KABUL -- A "reduction in violence" agreement with the Taliban appeared to be largely holding on February 22, a hopeful initial indication that a peace deal between the United States and the militant group will be signed as expected in a week.
The quiet start to the day comes after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the peace deal is scheduled to be signed on February 29 provided the partial truce that entered into force at midnight proves successful.
Pompeo’s statement said the United States and the Taliban have been engaged in talks to facilitate a political settlement to end the conflict in Afghanistan and reduce the U.S. presence in the region.
"In recent weeks, in consultation with the Government of National Unity, U.S. negotiators in Doha have come to an understanding with the Taliban on a significant and nationwide reduction in violence across Afghanistan," Pompeo said.
"Upon a successful implementation of this understanding, signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement is expected to move forward. We are preparing for the signing to take place on February 29," Pompeo said, adding that intra-Afghan negotiations will start soon thereafter, with the final aim of delivering "a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire and the future political roadmap for Afghanistan."
In a written statement, the Taliban confirmed the planned signing of a deal on February 29 "in front of international observers" and said that "the groundwork for intra-Afghan talks will be resolved," although it did not mention when such talks would start.
The Taliban has previously refused to speak directly to the Afghan government, which it labeled a U.S. puppet.
In some parts of the country, the announcement of the reduction in violence was met with celebration.
Hundreds of residents in eastern Paktia Province, hit hard by Taliban attacks over the years, gathered in the capital city, Gardez, calling upon the Afghan government, the Taliban, and international community to redouble efforts to end the war.
In Jalalabad, the capital of insurgency-racked Nangarhar Province, residents gathered for a mass cycling event to mark the beginning of the reduction in violence. Cyclists from Nangarhar and other areas of Afghanistan took part in the event, including women.
Since the 2001 invasion to drive the Taliban from power, about 2,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed, along with tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers, extremist fighters, and civilians.
A UN report released on February 22 says that more than 100,000 civilians have been killed or injured in the past 10 years since it began documenting casualties in the Afghan war. The report said 3,493 civilians were killed last year and 6,989 were injured.
"Almost no civilian in Afghanistan has escaped being personally affected in some way by the ongoing violence," said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan.
"It is absolutely imperative for all parties to seize the moment to stop the fighting, as peace is long overdue. Civilian lives must be protected and efforts for peace are under way."
'Tired Of War'
Bismillah Watandost, a senior member of the People's Peace Movement of Afghanistan, was quoted by AFP as saying, "Afghans are tired of war."
He called on Afghans to march and "demand an end to this tragic war."
The talks between U.S. and Taliban representatives began in Qatar in 2018.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Twitter that "our NATO allies and partners agree the best path forward in Afghanistan is a negotiated and conditions-based political settlement between all Afghans."
"The Taliban must demonstrate their commitment to a meaningful reduction in violence."
"Should the Taliban reject the path of peace, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our Afghan partners," he added.
President Donald Trump has said he wants to bring home as many as possible of the 12,000-13,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan, where they advise and train local troops and conduct anti-terror operations.
Afghan government troops will keep up normal military operations against other militants, such as the Islamic State (IS) group, during the reduction-in-violence period, officials said.
The details of the partial truce remain uncertain.
AFP quoted an insurgent in the Taliban stronghold of southern Kandahar Province as saying he had received orders to stand down.
Another Taliban commander there said he had only been ordered to halt attacks on major cities and highways.
With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters