Taliban issue ultimatum to US on offer for brief ceasefire or talks will end

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Officials say there are recent developments in the on-again, off-again talks.

After weeks of talks with Washington, the Taliban has issued an ultimatum: reply to an offer for a seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan or the insurgent group would walk away from negotiations.

The development comes as Washington said late on Tuesday that an agreement on the Taliban “reduction of violence” offer was days away.

Also, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that he had received a phone call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling him of “notable progress” in the talks with the insurgent force.

The ultimatum came from the chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who met this week with White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman, according to two Taliban officials familiar with the negotiations. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Afghan Army commandos attend their graduation ceremony after a 3 1/2 month training program at the Commando Training Center on the outskirts of Kabul. AP, File
Afghan Army commandos attend their graduation ceremony after a 3 1/2 month training program at the Commando Training Center on the outskirts of Kabul. AP, File

After weeks of talks with Washington, the Taliban has issued an ultimatum: reply to an offer for a seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan or the insurgent group would walk away from negotiations.

The development comes as Washington said late on Tuesday that an agreement on the Taliban “reduction of violence” offer was days away.

Also, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that he had received a phone call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling him of “notable progress” in the talks with the insurgent force.

The ultimatum came from the chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who met this week with White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman, according to two Taliban officials familiar with the negotiations. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

There was no immediate response from Washington on the ultimatum, which appeared designed to focus the negotiations on Taliban demands. The group maintains a political office in Doha where Mr Khalilzad often meets their representatives in the talks that are seeking to find a resolution to Afghanistan’s 18-year war.

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said on Tuesday that he is cautiously optimistic that there could be a US agreement with the Taliban in the coming days or weeks, but a withdrawal of American forces is not “imminent.”

The agreement, which Mr Trump would still have to sign off on, calls for both Taliban and US forces to pledge to a “reduction of violence” that would lead to an agreement signing between the group and Washington. That would be followed, within 10 days, by all-Afghan negotiations to set the road map for the political future of a post-war Afghanistan.

The details emerging from Washington on the agreement are similar to those released weeks earlier by Taliban spokesman in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, and would appear to give the Taliban all they have asked for.

Another Taliban demand is that in any all-Afghan negotiations, representatives of President Ghani’s government cannot come to the table in an official capacity but only as ordinary Afghan citizens. The Taliban do not recognize the government in Kabul and have refused to negotiate directly with Mr Ghani.

The president, whose political future remains uncertain following last September’s presidential election in which there is still no official winner, has previously demanded that the Taliban negotiate with his government.

His political opponents, other prominent Afghans and his partner in the so-called Unity Government, Abdullah Abdullah, have sharply criticized Mr Ghani’s intransigence and accused him of trying to sideline their involvement in the peace process. Mr Ghani has also blasted the “reduction of violence” offer, demanding a permanent cease-fire and a halt in the near-daily attacks by the Taliban.

The insurgents have refused, saying they first want agreements in place that would be guaranteed by international powers such as Gulf Arab states, Russia, China and the UN before agreeing to a permanent cease-fire.

The “reduction of violence” deal would call for the Taliban and US to refrain from conducting attacks or combat operations for seven days, according to a person familiar with the ongoing discussions who was not authorized to discuss the proposal and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Asked about whether Mr Trump would sign off on such an agreement, Mr O’Brien said there has been “significant progress” in the months-long on-again, off-again talks with the Taliban and that the US is “cautiously optimistic that some good news could be forthcoming.”

“The president had made it very clear that there will have to be a reduction in violence and there will have to be meaningful intra-Afghan talks for things to move forward,” Mr O’Brien also said, speaking at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Other conditions in the deal would include a Taliban pledge not to associate with Al Qaida, ISIS or other militant groups.

“We have contributed a tremendous amount of blood and treasure to Afghanistan, but it’s time for America to come home,” Mr O’Brien also said. “We want to make sure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorism again.”

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with a harsh version of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001 and hosted Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden as he masterminded the 9/11 attacks, say they no longer seek a monopoly on power. But the militant group now controls or holds sway over roughly half of the country.

There are fears that a full withdrawal of some 20,000 Nato troops, including about 12,000 US forces, would leave the Afghan government vulnerable, or unleash another round of fighting in a war that has killed tens of thousands of Afghans and also claimed the lives of 2,400 US servicemen and women.

Afghan civilians have paid the heaviest price – the United Nations says that between 2009, when it first began documenting civilian casualties, and October 2019, a total of 34,677 Afghan civilians have been killed, either in insurgent attacks or being caught in the crossfire of battles between militants and Afghan security forces and their US-led coalition allies.

The State Department declined to comment on negotiations beyond saying that the “US talks with the Taliban in Doha continue around the specifics of a reduction in violence.” Mr Ghani, Mr Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper will all be in Germany this week for the annual Munich Security Conference, which is also expected to discuss Afghanistan.