Pentagon’s top general meets with Taliban ahead of presidential transition in U.S.

Dec. 18, 2020
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (left), talks with Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, on Dec. 16.

The Pentagon’s top general met with the Taliban as senior U.S. and Afghan officials press for a reduction in violence, defense officials said Thursday, while talks with the militant group drag on with few signs of progress.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Tuesday with Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar, and Wednesday with senior Afghan officials in Kabul. The meeting with the Taliban was “part of the military channel established in the U.S.-Taliban agreement” that was reached in February, said Navy Cmdr. Sarah Flaherty, a military spokeswoman.

That deal called for the United States to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by spring and for the Taliban to begin meeting with Afghan officials, break with al-Qaeda and not allow the country to be used as a safe haven for terrorists. U.S. officials said then that the military withdrawal would depend on conditions on the ground, but the Taliban has maintained ties to al-Qaeda and launched waves of bloody attacks against Afghan security forces and civilians.

The meeting was Milley’s second with the Taliban — a detail not disclosed to the public until Thursday. He previously met with the group during a visit to the Middle East in June. Details about Milley’s travel this week were withheld until he departed the region.

In Kabul, Milley met with senior U.S. officials, including Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“The senior leaders discussed the current security environment in Afghanistan,” Flaherty said in a separate statement. “The United States remains fully committed to helping Afghans create a secure and stable Afghanistan by supporting inclusive efforts to achieve peace.”

The meetings come as Washington prepares for a presidential transition that might alter the trajectory of the negotiations.

President Trump has pressed repeatedly for a military withdrawal from Afghanistan, even as U.S. diplomats use its presence as a tool in negotiations with the Taliban. After tweeting in October that all U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be home by Christmas, Trump settled on a plan that will cut the number of American service members there to 2,500 by the time he leaves office in January.

President-elect Joe Biden also has said that he wants to end “forever wars” but has drawn a distinction between the last 19 years of military operations and counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the future. The United States must narrowly define those missions and continue them, he said, without fully defining what that means in the context of the deal the Trump administration signed with the Taliban.

About 4,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, military officials said. Miller, in an interview with reporters traveling with Milley, said he will meet Trump’s target date for further reductions and was saddened by Taliban efforts to damage roads, bridges and other infrastructure, according to an Associated Press report.

“Military commanders on the ground are now starting to do things that are not conducive to peace talks and reconstruction and stability,” Miller said, according to the AP. “Clearly, the Taliban use violence as leverage.”

Senior military commanders recommended against withdrawing more U.S. troops this year, citing the tenuous situation in Afghanistan, senior defense officials have said. Then-Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper sent a classified memo to the White House in November with a similar recommendation, citing the advice of senior military commanders, the senior officials said. The president fired him days later.

Milley, in a recent online event with the Brookings Institution, said the U.S. war in Afghanistan had provided small lasting gains.

“We believe that now after 20 years — two decades of consistent effort there — we’ve achieved a modicum of success,” he said.


Top US general meets Taliban in Qatar, urges reduced violence
Al Jazeera

17 Dec 2020

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, also met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.

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.

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.”

Representatives of the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha [File: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

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.


Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met Milley on Wednesday in Kabul [File: Mariam Zuhaib/AP Photo]

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.

Pentagon’s top general meets with Taliban ahead of presidential transition in U.S.