U.S. troops, Afghan forces and the Taliban began a seven-day partial truce Friday, a senior Department of State official confirmed, which if successful would lead to the signing of a long-awaited, broader U.S.-Taliban agreement that could see American troops withdraw from the country after 18 years of conflict.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Friday that the reduction in violence would begin at midnight local time (2 p.m. ET.)
The partial truce is seen as a test of the Taliban’s resolve to end the conflict in Afghanistan, which is America’s longest war. If properly implemented, a Taliban representative and U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad will sign the agreement in Doha, the capital of Qatar, later this month, the official said.
The two sides have revived the same draft agreement that came close to being signed in September, which calls for a timeline for the 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.
The Taliban also confirmed in a statement that they had agreed to sign the accord on Feb. 29 and said both parties would create "a suitable security situation in advance of the agreement signing date."
Many of the details of the reduction in violence remain unclear.
The U.S. hopes to establish a channel with the Taliban and eventually Afghan authorities to monitor the reduction in violence, a senior U.S. official told reporters last week. 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 militants had previously rejected the idea of a full-blown cease-fire with Afghan forces, leading Khalilzad to pursue a deal to "reduce" violence.
Ghani said Friday that Afghan forces would be on a "defensive mood" with the Taliban during the seven-day period but would continue its operations against "terrorist networks" including al-Qaeda.
"Our assessment and evaluation of reduction in violence period at the end of the week will shape our path and direction towards the next steps in the peace process," Ghani said.
If this seven-day arrangement holds, it should allow the Taliban and Washington to sign an agreement that would lead to so-called inter-Afghan negotiations which aim to achieve a "comprehensive and permanent cease-fire that ends the Afghan War," a senior U.S. official told reporters last week.
In the past, the Taliban has persistently dismissed Ghani as an American puppet, and it remains unclear whether they are ready to negotiate a genuine peace settlement with the government in Kabul.
Ghani won a second term in office this week after results were confirmed more than four months after polls closed.
"I should clarify that the Afghan government should own and lead the peace process," Ghani said on Friday.
And even as the U.S. and Taliban inch closer to an agreement, all could still be lost.
Talks between the Trump administration and the Taliban became public in 2018 and the road even to the seven-day reduction in violence has been a rocky one. In September, President Donald Trump unexpectedly called off negotiations citing the death of a U.S. service member who was killed in a suicide attack in Kabul just days before.
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.
Writing in a New York Times Op-Ed on Thursday, the deputy leader of the Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani, said that while a degree of trust had been built between the two sides through talks in Qatar, it remained fragile.
“Just as the United States does not trust us completely, we too are very far from fully trusting it,” he wrote.
But all sides say they are sick of conflict that has plagued Afghanistan for more than four decades, since the Soviet invasion in 1979.
Afghans are utterly exhausted by the violence and many do not know life without war. But hope for a potential peace agreement is coupled for many 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.
America’s war in Afghanistan has cost the lives of around 2,300 troops, according to the Department of Defense. From January 2009, when the United Nations began a systematic documentation of civilian casualties, to September last year, some 34,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the armed conflict.
Abigail Williams reported from Muscat, Saphora Smith from London, Ahmed Mengli from Kabul and Mushtaq Yusufzai from Peshawar.