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Defense Secretary says start of reduction in violence period in Afghanistan ‘is a moving date’

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Saturday said the US has not yet fully set a date for when it will begin a period of reduction in violence negotiated with the Taliban.

“That is a moving date because we are still doing consultations if you will … yesterday Secretary (of State Mike) Pompeo and I met with (Afghan) President (Ashraf) Ghani … so I can’t give you a hard date right now,” Esper told reporters in Munich, Germany, before leaving to return to the US.

Esper said the US will need to make some decisions after the agreement on the violence, which is expected to last about seven days, ends.

“There is a reduction in violence period, and then we have to consider whether or not to move forward with the agreement, with the peace agreement. There will be a reduction (of US service members stationed in Afghanistan) to a certain number over time 8,600 and from there — actually from the beginning it’s all conditions based,” he said.

Esper first announced the negotiated proposal to decrease violence earlier this month, stating, “We’ve said all along that the best if not only solution in Afghanistan is a political agreement. Progress has been made on this front, and will have more to report on that soon, I hope.”

The negotiated proposal comes amid continued attacks in the country.

Last month, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction assessed that there had been a record-high number of attacks carried out by the Taliban and other anti-government forces during the last three months of 2019.

“We have agreed to a number of things we would not do as well and (the Taliban) have agreed to a number of things … We are going to suspend a significant part of our operations, but I don’t want to go anymore into it,” Esper added.

“Where we are right now is on the doorstep of a reduction of violence period. If we decide to move forward, if all sides hold up — meet their obligations under that reduction in violence then we’ll start talking about the next part, whether to move forward,” he said.

Trump has long sought a comprehensive agreement with the Taliban, which could bring about a diminished US presence in the region.

The US and the Taliban reached an agreement “in principle” in early September 2019, but shortly thereafter, Trump called off peace talks and said he canceled a secret Camp David summit with the militant group after they took credit for a deadly attack that killed a US service member.

Regarding an expected reduction of the US forces to just under 9,000, Esper told the reporters: “8,600 number is a number the commander feels very comfortable with that we can go down to and still perform all of our missions, (counterterrorism) and train, advise and assist.”

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