Taliban ready to reduce violence in exchange for peace deal, Pakistan says

Supporters shower Hafiz Saeed with flower petals as he walks to court in Lahore, Pakistan, in November 2017. The court released him from house arrest. Mohsin Raza/Reuters

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – American and Taliban negotiators appear to be making progress in Qatar, where the two sides are meeting to see about restarting peace negotiations, Pakistan’s foreign minister said Thursday.

Shah Mahmood Qureshi said “a good development” occurred Thursday and that the “Taliban have showed their readiness to accept the demand for reduction in violence.” Speaking in a video statement released by the Foreign Ministry, Qureshi added, “I believe that this is a step forward towards the peace agreement.”

Separately, the Associated Press reported that Taliban officials said the group gave the U.S. envoy in the talks “a document outlining their offer for a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan that would last between seven and 10 days.”.

The U.S. demand for a reduction in violence fhad stalled the resumption of formal peace talks for months. Both sides had appeared just days away from signing a peace deal in September before the nearly year-long diplomatic effort was called off by President Trump in a surprise tweet.

Trump said he made the decision following a Taliban attack that killed a U.S. service member.

Since then, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been looking for a way to restart negotiations, first by facilitating a prisoner exchange and now by demanding a reduction in violence.

Talks restarted in November after an unannounced Trump visit to Afghanistan on Thanksgiving, but they were “paused” in December following a brazen Taliban attack on a highly fortified U.S. base.

Another Taliban attack earlier this month claimed the lives of two U.S. service members when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb. A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, touted the attack on Twitter, saying the blast shredded the vehicle and killed the “invaders.”

The office of Afghanistan’s president has demanded that the Taliban agree to a cease-fire and described the announced “reduction in violence” as inadequate, according to presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi.

Former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, a close ally of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, criticized the terminology “reduction in violence” as too vague. “We don’t have [reduction in violence] in the dictionary of war & peace,” he said in a Twitter post Thursday.

“Here is how the Talibs interpret it,” he wrote. “‘We kill some people instead of more people. We do one urban bombing per week instead of several.’ CEASEFIRE exists in all cultures. STOP KILLING HUMANS. Simple.”

A peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban would pave the way for the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a key campaign promise that Trump wants to keep. But drawing down the troops will also increase pressure on Afghan government forces, who continue to struggle to carry out operations without close U.S. support.

The U.S. military command in Kabul has already begun reducing troops despite the stalled peace efforts. In October, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the number of troops in the country had been reduced by 2,000, calling the move “part of our optimization.” His spokesman said it was not part of any drawdown.

About 13,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, according to a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Army Col. Sonny Leggett. When Miller took command in Afghanistan last year, troop levels were at 15,000.

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