Mike Pompeo sees breakthrough in Taleban talks, wants 'significant' reduction in violence

Pompeo takes questions from the press during a flight to Germany, Feb 13, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States has had "a pretty important breakthrough" in peace talks with the Taleban over the past couple of days, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday (Feb 13), but he cautioned that Washington wants to see a significant fall in violence in Afghanistan before starting wider discussions.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper said earlier that the United States and the Taleban have been negotiating a proposal for a seven-day reduction in violence, in what lawmakers said was a test for the hardline insurgents.

Sources had told Reuters a US-Taleban peace deal could be signed this month, a move that would pave the way for a withdrawal from Afghanistan of some 13,000 US troops and thousands of other Nato personnel, 18 years after a US-led coalition invaded following the Sept 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States.

The demand to sharply reduce violence has been partly why the talks had been deadlocked, according to a Western diplomat in Kabul.

Speaking to reporters traveling with him to Munich, where he will attend a security conference, Pompeo expressed both optimism and caution.

"We have made real progress over the last handful of days and the President gave us the authority to continue to have the conversations," Pompeo said, adding: "We are not there yet."

"We hope we can get to a place where we can get a significant reduction in violence, not only on a piece of paper but demonstrated... and if we can get there, if we can hold that posture for a while, then we'll be able to begin the real, serious discussion which is all the Afghans sitting at a table," Pompeo said.

He is expected to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Munich, a former senior Afghan official said on Wednesday.

Esper, during a press conference in Brussels, said that if the process goes forward there would be continuous evaluation of any violence.

The news of a potential agreement comes amid continued attacks by the Taleban, who control about 40 per cent of Afghanistan, according to Afghan defence officials.

Last month, the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a US government agency, assessed that there had been a record-high number of attacks by the Taleban and other anti-government forces in the last three months of 2019.

Although the Taleban is negotiating with US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, it refuses to talk directly to Ghani's government, which it denounces as a puppet of the West.

US Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski, who has expressed deep reservations about the talks with the Taleban, said he viewed the proposal of a reduction in violence as a test of the Taleban leadership.

"We also need to see whether the Taleban leadership conducting these negotiations actually can control what their forces in the field do. And I'm glad to see that intra-Afghan talks are supposed to start if this test is passed," he told Reuters.

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