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story.lead_photo.caption Defense Secretary Mark Esper and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison arrive Wednesday for meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. As the U.S. and the Taliban move toward direct peace talks, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke cautiously about wholesale withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. (AP/Virginia Mayo)

WASHINGTON -- An agreement between the United States and the Taliban on a "reduction in violence" in Afghanistan, paving the way to direct peace talks between the militants and the Afghan government, is drawing near, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

On Wednesday, the Taliban issued an ultimatum to Washington, demanding a reply on their offer of a seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan, or they would walk away from the negotiating table, two Taliban officials said.

The ultimatum was from the chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who met earlier this week with White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Qatari foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, 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.

The Taliban maintain a political office in Doha, the capital of the Gulf Arab state of Qatar, where Khalilzad often meets their representatives in the talks that are seeking to find a resolution to Afghanistan's 18-year war, America's longest conflict.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that he had received a phone call from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling him of "notable progress" in the talks with the Taliban.

However, another Taliban demand is that in any and all-Afghan negotiations, representatives of Ghani's government cannot go to the table in an official capacity but only as ordinary Afghan citizens. The Taliban do not recognize the Afghan government and have refused to negotiate directly with Ghani.

Ghani, whose political future remains uncertain after September's presidential election, which still has no official winner, has previously demanded that the Taliban negotiate with his government. His political opponents and his partner in the so-called unity government, Abdullah Abdullah, have criticized Ghani's intransigence and accused him of trying to sideline their involvement in the peace process. Ghani also has blasted the "reduction of violence" offer, demanding a permanent cease-fire and a halt in the near-daily attacks by the Taliban.

Realization of peace plans depend on whether the United States and the Taliban, in discussions this week, can finalize the parameters of the violence reduction, including its duration and geographic coverage. They also would need to agree on the extent to which it applies to the militants and U.S. forces, according to current and former Afghan and Taliban officials who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.

A reduction-in-violence deal for a very short period is sought by the Taliban because they don't want to commit to a formal cease-fire until other components of a final deal are in place. They have previously said a cease-fire could blunt their battlefield momentum if the U.S. or Kabul renege on their promises.

DIRECT TALKS

If the reduction is implemented, current plans call for it to be followed within days by the signing of a much broader U.S.-Taliban agreement under which the militants would quickly begin direct peace talks with the government, and the United States would start withdrawing troops.

The State Department declined to comment.

"Some good news could be forthcoming," White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said Tuesday at the Atlantic Council. "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."

Other conditions in the deal would include a Taliban pledge not to associate with al-Qaida, the Islamic State group or other militant groups.

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 Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., say they no longer seek a monopoly on power. But the militant group now controls or holds sway over roughly half of the country.

Asked about the departure of U.S. troops, O'Brien said, "I don't think there's any imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan."

Withdrawal has been a key foreign-policy priority for President Donald Trump, who approved the emerging but still tentative plan this week. Trump canceled a previous U.S.-Taliban agreement reached in September, saying the talks were "dead" after the Taliban made "a big mistake" with an attack that resulted in the death of a U.S. soldier.

U.S. Gen. Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has already said he can carry out his current mission of air, intelligence and logistical support and training for Afghan security forces, as well as counterterrorism operations, with about two-thirds of the current American force of 12,000 to 13,000 troops.

Since he took over in 2018, Miller has overseen an expanded air campaign that officials hope has made the Taliban more likely to embrace peace negotiations with the Afghan government, though Taliban attacks have markedly increased in recent months.

The Taliban has long said its goal in any negotiation is the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops, and the broader U.S.-Taliban agreement is expected to contain a timeline for gradual withdrawal, depending on militant compliance with the terms of a future Afghan government deal with the Taliban.

U.S. military leaders have voiced support for a peace deal. But they do so with an expectation that it will allow them to retain some sort of military platform in Afghanistan to go after terrorist groups, primarily the Islamic State and al-Qaida, which they believe pose a direct threat to the United States. Under the U.S.-Taliban deal, the militants would launch their own operations against terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

NATO'S STANCE

In addition to the Americans, smaller contingents of NATO troops -- primarily German and Italian -- are also in Afghanistan.

"We went into Afghanistan together, all allies and partners," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday. "We will make decisions on the adjustment of force levels together, and one day we will leave together."

As he opened a meeting of NATO defense ministers Wednesday in Brussels, Stoltenberg said "the best way NATO can support the peace process is to stay committed to our train, assist and advise mission in Afghanistan."

Norway and Germany have offered to facilitate the inter-Afghan talks, he said. In addition to the NATO discussions, Pompeo is to meet with Ghani at a security conference in Munich this week.

There are fears that a full withdrawal of about 20,000 NATO troops, along with the U.S. forces, would leave the Afghan government vulnerable, or unleash another round of fighting in a war that has killed tens of thousand of Afghans and claimed the lives of 2,400 U.S. service members.

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

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

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

Information for this article was contributed by Karen DeYoung, Susannah George, Missy Ryan, Haq Nawaz Khan, Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan of The Washington Post; and by Kathy Gannon and Deb Riechmann of The Associated Press.

A Section on 02/13/2020

Print Headline: U.S., Taliban seen near pact to lead to peace talk

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