilian casualties, and Sept. 2019, some 34,000 civilians died as a result of the armed conflict.

While the resumption of U.S.-Taliban negotiations remains up in the air, Milley said the chances of the Afghan government and Taliban reaching a negotiated settlement could happen in the “not too distant future.”

“There is a broad recognition that the war in Afghanistan ends in some sort of negotiated settlement between the government of Afghanistan and various insurgent elements of the Taliban,” he said.

“With a bit of luck we’ll have successful negotiations in the near term, not too distant future,” he said, adding that the negotiations were “ongoing.”

While U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001, war and violence has plagued the country for decades.

Smoke rises after a suicide bomb blast in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov. 13.Omar Sobhani / Reuters file

Milley said a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and Taliban was likely in the best interest of all parties and would "bring the war, quote on quote, to an end."

He said an American drawdown would be contingent on “conditions” being met but did not specify what those conditions might be.

In the past any reduction in American forces had hinged on progress in peace talks with the Taliban. But NBC News reported last month that the Pentagon was drawing up plans for an abrupt withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in case Trump surprises military leaders by ordering an immediate drawdown as he did in Syria, according to three current and former defense officials.

Administration officials have said the president is expected to move forward with what one official described as "a token withdrawal" of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

Ending wars like the one in Afghanistan was one of Trump's chief campaign promises in 2016. Trump has made clear to his advisers that he wants to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the 2020 election, NBC News reported in August.

Senior Afghans gather during talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha on July 8.Karim Jaafar / AFP - Getty Images file

Last month, the U.S. military said that it had quietly reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan by about 2,000. It also said it could continue counter-terrorism operations with around 8,600 troops in the country.

Asked Wednesday if that was the number the military was aiming to leave, Miley said no decisions had been made but that was one of several options.

Mosheh Gains reported from Bagram Air Field. Saphora Smith reported from London.