WASHINGTON (AFP) – The top US military officer has pressed Afghanistan s Taliban to reduce violence in a rare meeting as outgoing President Donald Trump seeks to hasten the end of the nearly 20-year war.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met separately with Taliban representatives in Qatar and with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.
It was only the second time the top US general met with the Taliban, whom the US military had tried unsuccessfully to destroy in battle, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also met the Islamist militants in Qatar.
In his talks with the Taliban, Milley “discussed the need for an immediate reduction of violence and (to) accelerate progress towards a negotiated political solution which contributes to regional stability and safeguards US national interests,” spokeswoman Commander Sarah Flaherty said.
Milley separately told Ghani that the United States remained “fully committed to helping Afghans create a secure and stable Afghanistan,” Flaherty said.
Under a February 29 agreement reached in Doha, the United States set in motion a withdrawal by May 2021 and the Taliban agreed not to let Afghanistan be used by extremists — the original reason for the US invasion following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The Taliban have since held fire on US troops but not on Afghan forces, with violence surging in recent weeks even as the insurgents meet in Qatar with the internationally recognized government, which the militants consider illegitimate.
Attacks have included a gun rampage inside classrooms at Kabul University. The Islamic State extremist movement claimed responsibility, but authorities blame the Haqqani network, an affiliate of the Taliban which US officials believe has ties with Pakistan.
– Modicum of success –
Milley s trip comes as Trump tries to make good on his promises to wind down “endless wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Trump has ordered a reduction to just 2,500 troops by January 15, five days before he hands over to President-elect Joe Biden.
The US military had some 13,000 troops in Afghanistan a year ago and had reduced the level to 4,500 as of November.
The Pentagon has been eager to maintain at least 4,500 troops in Afghanistan in the new year amid the peace talks, but officials say the military is complying with Trump s order.
Milley acknowledged earlier this month what US lawmakers across the political spectrum have increasingly been saying — that there is nothing more to gain from the war.
“We believe that now after 20 years — two decades — of consistent effort there, we ve achieved a modicum of success,” Milley said at the Brookings Institution.
“I would also argue that over the last, call it five to seven years at a minimum, we have been in a condition of strategic stalemate,” he said.
Biden has long agreed on the need to end America s longest war but it remains to be seen if he sticks to Trump s timeline.
Biden has also called for a residual force to remain in Afghanistan for counterterrorism operations — a prospect unlikely to be accepted by the Taliban.
NATO nations have also maintained their smaller troop levels in Afghanistan, with the Western alliance set to make a decision in February, after the more international-minded Biden is in office.
The Afghan government s talks with the Taliban recently managed to clear a key sticking point on the nature of the negotiations but there has been no progress on substantive matters.
The Afghan talks are on hiatus until January 5, with the government team returning to Kabul for the new year to consult.