The top US army general has held unannounced talks with Taliban peace negotiators to urge a reduction in violence across Afghanistan.
It comes as senior American officials in Kabul warned stepped-up Taliban attacks endanger the militant group’s peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar, for about two hours on Tuesday and flew to Kabul on Wednesday to discuss the peace process with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Mr Milley’s meetings came amid a new drawdown of American troops, although under current US policy a complete pull-out hinges on the Taliban reducing attacks nationwide.
“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,” Mr Milley said.
“Everything else hinges on that.”
It was Mr Milley’s second unannounced meeting with the Taliban’s negotiating team – the first, in June and also in Doha, has not been reported until now.
Although Mr Milley reported no breakthrough, his Taliban meetings represent a remarkable milestone – America’s top general coming face-to-face with representatives of the group that ruled Afghanistan until it was ousted 19 years ago this month.
Mr Milley served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, the first in 2003 and the last in 2013-14.
Army General Scott Miller, the top commander of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview at his military headquarters in Kabul on Wednesday that the Taliban have stepped up attacks on Afghan forces, particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and against roadways and other infrastructure.
“My assessment is, it puts the peace process at risk – the higher the violence, the higher the risk,” Mr Miller said.
He meets at least once a month with Taliban negotiators as part of Washington’s effort to advance a peace process.
In the so-called Doha agreement signed last February by the US and the Taliban, the Trump administration agreed to a phased withdrawal of American troops, going down to zero 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 the early stages.
The militant group have demanded a halt to US air strikes, which have been conducted since February only in support of Afghan forces under Taliban attack.
Mr Miller said he was saddened by what he called the Taliban’s deliberate campaign to damage roadways, bridges and other infrastructure as part of the militants’ effort to limit the Afghan government’s ability to reinforce its troops.
“Military commanders on the ground are now starting to do things that are not conducive to peace talks and reconstruction and stability,” Mr Miller said,
He added “clearly, the Taliban use violence as leverage” against the Afghan government.
Mr Miller said he is executing President Donald Trump’s order to reduce US forces from 4,500 to 2,500 by January 15, just days before Joe Biden is sworn in as his successor.
He said troop levels are now at about 4,000 and will reach the 2,500 target on time.
Mr Biden has not said publicly whether he will continue the drawdown or how he will proceed with the Doha agreement negotiated by peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
Mr Milley’s visit comes in the 20th year of a war initially aimed at overthrowing the Taliban regime, running al Qaida out of the country and laying the groundwork for a global “war on terrorism”.
Looking back on the conflict, Mr Milley said earlier this month the US and its coalition partners had achieved “a modicum of success”.