US announces partial Taliban truce, Trump says peace deal 'close'
Mark Esper appears on MSNBC (screen grab)

The United States said Thursday it has secured a seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan that it hopes will allow it to strike a deal with the Taliban, as President Donald Trump said a peace accord was "very close."

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the partial truce proposal following a NATO meeting in Brussels -- a day after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reported "notable progress" in negotiations with the Islamist extremists.

In a radio interview later Thursday, Trump said the United States and the Taliban were nearing a peace agreement -- although it was not clear if he was talking about the limited pause in hostilities agreed with the guerrillas or something broader.

"I think we're very close. I think there's a good chance that we'll have a deal and we'll see," Trump said, more than 18 years after the US invaded to overthrow the then Taliban government in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

"That doesn't mean we'll have one but we'll know over the next two weeks," Trump added.

Esper did not say when the partial truce agreed would begin, but a Taliban official previously told AFP the group would begin a "reduction of violence" on Friday.

"We've said all along that the best, if not the only, solution in Afghanistan is a political agreement. Progress has been made on that front and we'll have more to report on that soon, I hope," Esper said.

"It is our view that seven days for now is sufficient but in all things our approach to this process will be conditions-based, I will say it again, conditions-based," Esper said.

"So it will be a continual evaluative process as we move forward, if we go forward."

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to reporters on board a plane to the Munich Security Conference where he is expected to meet Ghani, said talks had "made real progress over the past couple of days."

"We hope we can get to a place where we can get a significant reduction in violence not only on a piece of paper but demonstrated, the capability to actually deliver a serious reduction in violence in Afghanistan," he said.

"If we can get there, if we can hold that posture for a while, then we'll be able to begin the real, serious discussion, which is all the Afghans sitting at a table, finding a true reconciliation, a path forward."

Washington and the insurgents have been locked in gruelling talks that have stretched over more than a year, seeking an end to what has already become America's longest war.

- 'Long overdue' -

Citing Afghan and US officials, The New York Times has reported that Trump had given conditional approval to a deal with the Taliban to allow him to start withdrawing US troops.

"It will be a difficult set of conversations, one that's long overdue," Pompeo said. "It would also give us the opportunity to reduce the footprint not only for America's forces there but for all forces."

The United States currently has between 12,000 and 13,000 troops in Afghanistan.

The only other time there has been a Taliban ceasefire since the regime's overthrow was in 2018, during the first three days of Eid al-Fitr at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

It led to moving scenes such as Afghans sharing ice cream with Taliban fighters and snapping selfies. But afterwards, the violence resumed.

The number of clashes between the insurgents and US-backed government forces jumped to record levels in the last quarter of 2019, according to a recent US government watchdog report.