The US and the Taliban are “close” to a deal that would see the Pentagon slash troop numbers in Afghanistan, the insurgents said Wednesday, although the US military insisted that the country must not become a sanctuary for extremists.

The foes have been meeting in Doha to put the final touches on a historic deal that would see the Taliban make various security guarantees in return for a sharp reduction in the 13,000 or so US troops based in Afghanistan. “We are close to an agreement. We hope to bring good news for our Muslim and freedom-seeking nation soon,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted.

In Washington, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s most senior uniformed officer, sounded a note of caution, telling reporters he was not yet using the word “withdrawal” to describe the deal. “I’m using, ‘We’re going to make sure that Afghanistan is not a sanctuary, and we’re going to try to have an effort to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan,'” he said.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, standing next to Dunford, also said a deal with the Taliban must guarantee that Afghanistan “is no longer a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States.”

9/11

US troops were first sent to Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on US soil carried out by Al-Qaeda, which was sheltered by the former Taliban regime. Washington now wants to end its military involvement and has been talking to the Taliban since at least 2018.

The agreement will center on: the US withdrawing troops in exchange for a Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a jihadist safe haven; talks with the Afghan government; and an eventual ceasefire.

Any agreement is going to be “conditions-based,” Dunford said, adding that it was premature to talk about how a US counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan might look.

Insurgent leaders were meeting at an undisclosed location along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to review the proposed agreement, a senior Taliban commander in Pakistan told AFP.

“All the Shura [consultation] members have received the draft and they are reading it carefully, yet no go-ahead signal has been given to the Taliban negotiating team in Doha,” the Taliban official said. “It may take a day or two, as Taliban leadership has to take all the commanders into confidence”.

‘All options on the table’

The newly appointed Defense Secretary Esper picked his way through a political minefield in what was his first public meeting with the media Wednesday, skirting anything that could irritate his irascible boss President Donald Trump.

He didn’t blink when asked about Trump’s disturbing assertion that the US military could easily settle the Afghanistan conflict.

“We could win that war in a week if we wanted to fight it, but I’m not looking to kill 10 million people,” Trump said last week, echoing similar comments he made previously and which led to speculation that only nuclear weapons could quickly eliminate such a large number.

“We reserve the right to keep all options on the table,” Esper said. “We’re hoping that we can reach some kind of conclusion that could result in a political agreement” and bring peace to the country, he said.

Just hours after predecessor James Mattis wrote that Trump’s policies toward US allies are damaging US security, the new Pentagon chief hewed the official line, undoubtedly aware that the US leader studiously watches and assesses his cabinet members’ televised performances.

For most of two years Mattis avoided appearing on camera, knowing that speaking his mind could only worsen a tense White House relationship rooted in fundamental disagreements over US defense policy. Mattis resigned late last year.

Esper, a close ally of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – now Trump’s primary national security advisor – made clear he would not rock the boat, even given the president’s unorthodox policymaking and sharp turns in longstanding US defense principles.

Trump’s shifting policies

But his tenure could be easier: Pulling out of Afghanistan – a policy Mattis resigned over – is now well underway in the negotiations with the Taliban, and Esper could not likely reverse the process if he wanted.

Yet in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece published Wednesday, Mattis highlighted perhaps the foremost challenge his successor has in serving Trump. He assailed Trump for shredding US alliances, days after the G7 summit showed the president out of step with America’s major partners.

“An oft-spoken admonition in the Marines is this: When you’re going to a gunfight, bring all your friends with guns,” Mattis wrote in The Wall Street Journal, giving his first public comments since quitting the Pentagon.

“A leader must display strategic acumen that incorporates respect for those nations that have stood with us when trouble loomed,” Mattis wrote. “Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither. Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy.”

Afghan allies sidelined

The apparent final phase of talks brings into view the end of an excruciating few months for Afghans, US allies who have watched, largely voiceless, as US negotiators cut a deal with the Taliban while largely sidelining the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

However US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad will come to Kabul in “one or two” days to brief Ghani on the deal, said Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan leader.

Most of the US negotiating was led by Afghan-born Khalilzad, a fluent Pashto and Dari speaker who has spent recent months shuttling between world capitals in a bid to build support for a deal with the Islamist hardliners known for their extreme interpretations of Sharia law.

‘Remaining points’

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told reporters in Doha on Tuesday that a deal could be expected “as soon as the remaining points are finalized,” as negotiators wrangled over individual words and phrases in the draft.

Meanwhile Amnesty International called on the United States and the Taliban to also consider human rights.

“Any peace agreement must not ignore [Afghans’] voices, the voices of the victims,” Omar Waraich, Amnesty’s deputy South Asia director, told reporters in Kabul.

“They must not ignore their calls for justice and accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations.”

While the Taliban are notorious for numerous human rights abuses, violations have also been perpetrated by pro-government forces.

AFP