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Sgt. Cory Castillo, a Cavalry Scout assigned to the 1-108th Cavalry Regiment of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, provides security during a key leader engagement in Kapisa province, Afghanistan, in February, 2019.
Sgt. Cory Castillo, a Cavalry Scout assigned to the 1-108th Cavalry Regiment of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, provides security during a key leader engagement in Kapisa province, Afghanistan, in February, 2019. (Jordan Trent/U.S.Army)

This story is part of a Stars and Stripes special report on what's ahead for the U.S. military as a new decade begins. See the list of stories here.

The United States looks set on reducing violence while decreasing its footprint in Afghanistan in 2020, but doing so will be a challenge, and ending the war outright is unlikely, experts say.

The U.S. ramped up its military campaign in Afghanistan in recent years to push the Taliban into a peace settlement. Recent comments by military officials suggest a shift in operations could be on the horizon.

Current efforts have corresponded with a record number of civilian war fatalities, according to the United Nations. The number of American service members killed in the conflict reached a five-year high in 2019, with 18 dying in combat.

The U.S. resumed talks with the Taliban last month after a three-month pause to focus on “how to reduce violence,” the State Department said. But just days later, the talks were suspended because of a Taliban attack near the largest U.S. base in the country.

“The chances are relatively small of a serious, measurable reduction in violence, at least until such time as negotiations among Afghans begin in earnest,” said Laurel Miller, former U.S. acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The Taliban sees its ability to inflict violence as its main form of leverage. And the U.S. has been very explicitly using stepped-up attacks on the Taliban as a form of leverage-seeking,” Miller said.

Negotiations among the Taliban and Afghan government would be the core of a peace process that the U.S. has been trying to advance over the past year. The Taliban consider the government illegitimate and insist meetings can only begin once Washington agrees to withdraw.

But even this preliminary agreement between the U.S. and Taliban is proving difficult to achieve.

The resumption of talks last month came after President Donald Trump in September canceled months of negotiations that officials on both sides said had reached an agreement in principle. He cited a Taliban attack that killed an American service member when announcing the halt.

The agreement called for the immediate reduction of several thousand U.S. troops followed by a phased withdrawal of the remaining forces in the country, in exchange for Taliban promises not to harbor international terrorists, officials said.

Trump has since hinted a cease-fire might be required to finalize a deal. However, the Taliban denied this month reports that suggested a temporary cease-fire was forthcoming. The U.S.’ insistence on a cease-fire would likely impede or prevent the agreement’s conclusion, said John Glaser, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

"The prospects for a political settlement now seem less amenable than they were before the September fall-apart," Glaser said, contradicting a November assessment by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who said that a successful conclusion to U.S.-Taliban talks could happen in the "not too disant future."

Even if the U.S. and Taliban reach an agreement, it could take years of negotiations between Taliban and Afghan officials to agree on issues fundamental to ending the war, said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Issues that need to be worked out include deciding how to share power, amend the constitution and integrate Taliban fighters into the national security forces.

"The million-dollar question for the U.S. is whether it’s willing to stay committed to the peace process through those intra-Afghan negotiations, and potentially pause and halt its drawdown if the Taliban are not negotiating in good faith," said Johnny Walsh, a senior expert on Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently suggested that a drawdown of the 13,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan was imminent, regardless of a Taliban deal.

Shifting to a more narrow counterterrorism mission is one of several reduction options that the Pentagon is considering, Milley told Congress last month.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a staunch supporter of a continued American presence in Afghanistan, told reporters on Capitol Hill in late December that the U.S. could carry out its missions with about 8,600 troops.

NATO combat operations in Afghanistan switched to a training and advising mission in 2014, which the U.S. supports. The U.S. also carries out a separate counterterrorism mission that targets groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State. The Trump administration loosened the rules of engagement in Afghanistan in 2017, allowing American airpower to be used more offensively against the Taliban.

Speculation that Trump might unilaterally pull out of Afghanistan if the peace process becomes too burdensome has grown since October, when he ordered a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria.

"It is a concern for every serious analyst of Afghanistan and it’s entirely possible," Walsh said.

But the growing possibility of a protracted, low-intensity conflict with Iran — which shares a long border with Afghanistan — has led to speculation that Trump might postpone any reduction plans to put pressure on Tehran. Regardless of that situation, Glaser said the fact that Trump’s decision on Syria was "effectively reversed by the bureaucracy" indicates American troops could remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

"The lesson in Syria is that despite the president’s willingness to withdraw from these wars — even eagerness you might say — he seems incapable of actually bringing that to fruition," Glaser said.

wellman.phillip@stripes.com Twitter: @pwwellman

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