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Pompeo says US will sign an agreement with Taliban ‘if and only if’ reduction in violence is successful

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The US will sign an agreement with the Taliban “if and only if” the week-long reduction in violence is successful, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday.

The US is edging toward a peace agreement that could trigger the long-anticipated reduction of US troops serving in America’s longest war. Under the plan, the American military presence would be reduced to 8,600 troops from the current 12,000 to 13,000 over the course of 135 days, according to two sources familiar with the agreement.

Speaking from the State Department Tuesday, Pompeo said that “so far, the reduction in violence is working.”

“It isn’t perfect, but it’s working,” he said. “It’s got to work for a long time while this political resolution is driven forward.”

The top US diplomat said that the US-Taliban agreement, which would be signed “on or about February 29,” has a timeline “for a conditions-based and phased troop withdrawal and for the commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations.”

Pompeo said that the “conditions-based withdrawal,” if it comes to bear, “sets a high bar for the things that will take place in order for America to ensure that we can accomplish both of those missions: a peace and reconciliation solution in Afghanistan and ensuring that the homeland continues to be as risk free as we can possibly make it.”

President Donald Trump told reporters in New Delhi Tuesday that the US and the Taliban are “pretty close” to inking a formal end to the war in Afghanistan, but also noted the pact’s signing depends on the two sides sticking to a week-long agreement to reduce violence.

“We’ve got two days now under our belt without violence,” Trump said.

A signed deal would create another success for Trump to leverage during his reelection campaign as a major foreign policy platform of his first campaign was a promise to end US involvement in overseas wars. The road there has been rocky — Trump pulled out of peace talks in September after a US soldier was killed — and the chances of long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan are shaky.

Pompeo said that the US approach to Afghanistan had been underpinned by the principles of “realism, restraint and respect.”

“All sides are tired of fighting but we’ve arrived at a historic opportunity for peace. It won’t be easy to obtain but we should seize the moment,” he said.

‘A fundamental step’

After months of internal wrangling, Afghanistan’s elections have finally yielded a winner with the electoral commission announcing President Ashraf Ghani would serve another five-year term. But his rival, opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, has also claimed victory, casting doubt on the government’s legitimacy in ways that could undermine its negotiations with the Taliban.

In a statement Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said that the US expects concerns about the result of the Afghan presidential election “to be handled in accordance with constitutional and legal procedures” and expressed thanks to “the Afghan government for agreeing to postpone the presidential inauguration.”

“It is time to focus not on electoral politics, but on taking steps toward a lasting peace, ending the war with the Taliban, and finding a formula for a political settlement that can serve the interests of all of this country’s citizens through intra-Afghan negotiations we expect will begin in March,” Ortagus said.

On Tuesday, Pompeo, without mentioning names, said that “there are those with an enormous vested interest in the status quo.”

“We want to make sure that those who want the status quo — bloodshed, tears, economic challenges — all of those people who have an interest, whether that’s because of corruption or because some ideological view, can’t spoil what it is that the Afghan people so richly deserve after they have sacrificed so much alongside, fighting alongside of us, these past 20 years.”

Members of Congress and regional experts have raised concerns that the Trump administration could be rushing into a deal given the President’s stated goal of getting US troops out of America’s longest war.

There were a record high number of attacks carried out in the country last year by the Taliban and other anti-government groups. The violence in Afghanistan has continued this year, with the Taliban killing two US service members earlier this month.

There are also concerns that a deal with the Taliban could put at risk the gains made by Afghan civil society and women. Repeatedly pressed about a commitment to women’s rights, Pompeo did not specifically answer.

“Our mission set there has been much broader than that,” he said. “Our mission set there is to deliver good security outcomes for the Afghan people, to let their political process work its way through,” he said. “I’m very confident that the very concerns that you raised will be addressed as part of these conversations.”

Developing the Afghan negotiating team to send to the intra-Afghan talks has been deeply challenging but the tentative plan is for each side — the Afghans and the Taliban — to have 15 representatives, sources told CNN. The Afghan negotiating team will consist of five people from Ghani’s government and 10 people from civil society and other political groups.

There is a short list of people being considered to lead the talks, sources told CNN. Some of the names under consideration include George Bizos, a former lawyer for Nelson Mandela; Mawran Muasher, a Jordanian foreign minister; Federica Mogherini, a former top EU foreign affairs official; and a prosecutor from the Philippines.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilizad, the top US envoy in the Taliban talks, could also potentially be at the table to lead the discussion, sources said. Khalilizad would like to fill the role, given the extensive work he has put into the negotiations over the last year, the sources said. However, there has to be a consensus on both sides and Khalilizad is expected to be rejected by the Afghan government.On Sunday, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said that the US would not sign a peace agreement if the Taliban did not hold up their end of the deal to reduce violence in the country.

“If the Taliban does not live up to their agreement on the reduction of violence plan, then we’ll take a very careful look at it,” O’Brien said on CBS. “And I think it’d be unlikely that we’d- we’d sign a peace treaty, but we’re not going to reduce troops to a level below what is necessary to protect American interests and our partners in Afghanistan.”

Yet it appears that the Trump administration is ready to justify a reduction in US troops, no matter what deal they are able to finalize with the Taliban.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he was confident that reducing troops to the level of 8,600 would put the US presence at a level officials believe can “accomplish our tasks.”

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