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Top US General Milley meets with Taliban, Afghan leader in bid to reduce violence

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The top US military officer met separately this week with the Taliban and Afghanistan’s president to push for a negotiated solution as the United States pulls out, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

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Meeting the Taliban in Qatar, General Mark 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.

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Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met for about two hours with Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday and flew Wednesday to Kabul to discuss the peace process with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Milley’s meetings came amid a new drawdown of US troops, although under current US policy a complete pullout 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,” Milley told three reporters, including one from The Associated Press, who accompanied him to Qatar and Afghanistan. "Everything else hinges on that.”

Under ground rules set by Milley for security reasons, the journalists traveling with him agreed not to report on either set of talks until he had departed the region. It was Milley’s second unannounced meeting with the Taliban's negotiating team; the first, in June, also in Doha, had not been reported until now.

Although 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 in the early stages of what became America’s longest war. Milley served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, the first in 2003 and the last in 2013-14.

Army Gen. 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,” Miller said. Miller meets at least once a month with Taliban negotiators as part of Washington's effort to advance a peace process.

Speaking in the same interview, Ross Wilson, the ranking American diplomat in Kabul, said he also sees growing risk from Taliban violence. He said it has created “an unbearable burden” on the Afghan armed forces and the society as a whole.

In the so-called Doha agreement signed last February by the United States 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.

The Taliban have demanded a halt to US airstrikes, which have been conducted since February only in support of Afghan forces under Taliban attack.