Afghan Deal Hard to Assess 02/22 10:02

Afghan Deal Hard to Assess             02/22 10:02

   Hopes for ending America's longest war hinge on maintaining a weeklong 
fragile truce in Afghanistan that U.S. officials and experts agree will be 
difficult to assess and fraught with pitfalls.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hopes for ending America's longest war hinge on 
maintaining a weeklong fragile truce in Afghanistan that U.S. officials and 
experts agree will be difficult to assess and fraught with pitfalls.

   What if one militant with a suicide vest kills dozens in a Kabul market? Or, 
if a U.S. airstrike targeting Islamic State insurgents takes out Taliban 
members instead, does that destroy the deal?

   The agreement, which took effect Friday, calls for an end to attacks around 
the country, including roadside bombings, suicide attacks and rocket strikes 
between the Taliban, Afghan and U.S. forces. 

   But in a country that has been wracked by violence for more than 18 years, 
determining if the agreement has been violated will be a tough task. And there 
are a number of other groups and elements in the country that would love to see 
the deal fall through.

   "The reason this is a challenge is this is a very decentralized insurgency," 
said Seth Jones, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International 
Studies and an Afghanistan expert. "There are going to be a lot of 
opportunities for any militia commander, element of the Taliban, the Haqqani 
network, and other local forces who don't want to see a deal, to conduct 
violence." 

   The Haqqani network is an insurgent group linked to the Taliban.

   According to one defense official, any attack will be reviewed on a 
"case-by-case" basis. And much will depend on how well U.S. military and 
intelligence officials in Afghanistan can quickly determine two things: Who was 
responsible for the attack, and can any of the blame be traced back to the 
Taliban, particularly the group's leaders who have been participating in the 
negotiations.

   The Taliban issued a statement late Friday saying their military council has 
instructed commanders and governors to stop all attacks against foreign and 
Afghan forces. The council has a web of commanders and shadow governors across 
the country. 

   U.S. officials have made it clear that "spoilers" --- such as militants 
associated with the Taliban who are not in favor of the peace talks --- could 
launch an attack in a deliberate attempt to prevent them from happening. 

   Jones said the U.S. military has tried to get a good layout of where all the 
insurgent groups are operating so it will be able to determine where any attack 
comes from and who likely was responsible. And U.S. military officials said 
they were prepared and ready to make quick assessments.

   If successfully implemented, the weeklong "reduction in violence" agreement, 
which began at midnight Friday local time (1930 GMT, 2:30 p.m. EST), will be 
followed by the signing of a peace accord on Feb. 29. That accord would finally 
wrap up the 18-year war and begin to fulfill one of President Donald Trump's 
main campaign promises: to bring U.S. troops in Afghanistan home.

   The U.S. will continue to have surveillance aircraft and other assets 
overhead to monitor events and help to determine who is responsible for any 
attack.

   One senior U.S. official also said that the U.S., Afghans and Taliban will 
have a channel through which they will be able to discuss any issues that arise.

   Another U.S. official said that communications between the groups will allow 
the Taliban, for example, to quickly deny involvement with an attack. But in 
all cases, officials said the U.S. military --- led by Gen. Scott Miller in 
Afghanistan --- will be responsible for investigating incidents and figuring 
out who is at fault.

   The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the 
private negotiations.

   Once Miller reaches a conclusion, officials said it will be up to the White 
House and State Department to make a final determination about whether an 
attack constitutes a violation of the truce and if it is enough to affect the 
peace deal.

   The Pentagon has made it clear that U.S. troops may continue to conduct 
operations against Islamic State and al-Qaida militants as needed. But 
officials also noted that all sides want the peace agreement to be successful, 
so they will try to avoid anything that might scuttle it.

   The Pentagon has said for months that it is poised to reduce the number of 
U.S. troops in Afghanistan from the current number of more than 12,000 to 
8,600. That reduction is likely to be triggered once the peace agreement is 
finalized, but officials said Friday it could take several months for any troop 
cuts to begin.

   Jones expressed some skepticism, saying the Taliban has expressed little 
interest in laying down arms or integrating into a government run by someone 
other than the group itself.

   "This is a first down, we're at the 10-yard line," said Jones. "We have 90 
more to go and I don't know that we'll ever get the touchdown."

   The agreement mapping out a plan for peace follows months of negotiations 
between the U.S. and the Taliban that have broken down before. Both parties, 
however, have signaled a desire to halt the fighting that began with the U.S. 
invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Osama bin Laden's 
Afghanistan-based al-Qaida network. 

   The only other cease-fire the Taliban had agreed to was for three days in 
2018 over the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Then fighting ceased completely 
and Taliban and Afghan security forces were even filmed taking selfies together 
and laughing. The Taliban military leaders chastised its fighters at the end of 
the cease-fire for their frolicking with the enemy.


(KR)

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