A deal between the United States and the Taliban is expected to be signed on February 29 provided a "reduction in violence'" due to enter into force at midnight proves successful, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on February 21.
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, Pompeo said in a statement.
"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 road map 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 had previously refused to speak directly to the Afghan government, which it labeled a U.S. puppet.
Earlier on February 21, a senior Afghan official and several Taliban leaders said that the week-long "reduction in violence" will begin at midnight local time on February 22.
"We hope it is extended for a longer time and opens the way for a cease-fire and intra-Afghan talks," Javed Faisal, Afghanistan's National Security Council spokesman, was quoted as saying.
The talks between U.S. and Taliban representatives began in Qatar in 2018.
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, Faisal said.
He added that Afghan troops will also retaliate to the smallest violation of the understanding by the Taliban.
"Local government and security officials have been instructed by the president [Ashraf Ghani)] himself on how to follow the regulations agreed upon for the period [reduced violence]," Faisal said.
One Taliban leader based in Qatar's capital, Doha, told Reuters that the week-long lull could not be called a "cease-fire."
"Every party has the right of self-defense but there would be no attacks on each other's positions in these seven days,” he was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Both NATO and Russia hailed the announcement.
"It will be an important event for the peace process in Afghanistan," Moscow's Afghanistan envoy, Zamir Kabulov, told the state news agency RIA Novosti, adding that he would attend the signing ceremony if invited.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the agreement opened a possible route to sustainable peace in Afghanistan.
"I welcome today's announcement that an understanding has been reached on a significant reduction in violence across Afghanistan," Stoltenberg said in a statement.
NATO has a 16,000-strong mission in Afghanistan to train, support, and advise local forces.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP