By CONOR FINNEGAN, MATT SEYLER and ALEEM AGHA, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — After three months of deadlocked talks, the Taliban and the Afghan government have made a breakthrough in peace negotiations, the two sides announced Wednesday, although that incremental progress is still challenged by a long road ahead and high levels of violence on the ground.
Despite the slow movement of talks so far, President Donald Trump is drawing down U.S. troops to 2,500 before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in next month. In the face of a repeated U.S. commitment to a “conditions-based” withdrawal, their exit now comes as the top U.S. military chief says the U.S. has achieved “a modicum of success” in Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of fighting.
The three-page agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban is focused on rules and procedures that will govern the talks, including the schools of Islamic jurisprudence the talks will consult to resolve differences. Before peace negotiations can begin in earnest, however, the two schools still need to agree on an agenda.
The U.S. urged them to make “rapid progress” on that and toward a “comprehensive ceasefire” and a political road map to governing the country, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. Pompeo met both teams last month in Doha, Qatar, which has hosted talks.
“This agreement demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues. We congratulate both sides on their perseverance,” added chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad in a tweet.
Khalilzad and his team have been pushing the two sides along, but are no longer a direct party to the talks after the U.S. and Taliban signed their own agreement in February. In that deal, the U.S. agreed to a phased withdrawal of all U.S. forces by May 2021 in exchange for the militant group agreeing to prevent terror groups gaining safe haven in Afghanistan that threatened the U.S. or its allies and starting negotiations with the Afghan government.
The deal did not commit the Taliban to a ceasefire, but said a halt to fighting would be “an item on the agenda” of Afghan negotiations.
Those negotiations finally began in mid-September, six months after their scheduled start and 19 years after the Sept. 11th attacks that brought U.S. troops to the country. Since talks were launched, violence has spiked, with Taliban fighters attacking Afghan security forces — but keeping U.S. forces largely on the sidelines by avoiding attacks on American or NATO troops.
A car bombing Sunday killed at least 30 Afghan service members and injured 24 more, according to local government officials — among the deadliest of recent attacks, although no group claimed responsibility. One Afghan official told ABC News last week the Taliban have shown “no appetite for peace. … They know nothing but war.”
The Taliban control or hold sway over nearly half of the country now, but no major provincial capitals or urban centers. Amid assassinations of journalists or mid-level government officials, many Afghans — especially women — fear a return of Taliban rule, even as the group says it has abandoned some of its past views.
The three-page document has not been released and further details were not yet available. But according to the Taliban’s political office headquartered in Doha, the two sides have already moved ahead and held a meeting to start drafting an agenda.
“The current negotiations of both negotiation teams show that there is willingness among Afghans to reach a sustainable peace and both sides are committed to continue their sincere efforts to reach a sustainable peace in Afghanistan,” the group said in a tweet.
Setting an agenda is expected to be even more contentious, with disagreements on a ceasefire, women and minorities’ rights, governance and the status of various fighting forces.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also welcomed the news Wednesday, saying a negotiated settlement was clearly the only way to end the conflict.
“That’s very odious for many, many people — to think that we’re going to negotiate with someone like the Taliban,” he added. “But that is in fact the most common way that insurgencies end is to negotiate a power-sharing settlement.”
Milley also defended the draw down of U.S. troops despite a lack of progress in talks and the high levels of violence. The decision was been heavily criticized by U.S. and Afghan officials, one of whom told ABC News it “emboldens the Taliban to overthrow the current government.”
“We believe that after two decades of consistent effort there, we’ve achieved a modicum of success,” Milley told the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank — a statement that was met with a sweep of jaded critique, given the approximately $1 trillion U.S. investment and 2,400 American lives lost in the 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11th attacks.
Milley and Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien publicly feuded over troop levels earlier this fall, with Milley saying that O’Brien’s comments about a draw down were “speculation” and he would rely instead on “rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans.”
O’Brien fired back, “It’s been suggested by some that’s speculation. I can guarantee you that’s the plan of the president of the United States” — one that was announced two months later on Nov. 17 by Trump’s new acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.
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