The Taliban is still angling for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s deputy leader said — comments that come as the U.S. and the Taliban are on the brink of a 7-day agreement to reduce violence.

“We did not choose our war with the foreign coalition led by the United States. We were forced to defend ourselves,” Sirajuddin Haqqani, who the FBI has labeled a designated global terrorist, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times Thursday. “The withdrawal of foreign forces has been our first and foremost demand.”

Haqqani said a peace deal was forthcoming, and added that the U.S. can then step into a role assisting with postwar development and reconstruction once troops depart. He stressed that once Afghanistan is free from “foreign domination” an Islamic system granting equal rights to all Afghans can be constructed.

“My fellow Afghans will soon celebrate this historic agreement,” Haqqani said. “Once it is entirely fulfilled, Afghans will see the departure of all foreign troops.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has discussed keeping 8,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to perform counterterrorism missions, along with train, advise, and assist missions. Additionally, Esper told reporters on Feb. 15 that after the reduction of violence period expires, then the U.S. will choose to advance with a peace agreement with the Taliban.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, but the U.S. toppled them after the 9/11 attacks because they provided shelter for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Haqqani dismissed concerns that “disruptive groups” would use Afghanistan as a safe haven, claiming that reports suggesting these groups would plot terror schemes on Afghanistan’s turf were “politically motivated exaggerations.”

“It is not in the interest of any Afghan to allow such groups to hijack our country and turn it into a battleground,” Haqqani said. “We have already suffered enough from foreign interventions.”

Haqqani also vowed the Taliban would guarantee that a new Afghanistan would foster stability and safety.

The FBI has offered a reward of up to $5 million for information that directly leads to Haqqani’s arrest. The FBI said he is linked to an attack in Kabul in 2008 that killed an American citizen, and is believed to have been involved with cross-border attacks targeting U.S. troops and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Additionally, the FBI said he is allegedly the leader of the Haqqani network and has connections with al-Qaida.

In response to the op-ed, Afghanistan’s presidential palace rebuked the New York Times for providing Haqqani an outlet to amplify his voice.

“It is sad that the (New York Times) has given their platform to an individual who is on a designated terrorist list. He and his network are behind ruthless attacks against Afghans and foreigners,” a palace spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said, according to Reuters.

Peace negotiations with the Taliban, spearheaded by U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, stalled in September after President Donald Trump canceled a covert meeting with the Taliban and Afghan leaders at Camp David. He cited the deaths of a U.S. soldier and 11 others who were killed in a Taliban car bomb attack as the reason for calling off talks.

But peace negotiations picked up again, and the most recent round of talks concluded on Monday, according to the Washington Post. The Post reported that senior Taliban leader Abdul Salam Hanafi have inked a “final draft of the peace agreement” and signaled both parties would sign a 7-day ceasefire sometime this month.

It’s unclear when the 7-day reduction in violence would start, but Task & Purpose reported the trial would kick off on Feb. 21.

The potential reduction in violence comes after the U.S. has dumped nearly a record number of munitions against the Taliban in January. U.S. Air Force Air Central Command said earlier this month 415 bombs were dropped in January, almost on par with the 10-year high last January where 463 munitions were released.

The U.S. has more than 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In 2019, there were 17 hostile deaths of U.S. service members in Afghanistan -- marking a five year high.

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