• Unfold 14-month plan for complete troop pullout
• Trump says he will meet Taliban leaders soon
• Pompeo reminds Taliban of their promise to cut ties with Al Qaeda

DOHA: The United States signed a landmark deal with the Taliban on Saturday, laying out a timetable for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months as it seeks an exit from its longest-ever war.

Washington’s chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar inked the accord at a gilded desk in a conference room of a luxury hotel in the Qatari capital as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo witnessed the signing ceremony. However, many fear that talks between multiple Afghan sides over the next months after the US agreement with the Taliban can be far more complicated.

Addressing the peace deal signing ceremony, Secretary Pompeo called on the Taliban to honour their commitments to sever ties with the jihadist groups. He called on the Taliban to “keep your pro­mises to cut ties with Al Qaeda”.

“I know there will be a temptation to declare victory, but victory for Afghans will only be achieved when they can live in peace and prosper,” he said at the ceremony in Doha.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper, meanwhile, travelled to Kabul on a visit that officials believed was aimed at reassuring the Afghan government about US commitment to the country as security experts called the accord a foreign policy gamble that would give the Taliban international legitimacy.

President Donald Trump hailed the signing of the deal and said he would meet Taliban leaders “in the not so distant future”.

Speaking at a press conference at the White House, the US president also said he believed the Taliban were ready for peace but warned that should the deal fail to take hold, “we’ll go back”.

He said Afghanistan’s neighbours should help maintain stability, following the agreement.

But the position of the Afghan government, which has been excluded from direct US-Taliban talks, remains unclear and the country is gripped by a fresh political crisis amid contested election results.

‘Important first step’

The Doha accord was drafted over a tempestuous year of dialogue marked by the abrupt cancellation of the effort by Trump in September 2019.

The signing comes after a week-long, partial truce that has mostly held across Afghanistan, aimed at building confidence between the warring parties and showing the Taliban can control their forces.

The US and its allies will withdraw all their forces from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban abide by the terms of the accord.

After an initial reduction of troops to 8,600 within 135 days of Saturday’s signing, the US and its partners “will complete withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan” within 14 months.

However, US officials say the eventual withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan is not contingent on any specific outcome in talks among the Taliban and other Afghan factions, which have been at war for decades, about the country’s future. Further withdrawals will depend on the Taliban meeting commitments to combat terrorism, the officials say.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg heralded the agreement as a “first step to lasting peace”.

“The way to peace is long and hard. We have to be prepared for setbacks, spoilers, there is no easy way to peace but this is an important first step,” said the Norwegian former prime minister, who was in Kabul, during an interaction with reporters.

Since the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban after the September 11, 2001 attacks, America has spent more than $1 trillion in fighting and rebuilding in Afghanistan. About 2,400 US soldiers have been killed, along with tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians.

While Afghans are eager to see an end to the violence, experts say any prospective peace will depend on the outcome of talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government.

But with President Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah at loggerheads over contested election results, few expect the pair to present a united front, unlike the Taliban, who would then be in a position to take the upper hand in negotiations.

Happy and celebrating

The Taliban insurgents said they had halted all hostilities on Saturday in honour of the agreement.

“Since the deal is being signed today, and our people are happy and celebrating it, we have halted all our military operations across Afghanistan,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP.

Any insurgent pledge to guarantee Afghanistan is never again used by jihadist movements such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group to plot attacks abroad will be key to deal’s viability.

Dialogue between the Kabul government and the Taliban is due to begin by March 10, according to the deal that will also ensure thousands of prisoners swap by the date.

“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.”

Hours before the deal, the Taliban ordered all its fighters in Afghanistan “to refrain from any kind of attack ... for the happiness of the nation”. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said: “The biggest thing is that we hope the US remains committed to their promises during the negotiation and peace deal.”

He said it was “irritating and provocative” that foreign military aircraft continued to fly over the Taliban-controlled territory, but militia fighters were following the order to stand-down.

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 schoolteacher living on the outskirts of Afghan capital, Kabul.

Hassan’s children were killed in a bomb blast in 2018. Since then, he has been writing letters to world leaders urging them to end the Afghan war.

Uncertain prospects

But prospects for peace remain uncertain given the next step is reaching agreement with the Afghan government.

Senior members of the Afghan government and countries surrounding Afghanistan have been concerned that the US could abandon Kabul much like it was perceived to have left the region after the Soviet Union had exited Afghanistan decades ago.

The accord also comes amid a fragile political situation in Afghanistan. The Independent Election Commission said on February 18 that Mr Ghani won the September 28 vote beset by allegations of rigging, technical problems and other irregularities.

Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah rejected the results, claimed to be the victor and vowed to name a parallel government.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director Asia Program at the Wilson Center, said of Mr Esper’s trip to Kabul that “Washington is essentially trying to show that its full strength is behind this deal and it wants to also indicate to Kabul that it’s fully behind Afghanistan as the peace and reconciliation process moves toward a formal beginning.” “(The trip is) perhaps an indication that the US is ready to essentially accept the new government in Afghanistan,” he added.

Washington had accused the Taliban of harbouring al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, and with its allies ousted the group from power, but the Taliban has remained a potent force and currently controls about 40 per cent of Afghan territory.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2020