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U.S. general sees progress in Afghanistan despite mounting Taliban attacks

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By Idrees Ali and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Even after a string of deadly Taliban attacks in Afghanistan in recent months, the outgoing commander of U.S. and international forces there insisted on Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s strategy of an open-ended deployment was making progress.

A year ago Trump agreed to an open-ended deployment of U.S. military advisers, trainers and special forces and increased air support for Afghan forces.

“I believe the strategy is working… The reconciliation progress is significant and ultimately wars end with a political settlement,” General John Nicholson, commander of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, said. He was speaking to reporters on the telephone from Kabul in one of his last media engagements.

The Taliban have launched a wave of attacks in recent weeks, including on the city of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. Hundreds have been killed in the fighting.

An inspector general report released this week said that despite Trump’s new strategy, the Taliban continue to launch attacks across the country.

“As has been the case since the announcement of the South Asia strategy, the share of the population in areas controlled/influenced by the Taliban or the Afghan government did not change this quarter,” the report said.

Nicholson, who after more than two years has become the longest-serving U.S. commander of international forces, is going to be replaced by Army Lieutenant General Scott Miller next month.

Back-channel diplomacy between the Taliban and a range of countries — including the United States — has taken place over the years to end the war in Afghanistan, which began with a U.S. invasion in 2001.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity, a window of opportunity for peace right now,” Nicholson said.

In June, the Taliban observed a government ceasefire over the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival, raising hopes for talks.

This week Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered Taliban militants a three-month ceasefire.

While Nicholson said the Taliban had not responded, two insurgent commanders told Reuters that the Taliban rejected the government offer.

The four-star general was the latest U.S. commander to offer an optimistic view of the 17-year old war, even as the security situation in the country deteriorated.

However, Nicholson acknowledged the government had not increased its control over territory in Afghanistan.

“There has not been a significant change one way or the other with respect to population control… we have seen other forms of pressure emerge social, religious etc, that are advancing the peace process,” Nicholson said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Jonathan Landay; Editing by David Gregorio)

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