The United States signed a 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-old war in the nation.
While the agreement creates a path for the US to gradually pull out of its longest war, many expect talks to come between the Afghan sides may be much more complicated.
Months of speculation about when the deal would be signed, and what its contents would be, culminated in a plush conference room in the Qatari capital Doha, when Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar signed the accord along with US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
The pair then shook hands, as people in the room shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest). US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on hand to witness the ceremony.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said that while the signing of the accord would be a good step, the road ahead would not be easy.
“This is a hopeful moment, but it is only the beginning. The road ahead will not be easy. Achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan will require patience and compromise among all parties,” said Esper, who met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul where they announced a joint declaration in parallel to the US-Taliban accord.
The US said it is committed to reducing the number of its troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 — from the current 13,000 — within 135 days of signing the deal, and working with its allies to proportionally reduce the number of coalition forces in Afghanistan over that period, if the Taliban adhere to their commitments.
A full withdrawal of all US and coalition forces would occur within 14 months of this deal getting signed, if the Taliban hold up their end of the deal, the joint statement said.
For US President Donald Trump, the Doha deal represents a chance to make good on his promise to bring US troops home.
But security experts have also called it a foreign policy gamble that would give the Taliban international legitimacy.
“Today is a monumental day for Afghanistan,” the US Embassy in Kabul said on Twitter. “It is about making peace and crafting a common brighter future. We stand with Afghanistan.”
Addressing the historic event, US Secretary of State Pompeo said Washington will closely watch the Taliban compliance to the agreement signed today. He said the Taliban had shown that they have the will to be peaceful during the recent ‘reduction in violence’ period.
He cautioned, however, 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.
Ghani said he hoped the Doha deal paves the way towards lasting peace. “We hope the US-Taliban peace [deal] will lead to a permanent ceasefire ... The nation is looking forward to a full ceasefire,” he told a news conference in Kabul.
The Afghan government said it stood ready to negotiate and conclude a ceasefire with the Taliban, and it affirmed its support for the phased withdrawal of US and coalition forces subject to the Taliban's fulfilment of their commitments.
It also said that it remained committed to preventing militant groups from using its soil to threaten the security of the US, its allies and other countries.
Separately, Nato pledged to adjust the coalition troop levels in the first phase too, bringing down Nato's numbers to about 12,000 from roughly 16,000 troops at present.
“We went in together in 2001, we are going to adjust [troop levels] together and when the time is right, we are going to leave together, but we are only going to leave when conditions are right,” Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who was in Kabul on Saturday, told reporters.
Hope for an end to bloodshed
Hours before the deal, the Taliban ordered all their fighters in Afghanistan “to refrain from any kind of attack ... for the happiness of the nation”.
“The biggest thing is that we hope the US remain committed to their promises during the negotiation and peace deal,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the hardline militant group.
For millions of Afghans, the deal represents some hope for an end to years of bloodshed.
“Peace is extremely simple and my country deserves it. Today is the day when maybe we will see a positive change,” said Javed Hassan, 38, a school teacher living on the outskirts of Afghan capital Kabul.
Hassan's children were killed in a bomb blast carried out by the Taliban in 2018. Since then, he has been writing letters to world leaders urging them to end the Afghan war.
Pakistan welcomes accord
Pakistan welcomed the signing of the US-Taliban agreement.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who was present at the signing ceremony, in his remarks to the media after the event said that the accord carried "immense importance — both in symbolism and substance — for Afghanistan, the region and beyond", a Foreign Office statement said.
He said the deal reflected a "significant step forward by the US and the Taliban in advancing the ultimate aim of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan".
He expressed the hope that Afghan parties will now "seize this historic opportunity" and work out a comprehensive and inclusive political settlement for peace and stability in Afghanistan.
According to the statement, Qureshi underscored the need for international support to the Afghan government in creating an enabling environment for the return of Afghan refugees in Pakistan to their homeland.
"Today’s ceremony has, once again, vindicated Pakistan’s long-held stance that there is no military solution of the Afghan conflict," the FO said.
The foreign minister said Pakistan had fulfilled its part of the responsibility by facilitating the peace agreement. "Pakistan will continue to support a peaceful, stable, united, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan, at peace with itself and with its neighbours," he added.
Costs of the Afghan war
Representatives from 50 countries and foreign ministers of different countries attended the signing ceremony of the agreement.
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.
Trump says agreement will illuminate 'a powerful path forward'
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, Khalilzad.
In a statement released by the White House, Trump said on Friday that if the Taliban and Afghan government 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.
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, who 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.
Additional input by AFP.