US-Taliban breakthrough appears closer as Ghani reports progress
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The US and the Taliban appeared closer Wednesday to sealing a deal for an American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reported "notable progress" in negotiations and a senior Taliban official said violence could be slashed in the coming days.
Washington and the insurgents have been locked in gruelling talks that have stretched over more than a year for an agreement that would see the US pull thousands of troops from Afghanistan in a bid to end America's longest war.
In return, the Taliban would provide various security guarantees and launch eventual talks with the Kabul government.
Ghani said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had called him to inform him of developments in the talks, which are taking place in Doha.
"Today, I was pleased to receive a call from @SecPompeo, informing me of the notable progress made in the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban," Ghani said on his official Twitter account late Tuesday.
"The Secretary informed me about the Taliban's proposal with regards to bringing a significant and enduring reduction in violence."
A Taliban source in Pakistan told AFP that negotiators would meet again Wednesday in Doha, while in Afghanistan another senior Taliban official suggested the group was poised to reduce attacks.
"If the deal is signed, the Taliban will start a reduction of violence on Friday," the official in Afghanistan said, adding that the insurgents were working to bring any Taliban splinter groups into line.
Citing Afghan and US officials, the New York Times reported that US President Donald Trump had given conditional approval to a deal with the Taliban.
The two foes have been on the brink of a breakthrough before, with a deal all but complete in September before Trump nixed it at the last moment amid continued Taliban violence.
The Times said Trump would only give final approval to the deal if the Taliban stick to a reduction in violence of "about seven days later this month". The Taliban source in Pakistan said the group has agreed to the proposal.
He said to all intents and purposes, this would be a ceasefire, but it could not be named that because of various "complications".
- Ice cream and selfies -
A de-facto ceasefire would enable the Americans to start withdrawing thousands of troops from Afghanistan, where between 12-13,000 are currently based.
The only other time there has been a Taliban ceasefire since the 2001 US-led invasion was in 2018, during the first three days of Eid at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
It invoked moving scenes such as Afghans sharing ice cream with Taliban fighters and snapping selfies with locals. But afterwards, the violence resumed.
Despite talks between the US and the Taliban, Afghanistan's war has raged on, with the number of clashes jumping to record levels in the last quarter of 2019, according to a recent US government watchdog report.
Afghans living in a Pakistani refugee camp were sceptical any deal could lead to real peace, with one, 60-year-old Hazrat Hussain, warning that a US withdrawal could see the country plunge into civil war -- as it did after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989.
"People are afraid of infighting and a new war," he told AFP at the camp on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Peshawar.
In his annual State of the Union address on February 4, Trump renewed his vow to negotiate a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
"We are working to finally end America's longest war and bring our troops back home," he said, offering his blessing for the negotiations with the Taliban.
© 2020 AFP