The Taliban have agreed to a U.S. demand for a seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan that could pave the way for a withdrawal of American troops, a senior Trump administration official told reporters Friday.
The agreement reached between Washington and the Taliban has not begun yet and it was unclear when it would start but the official said it would be "soon."
The U.S. demand is seen as a test of the Taliban’s commitment to end the conflict in Afghanistan that has raged for 18 years.
Taliban sources confirmed to NBC News that they had agreed to the reduction in violence but said they did not know when it would start.
The militants have previously rejected the idea of a full-blown cease-fire with Afghan forces. If they abide by their commitment to "reduce" violence, which includes attacks on Afghan as well as U.S. forces, it should lay the groundwork for an agreement to be reached between the Taliban and Washington.
“Should the Talibs implement what they've committed to doing, we will move forward with the agreement,” the senior official said.
The official said the U.S. hopes to establish a channel with the Taliban and eventually the Afghan authorities to monitor the reduction in violence.
If there is a violation of the agreement, the top U.S. commander for Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, will ultimately have the final say as to its significance, the official added.
The two sides have revived the same draft agreement that came close to being signed in September, which calls for a timeline for a U.S. troop pullout in exchange for the Taliban agreeing to cut ties with terrorist groups and entering into peace talks with their foes in the Afghan government.
If the reduction in violence holds, the U.S. and the Taliban will then sign the agreement and there will be inter-Afghan negotiations, the official said. Those negotiations aim to achieve a "comprehensive and permanent cease-fire that ends the Afghan War," the official added.
Afghanistan has suffered through more than four decades of war and conflict since the Soviet invasion in 1979.
In the past, the Taliban has persistently dismissed President Ashraf Ghani as an American puppet, and it remains unclear whether they are ready to negotiate a genuine peace settlement with the government in Kabul.
In December, Suhail Shaheen, a senior Taliban spokesman, said that the militants would consider the Afghan government as one faction of the non-Taliban side, but would not recognize it as legitimate. However, he added that the Taliban was willing to form an “inclusive” government that included Ghani’s allies.
Shaheen did not elaborate on what an “inclusive” government meant in practice and whether it would amount to a democracy. The Taliban has misled the media in the past and has consistently rejected taking part in elections and called on Afghans to boycott them.
Asked if the U.S. could count on the Afghan government's support, the American official responded that "we had a very good meeting with President Ghani and we will continue to work."
Even an initial agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban would be seen as a significant feat for both sides. America’s war in Afghanistan is its longest, having raged for 18 years and costing the lives of around 2,300 troops, according to the Department of Defense.
A deal would give President Donald Trump a talking point in his bid for re-election, allowing him to argue he fulfilled a campaign promise to extricate America from "endless" wars abroad.
The U.S. has 12,000 to 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, but in December three current and former U.S. officials said that the Trump administration was poised to withdraw approximately 4,000 of them.
From January 2009, when the United Nations began a systematic documentation of civilian casualties, to September, some 34,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the armed conflict.
Afghans are utterly exhausted by decades of violence and many do not know life without war. But hope for a potential peace agreement is coupled with deep fears that a U.S. troop departure could open the way to the Taliban regaining power and returning the country to the brutal repression that characterized their rule in the 1990s.
However, a previous attempt to reach an agreement fell apart at the 11th hour.
In September, Trump unexpectedly called off negotiations with the Taliban ending a near-yearlong effort to broker a deal with the militant group. In explaining his decision, he cited the death of a U.S. service member who was killed in a suicide attack in Kabul just days before.
Since the U.S. and the Taliban renewed discussions in the Qatari capital of Doha at the end of last year, the talks have focused on a U.S. demand for the Taliban to scale back its attacks across the country.
In an earlier round of negotiations, the Taliban rejected the idea of a full-blown cease-fire, and as a result U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has pursued a deal to "reduce" violence.
However, the details of any "reduction in violence" or U.S. troop withdrawal are important only if the Taliban make good on a promise to begin direct talks with the Afghan government and other Afghan political figures, Laurel Miller, a former senior U.S. official who took part in a previous attempt at peace negotiations during the Obama administration, said before the reduction in violence was announced.
"That’s the real deal," said Miller, now with the International Crisis Group think tank. "All the rest of this is only window dressing if you don’t get to that."