–Joint statement by Afghan and US govt says foreign troops will withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months
–Intra-Afghan dialogue to begin on March 10, Ghani govt to seek removal of Taliban members from UN sanctions list
–Pompeo urges Taliban to keep their promise to cut ties with al Qaeda and keep fighting Islamic State group
–Pakistan played critical role in bringing the two sides to negotiation table
DOHA: The United States (US) signed a historic deal with Taliban insurgents on Saturday that could pave the way toward a full withdrawal of foreign soldiers from Afghanistan over the next 14 months and represent a step toward ending the 18-year-long war there.
While the agreement paves the way for the US to gradually pull out of its longest war, many expect that talks to come between the multiple Afghan sides will be far more complicated.
The deal was signed in the Qatari capital Doha by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on hand to witness the ceremony.
Minutes before the deal was signed, a joint statement released by the US and the Afghan government said the US and NATO troops would withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months.
About 14,000 US troops and approximately 17,000 troops from 39 NATO allies and partner countries are stationed in Afghanistan in a non-combatant role.
“The United States will reduce the number of US military forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 and implement other commitments in the US-Taliban agreement within 135 days of the announcement of this joint declaration and the US-Taliban agreement,” the joint statement said.
It added that the Afghan government will engage with the United Nations Security Council “to remove Taliban members from sanctions list by May 29”.
The peace deal also proposes an intra-Afghan dialogue with the government in Kabul and the release of 5,000 Taliban members from prison. The Taliban has so far refused to speak to the Western-backed Afghan government, saying it is a “puppet regime”.
The intra-Afghan talks are to begin on March 10 but no specific details have been given.
A weeklong “reduction in violence” between the Taliban, the US and Afghan security forces saw a sudden drop in violence and casualties across the country after taking effect on February 22.
The Taliban now controls or holds influence over more Afghan territory than at any point since 2001 and has carried out near-daily attacks against military outposts throughout the country.
‘US TO WATCH TALIBAN COMPLIANCE’:
Addressing the historic event, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington will closely watch the Taliban compliance to the agreement to be signed between the two parties.
He said the Taliban have shown that they have the will to be peaceful during the recent ‘reduction in violence’ period. He added that the agreement will mean nothing “if concrete actions are not taken on commitments and promises”.
Pompeo called on the Taliban to keep their promise to cut ties with al Qaeda and keep fighting the militant Islamic State group.
Representatives from 50 countries, foreign ministers of different countries, including Pakistan’s Shah Mahmood Qureshi, attended the signing ceremony.
Pakistan, which neighbours Afghanistan, and has been a long-time ally in America’s war on terror, played a critical role in bringing the two sides to the negotiation table.
Khalilzad has on multiple occasions appreciated and thanked Pakistan for its constructive role in the peace process.
More than 18 years since President George W. Bush ordered bombing in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks, the agreement will set the stage for the withdrawal of US troops, some of whom were not yet born when the World Trade Centre collapsed on that crisp, sunny morning that changed how Americans see the world.
Saturday’s ceremony also signals the potential end of a tremendous investment of blood and treasure. The US spent more than $750 billion, and on all sides the war cost tens of thousands of lives lost, permanently scarred and indelibly interrupted. Yet it’s also a conflict that is frequently ignored by US politicians and the American public.
‘A POWERFUL PATH FORWARD’:
US troops are to be withdrawn to 8,600 from about 13,000 in the weeks following Saturday’s signing. Further drawdowns are to depend on the Taliban meeting certain counter-terrorism conditions, compliance that will be assessed by the United States. But officials say soldiers will be coming home.
Trump, as he seeks re-election this year, is looking to make good on his campaign promise to bring troops home from the Middle East. Still, he has approached the Taliban agreement cautiously, steering clear of the crowing surrounding other major foreign policy actions, such as his talks with North Korea.
Last September, on short notice, he called off what was to be a signing ceremony with the Taliban at Camp David after a series of new Taliban attacks. But he has since been supportive of the talks led by his special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.
In a statement released by the White House, Trump said on Friday that if the Taliban and Afghan governments live up to the commitments in the agreement, “we will have a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home,”
“These commitments represent an important step to a lasting peace in a new Afghanistan, free from al-Qaida, ISIS and any other terrorist group that would seek to bring us harm,” Trump said.
Under the agreement, the Taliban promise not to let extremists use the country as a staging ground for attacking the US or its allies. But US officials are loath to trust the Taliban to fulfil their obligations.
NAYSAYERS IN US:
The signing will likely be an uncomfortable appearance for Pompeo, who privately told a conference of US ambassadors at the State Department this week that he was going only because Trump had insisted on his participation, according to two people present.
Pompeo also did not mention the Afghan agreement as he touted Trump administration foreign policy achievements in a speech to a conservative group on Friday. He has expressed doubts about the prospects. Yet, he will give his imprimatur to an agreement which he also has said represents “a historic opportunity for peace” after years and pain and suffering.
“We are now on the cusp of having an opportunity which may not succeed, but an opportunity for the first time to let the Afghan peoples’ voices be heard,” he told reporters this week.
Already, some US lawmakers and veterans of the conflict have raised red flags about any agreement with the Taliban.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming led 21 Republican legislators in demanding that the administration not concede anything to the Taliban that would allow them to once again harbor those who seek to harm US citizens and interests. Cheney, the daughter of former President Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, urged Pompeo and Esper in a letter to reject any commitment to a full withdrawal of American troops.
Pompeo said, “We’re proud of our gains, but our generals have determined that this war is unlikely to be won militarily without tremendous additional resources. All sides are tired of fighting.”
On this, he is in rare agreement with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who said this week in a Democratic presidential debate that the government has “a sacred responsibility to” American soldiers. “That is not to use our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily. We are not winning in Afghanistan. We are not winning in the Middle East,” she said.
AFGHAN FUTURE UNCERTAIN:
If the agreement is successful, Afghanistan, the “graveyard of empires” that has repeatedly repelled foreign invaders from imperial Britain and Russia to the Soviet Union, will have once again successfully turned away a world power from its landlocked borders.
But prospects for Afghanistan’s future are uncertain. The agreement sets the stage for peace talks involving Afghani factions, which are likely to be complicated. Under the agreement, 5,000 Taliban are to be released from Afghan-run jails, but it’s not known if the Afghan government will do that. There are also questions about whether Taliban fighters loyal to various warlords will be willing to disarm.
It’s not clear what will become of gains made in women’s rights since the toppling of the Taliban, which had repressed women and girls under a strict brand of Sharia law. Women’s rights in Afghanistan had been a top concern of both the Bush and Obama administration.
In a sign of “the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan,” a separate ceremony will be held on Saturday in the Afghan capital of Kabul, with US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, said Sediq Sediqqui, spokesman for Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani.