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Many Hurdles Remain, But Afghan Peace Process Begins With 7-Day Ceasefire

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Afghanistan, a seven-day period of reduced violence has begun. It's a small but critical first step towards bringing the country's warring parties to the negotiating table and drawing down U.S. troops. But as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, while hopes are running high, there are still many hurdles to bringing peace in Afghanistan.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In a statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck a cautiously optimistic tone announcing the week-long reduction in violence. James Cunningham, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014, says if a period of calm can be achieved, an agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. will be signed on February 29.

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: I think it's fair to say that this is as close as we've gotten in years to opening the door to a negotiation about a political settlement in Afghanistan, and so that's to be welcomed.

NORTHAM: Cunningham says this agreement could pave the way to negotiations between the Afghans and the Taliban, but the whole process could take months or years.

CUNNINGHAM: Assuming they actually get to a table where they sit down and negotiate, that negotiation is going to be very complicated. Any conflict like this has taken a significant amount of time to resolve and come to an agreement, and this is not going to be any different.

NORTHAM: In a New York Times op-ed, the Taliban's deputy commander, Sirajuddin Haqqani, said the militant group was prepared to sign an agreement with the U.S. and committed to carrying out every provision. There's debate whether Haqqani himself wrote the op-ed, which is in perfect English. Johnny Walsh, an Afghanistan specialist at the U.S. Institute for Peace (ph), says it's the content that matters.

JOHNNY WALSH: It included a significantly more forward-leaning statement that the Taliban is ready to talk to the Afghan government and to other Afghans, and is aiming for those talks to end in an actual peace where those sides find a way to live together. That's not a small thing.

NORTHAM: But Haqqani's op-ed also made clear there was a profound mistrust of the U.S. and that its priority was the removal of all foreign forces on Afghan soil. Walsh says it's unlikely the U.S. will withdraw its forces until there is sustained peace and stability in Afghanistan.

WALSH: So the Taliban can't get the thing that they want the most, which is very much that withdrawal, unless they stay committed to a larger peace process.

NORTHAM: And it's only then that the U.S. can end its longest war.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.