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Days After A U.S.-Taliban Agreement, Afghan Diplomacy Is Back In Doubt


And over the weekend, the U.S. and the Taliban signed a deal that calls for peace talks to begin March 10. It also calls for a prisoner swap, but that part's already in doubt, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Taliban officials say they will resume military operations against the Afghan government and won't take part in the peace talks until their prisoners are released. Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington, Roya Rahmani, says her government didn't sign up for that.

ROYA RAHMANI: This is one of the issues that we will be discussing during the negotiations.

KELEMEN: Here's the problem. In Doha, the U.S. signed a deal that says the Afghan government would release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners by March 10, when negotiations are due to begin. Defense Secretary Mark Esper signed a separate joint declaration with Afghanistan's government that was less specific. Here's how he described it today.


MARK ESPER: Our commitment under the agreement was to enable, to facilitate that exchange of persons between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. And as I've said over and over, it's all conditions-based.

KELEMEN: He says the U.S. will keep its end of the bargain, bringing troop levels down to 8,600. The plan calls for a full withdrawal over 14 months if Taliban militants keep their counterterrorism commitments. What's less clear is what happens if attacks resume on Afghan government forces. Ambassador Rahmani is clearly worried about that.

RAHMANI: How are we hoping to have peace in the country if their only leverage is killing the people that they want to live with together and reconcile with?

KELEMEN: Rahmani says the government is ready for peace talks if they happen, and she says the negotiating team will include women.

RAHMANI: Women will be certainly there. We will want to make sure that the outcome of the discussion would also ensure that there is no compromise on the women's rights.

KELEMEN: The Trump administration says its priority is to make sure Afghanistan never becomes a safe haven for terrorists. Defense Secretary Esper says he's focused on that mission.


ESPER: This is going to be a long, windy, bumpy road. There will be ups and downs, and we'll stop and start. That's going to be the nature of this over the next days, weeks and months.

KELEMEN: Esper says he's not going to, quote, "get too excited about what happens at the moment." He says the U.S. is taking this day by day.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRONTIDE'S "CABIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.