Lawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban

Lawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban
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Lawmakers are warning that U.S. officials are still far from the finish line in their peace talks with the Taliban as the Trump administration touts a breakthrough.

A formal announcement could come as soon as this weekend that the United States and the Taliban have reached a "reduction in violence" agreement that would be the precursor to a broader deal, including the start of inter-Afghan talks.

A senior administration official told reporters at an international security conference Friday in Germany the initial deal was agreed to, according to reports from the conference.

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A peace deal with the Taliban would be a historic achievement, bringing an end to America’s longest war while giving President TrumpDonald John TrumpCDC updates website to remove dosage guidance on drug touted by Trump Trump says he'd like economy to reopen 'with a big bang' but acknowledges it may be limited Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill MORE a major foreign policy victory heading into his reelection campaign.

But while cautiously optimistic, lawmakers cite everything from the Taliban's unreliability to what Democrats describe as Trump's own capriciousness as remaining hurdles to a deal that would allow U.S. troops to withdraw from the 19-year-old war.

“Given the recent history, I don’t think you can say that,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischTensions boil over on Senate floor amid coronavirus debate  Overnight Defense: Pentagon confirms Iran behind recent rocket attack | Esper says 'all options on the table' | Military restricts service member travel over coronavirus Graham warns of 'aggressive' response to Iran-backed rocket attack that killed US troops MORE (R-Idaho), who has been briefed on the plan, said when asked if talks are at the finish line. “I think it’s moving forward cautiously and putting one foot in front of the other slowly and seeing if we can’t get to the finish line.”

The United States has about 14,000 troops fighting in the war that started after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks carried out by al Qaeda operatives harbored by the Taliban.

The U.S. troops in Afghanistan right now have two missions: to train, advise and assist Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban and to conduct counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and ISIS.

Trump, who often rails against so-called endless wars, has been aiming for a significant drawdown from Afghanistan before the November election. His special envoy for Afghanistan negotiations, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been ferrying between Washington, Kabul and Doha, Qatar, for more than a year as he seeks to lock down an elusive deal with the Taliban.

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The United States and the Taliban were close to a deal last year, but it fell apart after Trump invited and then disinvited the insurgents to Camp David. After the scuttled summit, Trump declared talks “dead.”

Trump cited a Taliban attack that killed a U.S. service member as his reason for calling off the meeting, but he had also been widely criticized for honoring the Taliban with an invite to the storied presidential retreat days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyCoronavirus watch: Where the virus is spiking across the country New Jersey governor closing parks, forests Democrats seize on Trump's firing of intelligence community watchdog MORE (D-Conn.), who noted he had not been briefed on the new plan, expressed skepticism at the latest breakthrough given the September breakdown.

“They had an agreement on the table earlier, and the president blew it up for no good reason,” said Murphy, who added he’s “generally supportive” of a political agreement to end the Afghanistan War.

Khalilzad and the Taliban resumed talks a couple months after the Camp David flap, and the two sides now again appear to be on the verge of a deal.

Speaking on Geraldo Rivera’s podcast this week, Trump said he thinks “we're very close” to a deal with the Taliban.

“I think there's a good chance that we'll have a deal,” he said. “We're going to know over the next two weeks."

Before a broader deal, the United States is expecting a seven-day “reduction in violence” aimed at testing the Taliban’s seriousness.

After a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels this week, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Navy chief resigns over aircraft carrier controversy | Trump replaces Pentagon IG | Hospital ship crew member tests positive for coronavirus More than 200 sailors aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt test positive for coronavirus Navy chief resigns amid uproar over handling of aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis MORE confirmed the two sides negotiated a reduction in violence agreement.

“It is our view that seven days, for now, is sufficient, but in all things, our approach to this process will be conditions-based,” Esper said. “So it will be a continual evaluative process as we go forward, if we go forward.”

Senators, though, are skeptical seven days is enough to gauge the Taliban’s trustworthiness.

“Of course not,” Risch said when asked if seven days was enough. “It has been very difficult to deal with the Taliban for obvious reasons.”

If the Taliban does adhere to a seven-day reduction in violence, he said, negotiators should then “proceed with another small step” before a broader agreement.

The next step after the reduction in violence is expected to be intra-Afghan talks.

One of the biggest hurdles lawmakers have consistently warned about is the difficulty of getting the Afghan government and the Taliban to engage in direct negotiations. The Taliban has been resistant to sitting down with what they see as a puppet of the U.S. government.

Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryPentagon gets heat over protecting service members from coronavirus Top Armed Services Republican unveils proposals on military families, acquisition reform House panel delays consideration of annual defense policy bill MORE (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, questioned how a stipulation for intra-Afghan talks would be enforced.

“How are you going to know if that’s real negotiation or if that’s a fig leaf,” he said. “There are signs that at least elements of the Taliban may be willing to come to an agreement, but the big question I’ve got is how do you hold their feet to the fire and make sure they live up to their agreements.”

Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedNavy chief resigns amid uproar over handling of aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis Pentagon gets heat over protecting service members from coronavirus Overnight Defense: Stimulus bill has .5B for Pentagon | Money would be blocked from border wall | Esper orders 60-day freeze for overseas troop movements MORE (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that while the diplomatic effort is important, “we have to be very careful” because “there are so many complications.”

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“For months they’ve been talking about a ceasefire, and they understood they could not do that. So this is sort of a secondary message of goodwill,” Reed said. “The secession of violence for seven days is nice, but what happens after the seven days?”

“Everyone recognizes that ultimately the best solution would be a diplomatic solution,” he added. But the “real question,” he said, is “whether you could achieve it, whether it would be stable, whether it protects the institutional improvements” Afghans have made.

Asked about a reduction in violence that is followed by a broader deal, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill UN biodiversity chief calls for international ban of 'wet markets' Graham asks colleagues to support call for China to close wet markets MORE (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally and leading GOP voice on foreign policy, said he’s “willing to give it a try,” saying the goal is “to show a semblance of good faith to start a broader discussion.”

But Graham stressed the need for a continued U.S. counterterrorism force in Afghanistan.

Even after a deal with the Taliban, the United States is expected to leave about 8,600 troops in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism operations. Esper has said he thinks a drawdown to that level won’t hurt the ability to protect the United States from al Qaeda and ISIS.

Graham said he has "been assured by the top levels of the Trump administration that any deal with the Taliban would lead to negotiations to reconcile the country and that any withdrawal below 8,600 would be conditions-based.

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"And what we would be hoping for is an honorable resolution of the war favorable to human rights, women, not turn the country back over the Taliban and have a partnership with Afghanistan that protect the American homeland from international terrorists," he continued.

After the Brussels NATO meeting, Esper went to Germany for the Munich Security Conference, where he and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS to label white supremacist group as terrorist organization for first time Trump administration eyes Afghan security forces funding for aid cut: report Trump says 40,000 Americans have been repatriated who were stranded abroad MORE met Friday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Esper and Pompeo were expected to continue consulting with allies and lawmakers throughout this weekend's international security forum.

En route to Munich, Pompeo told reporters that “we have made real progress over the last handful of days” on an agreement with the Taliban.

“It’s complicated. We’re not there yet, but I’ll be working on it,” Pompeo said. “We’re actively engaged in those conversations, and we had something we consider a pretty important breakthrough over the last few days.”