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U.S.-Taliban reduction in violence to start Friday ahead of broader deal

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Image: U.S. troops in Afghanistan
Spc. Angel Batista, Spc. Jacob Greene and Sgt. Joe Altmann with the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Afghanistan.   -   Copyright  David Goldman
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A seven-day reduction in violencebetween Afghan, Taliban and American forces will begin Friday in Afghanistan, a senior state department official confirmed. If that agreement holds, it would lead to the signing of a long-awaited, broader U.S.-Taliban agreement that could see U.S. troops withdraw from the country after 18 years of conflict.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed in a statement that the U.S. was "preparing for the signing to take place on February 29."

The reduction in violence 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 U.S.-Taliban agreement in Doha later this month, a senior state department 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 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.

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 remains 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 U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to pursue a deal to "reduce" violence.

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 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.

Ghani won a second term in officethis week after results were confirmed more than four months after polls closed.

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 a 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.

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