Gen Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.—Reuters
Gen Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.—Reuters

WASHINGTON: The top US military officer pressed the Taliban to reduce violence in a rare meeting on Thursday as outgoing President Donald Trump seeks to hasten the end of the nearly 20-year war.

Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Taliban representatives in Qatar and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.

It was only the second time the top US general met the Taliban, whom the US military had tried unsuccessfully to destroy in battle, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also met the militants in Qatar.

In his talks with the Taliban, Gen Milley “discussed the need for an immediate reduction of violence and (to) accelerate progress towards a negotiated political solution which contributes to regional stability and safeguards US national interests”, spokeswoman Commander Sarah Flaherty said.

In his meeting with President Ghani, Milley told him that the United States remained “fully committed to helping Afghans create a secure and stable Afghanistan”, Flaherty said.

Under a Feb 29 agreement reached in Doha, the United States set in motion a withdrawal by May next year and the Taliban agreed not to let Afghanistan be used by extremists — the original reason for US invasion following the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.

The Taliban have since held fire on US troops, but not on Afghan forces, with violence surging in recent weeks even as the militants meet representatives of the internationally recognised government in Qatar. The militants consider the Kabul government illegitimate.

Attacks have included a gun rampage inside classrooms at Kabul University.

The militant Islamic State extremist movement claimed responsibility, but authorities blame the Haqqani network, an affiliate of the Taliban which US officials allege has ties with Pakistan.

Modicum of success

Milley’s trip comes as Trump tries to make good on his promises to wind down “endless wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Trump has ordered a reduction to just 2,500 troops by Jan 15, five days before he hands over to president-elect Joe Biden.

The US military had some 13,000 troops in Afghanistan a year ago and had reduced the level to 4,500 as of last month.

The Pentagon has been eager to maintain 4,500 troops in Afghanistan in the new year amid the peace talks, but officials say the military is complying with Trump’s order.

Gen Milley acknowledged earlier this month what US lawmakers across the political spectrum have increasingly been saying — that there is nothing more to gain from the war.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2020

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