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Top Pentagon General Meets With Taliban to Prod Peace Talks

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Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, left, and Gen. Austin Miller, the top commander in Afghanistan, on Wednesday.

Photo: Robert Burns/Associated Press

KABUL—The Pentagon’s top officer met with Taliban officials in Qatar this week as part of an unprecedented effort to spur stalled peace talks that could help end the nearly 20-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with members of the Taliban in Doha on Tuesday in hopes of persuading the group to stop fighting and move quickly toward a peace accord with the government of Afghanistan. Talks between the two sides were suspended earlier this month after disagreements over negotiating details.

The meeting came as Taliban-instigated violence is on the rise, military officials said, and just weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Gen. Milley met with Taliban officials in June in a session that wasn’t previously disclosed. That meeting was the first time a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had met with Taliban leaders and negotiators.

After Tuesday’s meeting with the Taliban in Doha, Gen. Milley flew to Kabul, where he discussed the peace talks with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. Gen. Milley declined to discuss details of either talks.

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Military officials said Taliban-instigated violence is on the rise. A bombing attack on Wednesday in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Photo: Rahmat Gul/Associated Press

Afghan officials acknowledged in a statement that Gen. Milley and President Ghani met but didn’t provide additional details. The names of the Taliban officials who met with Gen. Milley couldn’t be immediately learned.

“The most important part of the discussions I had with both the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan was the need for an immediate reduction in violence,” Gen. Milley said in an interview. “Everything else hinges on that.”

Gen. Milley disclosed both of this week’s meetings—with the Taliban in Doha and with President Ghani in Kabul—more than two days after they occurred, citing security concerns.

The visits took place as the U.S. is scrambling to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan from about 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January, under an order by President Trump.

The Trump administration said in September they would cut the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to about 3,000, in line with the president’s pledge to end “endless wars.” But as WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib pointed out, President-elect Joe Biden also wanted to see the end of “forever wars.” Photo: Erik Mcgregor/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire (Originally published Sept. 14, 2020)

Mr. Biden has said he wants to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan while leaving a residual force to address terrorist threats.

Violence in Afghanistan has continued to flare, particularly due to fighting in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, putting the peace talks in jeopardy, said Army Gen. Austin Miller, the top commander in Afghanistan.

Military officials and some experts believe now is the opportunity to make a peace deal, before a Biden administration takes office.

“The higher the violence, the higher the risk, and I also believe it’s an opportunity that should not be squandered,” Gen. Miller told reporters in Kabul Wednesday.

Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com

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