The top United States general met Taliban representatives this week in Qatar, urging them to reduce the level of violence and move more swiftly towards a political solution in Afghanistan, the US military said on Thursday.
The previously unannounced meeting in Doha with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, comes as negotiators representing the Afghan government and the Taliban take a break until January 5 when they will continue to work on an agenda.
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Milley also met Taliban officials in June but that meeting was not publicly announced, news agencies reported.
The two meetings are believed to be the first time a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has met the Taliban, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the top US military official in Afghanistan have met them before.
During his trip, Milley also met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.
“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,” Milley told reporters who accompanied him. “Everything else hinges on that.”
There has been a rise in violence in recent weeks, undermining the best hope for ending the war that has ravaged Afghanistan since 2001.
Army General Scott Miller, the top commander of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview at his Kabul office on Wednesday that the Taliban has stepped up attacks on Afghan forces, particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and on infrastructure.
“My assessment is, it puts the peace process at risk — the higher the violence, the higher the risk,” Miller said. He meets at least once a month with Taliban negotiators as part of Washington’s efforts to advance a peace process.
Pompeo said this month that violence in Afghanistan was “unacceptably high” and said Washington had asked the warring parties to “stand back and indeed stand down”.
In the so-called Doha agreement signed last February by the US and the Taliban, the administration of President Donald Trump agreed to a phased withdrawal of US troops, going down to zero troops by May 2021 if the agreement’s conditions are upheld.
One condition is a reduction in violence by the Taliban, leading to a nationwide ceasefire. The Taliban also agreed to begin peace negotiations with the Afghan government, which are in an early stage.
The Taliban has demanded a halt to US air raids, which have been conducted since February in support of Afghan forces under Taliban attack.
President Trump has ordered a reduction in the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan to 2,500 from 4,500 by mid-January, stopping short of a threatened full withdrawal from the US’s longest war after fierce opposition from allies at home and abroad.
President-elect Joe Biden has not said publicly whether he will continue the drawdown or how he will proceed with the Doha agreement negotiated by Trump’s peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Biden has not laid out a detailed plan for Afghanistan but has made clear he prefers a small US military footprint and limited goals.