'Optimistic' Taliban aim to sign deal with US by end of month: report

'Optimistic' Taliban aim to sign deal with US by end of month: report
The Taliban are 'optimistic' a deal with Washington could be signed before the end of the month, the group's chief spokesman said.
5 min read
18 January, 2020
The move comes amid crucial talks in Doha [Getty]
The Taliban are aiming to reach a withdrawal agreement with the US by the end of January and are prepared to "scale down" military operations ahead of signing the deal, according to their chief spokesman.

The statement by Suhail Shaheen to Pakistani daily Dawn comes as the group and the US held discussions in Doha this week, after insurgent sources told AFP they had offered to initiate a brief ceasefire.

"We have agreed to scale down military operations in days leading up to the signing of the peace agreement with the United States," Shaheen told Dawn in a report published on Saturday.

He added that the Taliban were "optimistic" a deal with Washington could be signed before the end of the month and that the reduction in fighting across the country would also include the targeting of Afghan forces.

"It's now a matter of days," said the spokesman.

Washington has for weeks been calling on the militants to reduce violence, posing it as a condition for resuming formal negotiations on an agreement that would see US troops begin to leave the country in return for security guarantees, after a near two-decade fight.

The Taliban and the US had been negotiating the deal for a year and were on the brink of an announcement in September 2019 when President Donald Trump abruptly declared the process "dead", citing Taliban violence.

In-depth: Will the US-Taliban negotiations settle Afghanistan's political problem?

Talks were later restarted between the two sides in December in Qatar, but were paused again following an attack near the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, which is run by the US.

On Friday, the Taliban said it would hold a 10-day ceasefire with US troops in Afghanistan, scale down attacks on Afghan forces and hold talks with the Afghan government if it comes to an agreement with the US in the ongoing negotiations in Doha.

The talks in the Qatari capital - focused on the signing of a peace deal - are set to continue for the next few days, with the spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeting that they had been “useful".

"It is an offer for a ceasefire either for seven or 10 days," an anonymous senior Taliban official told AFP, adding that the offer was made to US negotiators in Doha. 

"It has been finalised and given to the Americans. It is going to pave the way for an agreement."  

An anonymous commander also told Reuters that the group's previous reservations over the ceasefire deal were addressed by US negotiators.

"Our shura (council) has agreed to a ceasefire the day the peace accord is signed," they said.

Once such an agreement is implemented, the Taliban and the Afghan government could attend face-to-face talks in Germany, according to the commander. The Taliban has previously rejected any such meetings with the government.

On Saturday, two Americans were killed in a Taliban-claimed bomb blast targeting a US forces vehicle in southern Kandahar.

The insurgents' offer, if accepted by the Americans, could see the negotiations begin again.

Graeme Smith, a senior consultant with International Crisis Group, called the reports of a temporary ceasefire a "positive signal", saying a recent reduction of attacks in urban centres has added weight to the process. 

"The Taliban have been sending an even bigger message with their actions in recent months. Two months have passed with no major Taliban attacks in any urban zone. That pause in attacks on cities is unprecedented over the last dozen years," said Smith.

'Positive progress'

The Taliban have only observed one ceasefire in their nearly two decade fight with the US, when the insurgents agreed to a brief three-day truce in June 2018 to mark Eid, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

It saw Taliban fighters celebrating with ordinary Afghans in the streets, sharing ice creams and posing for selfies, raising hopes of a post-conflict Afghanistan.

Many analysts argued that the ceasefire proved the Taliban had widespread control over their rank and file fighters - although it was only with Afghan forces, not the US. 

The claim from the insurgent sources came hours after Pakistan's foreign minister said the Taliban has shown "a willingness" to reduce violence. 

"Today, positive progress has been made, the Taliban have shown their willingness to reduce the violence, which was a demand... it's a step towards the peace agreement," said Shah Mehmood Qureshi in a video statement.

He gave no further details.

Islamabad has helped facilitate the talks between the militants and Washington in Qatar.

Pakistan was one of only three countries to recognise the Taliban regime, and its shadowy military establishment - particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - is widely believed to back the bloody insurgency in Afghanistan.

Islamabad denies the accusation.

Any agreement with the Taliban is expected to have two main pillars - an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a commitment by the insurgents not to offer sanctuary to extremist militants. 

The Taliban's relationship with Al-Qaeda was the main reason cited for the US invasion nearly 18 years ago.

A deal would then hopefully pave the way for intra-Afghan talks. Many observers agree that the war can no longer be won militarily, and that the only route to a lasting peace in Afghanistan is for an agreement between the Taliban and the US-backed government in Kabul. 

The Taliban have until now refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate regime, raising fears that fighting will continue regardless of any deal ironed out with the Americans.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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