THE PENTAGON REVEALED Thursday that the U.S. military’s top officer met with representatives from the Taliban this week, though it’s unclear how the unusual meeting between battlefield foes will affect the swiftly deteriorating security situation in America’s longest war.
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Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Doha on Tuesday, where he met with Taliban negotiators before traveling to Kabul the following day for talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The trip was not announced in advance for security reasons, and three journalists traveling with Milley agreed not to report on the talks until after he left the region. The general, who served three combat tours in Afghanistan, revealed he had also met with Taliban negotiators in Doha in June, which had not been disclosed until this week.
Milley’s staff issued a short readout of the meeting Thursday morning, saying he, along with chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, met with the Taliban “as part of the military channel established in the U.S.-Taliban agreement.”
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“The chairman discussed the need for an immediate reduction of violence and accelerate progress towards a negotiated political solution which contributes to regional stability and safeguards U.S. national interests,” according to the readout.
It remains unclear whether Milley solidified any agreements with the Taliban or made other breakthroughs. The Taliban had not issued any public statements about the meeting as of early Thursday morning.
But it represents a remarkable moment for the conflict in Afghanistan, which entered its 20th year of fighting in October.
Milley told the reporters traveling with him, “The most important part of the discussions that I had with both the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan was the need for an immediate reduction in violence,” adding, “Everything else hinges on that.”
Violence in Afghanistan has escalated in recent months despite a peace agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February, part of which remains classified, that was reportedly reached without full consultations with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. The deal calls for a staged withdrawal of U.S. forces if the terms are upheld and for the Taliban to begin negotiations with Ghani’s government, which the insurgent network considers a puppet regime of the West. Those talks have largely stalemated.
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The Taliban has in that time ceased attacks on American and foreign allied forces but has accelerated violence against U.S.-backed Afghan troops. U.S. forces have occasionally conducted airstrikes against the Taliban in support of their Afghan partners. Much of the fighting has taken place in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the country’s south, the Taliban’s historic strongholds.
Despite the uptick in violence, President Donald Trump announced in November that he would halve the 5,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan by Jan. 15, a week before Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Former officials who have helped oversee the U.S. presence in Afghanistan have expressed deep skepticism in recent weeks about the value of meeting with the Taliban, particularly while the Trump administration continues to accede to the group’s chief demand of withdrawing U.S. forces.
“These are surrender talks,” Ryan Crocker, who previously served as ambassador to Afghanistan as well as Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Kuwait, told the House Armed Services Committee in a hearing days after the troop withdrawal announcement last month. “We are waving the white flag, basically saying to the Taliban, ‘You win, we lose. Let’s dress this up as best we can,’ an eerie reminder of the  Paris peace talks on Vietnam.”
Wars must end and return to a political process, Crocker said, adding, “but not on the terms that this administration has set for these talks. These are surrender negotiations, and I would hope the president-elect when he becomes president will simply freeze them, not cancel them out.”
“I still believe there’s a potential bargaining space for a negotiated settlement that would be much better for us and for our Afghan allies who have sacrificed so much than would be outright defeat, but I believe we just reduced that bargaining space via our withdrawal announcement,” Stephen Biddle a professor at Columbia University who previously served as a senior adviser to the top generals in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, said at the same hearing.
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“If we suspend further drawdowns and retain the remaining troops in theater pending a successful settlement, then perhaps we can still get out of this with something better than simple failure,” Biddle told the committee. “But if one disagrees on this, the logical policy would be total withdrawal, not different splitting partial drawdowns that just make defeat slower and more expensive.”
In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Army Gen. Scott Miller, the top commander for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the recent uptick in violence “puts the peace process at risk — the higher the violence, the higher the risk.”
The fighting has created “an unbearable burden” on the Afghan armed forces and the society as a whole,” Ross Wilson, the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul, said in the same interview.
It remains unclear how Biden will proceed in Afghanistan once he assumes the presidency. He has not yet outlined a clear plan for Afghanistan but told CBS News in February, “I think we should only have troops there to make sure that it’s impossible for … ISIS or al-Qaida to re-establish a foothold there.”
Biden as vice president disagreed with then-President Barack Obama’s decision to surge troops in Afghanistan.
Milley told a congressional panel earlier this month that the U.S. has “achieved a modicum of success” in Afghanistan despite what he described as “a condition of strategic stalemate” for the last five to seven years.
Paul D. Shinkman, Senior Writer, National Security
Paul Shinkman is a national security correspondent. He joined U.S. News & World Report in 2012 … READ MORE
Tags: Pentagon, Department of Defense, Taliban, military, diplomacy, Afghanistan, violence, United States, world, world news
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