BRUSSELS -- The United States has negotiated a proposal with the radical Islamist Taliban group to scale back violence for seven days as part of efforts to strike a peace deal in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. defense secretary.
"We've said all along that the best, if not only solution in Afghanistan is a political agreement," Mark Esper said on Thursday at a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels.
"We have the basis for one on the table and we are taking a hard look at it," he adds.
Representatives from the Taliban and the U.S. have been in talks since July 2018 for a solution to the conflicts that have ravaged Afghanistan for 18 years.
The new proposal to reduce bloodshed could be the first step towards a wider peace deal, though Esper stressed it was too soon to say.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also cautioned that the deal was not finalized yet, but insisted the talks were moving in the right direction.
"We have made real progress over the last handful of days," Pompeo told reporters while in Germany ahead of the Munich Security Conference. "It's complicated. We're not there yet, but I'll be working on it."
The U.S. has been calling for Taliban militants to show they can reduce violence before any agreement can be inked.
"I think peace deserves a chance. But it will demand that all parties comply with their obligations if we move forward," Esper said.
Past ceasefire attempts have failed, and Taliban control of Afghan territory is on the rise.
The U.S. is now consulting with its NATO allies on the proposal, Esper added.
There are 17,000 NATO-member or partner country personnel engaged in Afghanistan, training local troops and building up their capacities.
The U.S. has more than 12,000 troops in the country, and has been eyeing a one-third cut.
U.S. and Taliban negotiators have held at least 10 rounds of direct talks in the past year and a half.
In September, the two sides were close to signing a deal when Trump abruptly canceled the talks, citing a Taliban killing of a U.S. soldier.
The talks were reopened in December following an Afghan-Taliban prisoner swap.
NATO was also given the green light from Baghdad to boost its separate, roughly 500-personnel-strong Iraq training mission for local forces fighting Islamic State, according to the alliance's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday.
The Iraqi parliament voted to expel foreign troops from their country in anger over the U.S. assassination of a top Iranian military commander on their soil last month which they argued violated their sovereignty.
"(Baghdad nonetheless) confirmed to us their desire for continuation of the NATO training, advising and capacity-building activities for the Iraqi armed forces," Stoltenberg said.
The 29 allied ministers agreed on the move in principle on Wednesday, the first day of the meeting, pending Iraqi approval.
The government also gave their consent for the potential expansion of NATO's activities in Iraq, diplomatic sources told dpa.
Esper said that a number of NATO allies had agreed to boost the number of troops for the Iraq mission, allowing the US to cut back, but declined to name them.
U.S. President Donald Trump wants the other 28 defense alliance members to assume more responsibility for shared security in the Middle East.
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