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US general, Afghan official take selfies in demonstration of peace effort

Army Gen. Scott Miller meets with civilians in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, amid a seven-day reduction in violence agreement between the United States and the Taliban.

DAN LAMOTHE/THE WASHINGTON POST

By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: February 26, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan — The top U.S. general in Afghanistan strolled through crowded streets and visited shops in the capital Wednesday in an effort to highlight relative peace amid a seven-day agreement between the Taliban and the United States aimed at potentially ending the 18-year-old war.

Army Gen. Scott Miller greeted shopkeepers, children and Afghan security forces, taking scores of selfies over the span of a couple hours without wearing a helmet or body armor. He was accompanied by Afghanistan's acting defense minister, Asadullah Khalid, who hugged fellow Afghans and posed for photographs.

In a rare move, the two men hopped out of armored sport utility vehicles in several locations, including an indoor shopping mall and an outdoor strip of stores surrounded by tall buildings, with several U.S. Special Operations soldiers on Miller's security team.

"When you see the minister of defense out walking, that actually matters," Miller said in a brief interview on a city street. "I think that's really the key piece."

The shops they visited sold rugs, shampoo, gold jewelry and perfume. Civilians gathered around them after each stop, often jostling for position to introduce themselves as Miller's security forces watched closely.

Miller, who carried a holstered pistol, pointed out that it was "not a huge protection detail" accompanying him and the defense minister.

"I think that's important for the people to see," Miller said.

He and Asadullah have been targeted in Afghanistan before, including an October 2018 attack in Kandahar province in which Miller escaped unscathed, but three senior Afghan officials were killed and three Americans were wounded. Asadullah survived a suicide attack in 2012 that required hospitalization in the United States.

The reduction in violence is meant to be a confidence-building measure allowing for additional negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban to find peace. Since the agreement began Saturday, the United States has not fired on the Taliban by ground or air. The Taliban also has significantly reduced attacks, with most incidents typically described as harassing fire on Afghan military convoys.

Several miles away in another part of Kabul, a bomb exploded Wednesday, wounding several people while Miller and Asadullah visited with civilians. The Taliban quickly issued a statement saying it was not involved, but it was not clear who was responsible. The Islamic State, which is not a party to the reduction of violence agreement and also in conflict with the Taliban, is one possibility.

Pop-up attacks have occurred in other parts of the country over the past few days, killing several Afghan civilians and security forces. But Miller said the violence reduction is generally holding.

If the situation stands, senior U.S. and Taliban officials are expected to sign an agreement this weekend that could reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from about 12,000 to 8,600 over the next few months.

Additional troop cuts would follow if Taliban fighters continue to hold their fire. The United States also would alter its mission in Afghanistan from carrying out a record-setting number of strikes this year on the Islamic State and the Taliban to focusing heavily on counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State.

Miller and Asadullah's outing came during a days-long dispute between senior Afghan officials over who won their recent presidential election, which U.S. officials warned could undermine peace negotiations. The incumbent, Ashraf Ghani, was declared the winner by Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission last week, but his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, rejected the results and pledged to form a parallel government.

Ghani's inauguration had been scheduled for Thursday, but it was postponed for two weeks, effectively delaying a political crisis until after the United States is expected to sign a peace deal with the Taliban.

A State Department statement Tuesday said the postponement would support the peace process, but the Afghanistan presidential palace disputed that Wednesday. In a statement, Afghan officials said "rumors about coronavirus" in Afghanistan and a short timeline prevented world leaders from attending the inauguration. (The virus has killed more than 2,400 in China, and a handful of cases have been reported in western Afghanistan.)

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. diplomat negotiating with the Taliban, said in tweets on Wednesday that he welcomed Ghani's decision to postpone.

"This will allow time for necessary consultations so that the best interests of Afghanistan and its people are reflected and preserved by the new government," he said. "As the electoral process has concluded, President Ghani, as the declared winner, and other leaders should ensure that the new government is inclusive and reflects the aspirations of all Afghans."

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