The US signed a deal with Taliban insurgents on Saturday that could see full withdrawal of foreign soldiers from Afghanistan and a step toward ending an 18-year-war.
While the agreement creates a path for the US to gradually pull out of its longest war, many expect future talks between the Afghan sides may be more complicated.
The deal was signed in Doha by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on hand to witness the ceremony.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper called the accord a good step but just the beginning.
“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 is committed to reducing troops in Afghanistan to 8 600 — from the current 13 000 — within 135 days of signing the deal and working with allies to proportionally reduce coalition forces in Afghanistan, if the Taliban adheres to their commitments.
A full withdrawal of all US and coalition forces would happen within 14 months of the deal being signed, if the Taliban hold up their end of the deal, the joint statement said.
“We are working to finally end America’s longest war and bring our troops back home,” said President Donald Trump in a White House statement.
The accord represents a chance to make good on a longstanding promise to withdraw troops, as he seeks re-election in November. Security experts called it a foreign policy gamble that would give the Taliban international legitimacy.
Ghani hoped the Doha deal paves the way towards lasting peace, telling a news conference in Kabul: “The nation is looking forward to a full ceasefire.”
The Afghan government stood ready to negotiate and conclude a ceasefire with the Taliban and affirmed support for the phased withdrawal of US and coalition forces subject to the Taliban’s fulfilment of commitments.
It remained committed to preventing militant groups using its to threaten the security of the US, its allies and other countries.
Separately, NATO pledged to adjust coalition troop levels in the first phase, bringing down NATO numbers to 12 000 from 16 000 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, in Kabul on Saturday, told reporters.
HOPE FOR AN END TO BLOODSHED
Hours before the deal, the Taliban ordered all fighters in Afghanistan “to refrain from any kind of attack for the happiness of the nation.”
“The biggest thing is we hope the US remains committed to their promises during the negotiation and peace deal,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the hardline Islamist group.
For millions of Afghans, the deal represents hope for an end to years of bloodshed.
“Peace is 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 Kabul.
Hassan’s children were killed in a Taliban bomb blast in 2018. Since then, he has been writing to world leaders urging them to end the Afghan war.
The war, which killed tens of thousands, began when the US launched attacks on Afghanistan weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington by the Afghanistan-based al Qaeda militant group.
Washington accused the Taliban of harbouring al Qaeda and leader Osama bin Laden and with its allies ousted the group. The Taliban remains a force and currently controls about 40% of Afghan territory.
The next step will be for negotiators to work out an agreement for comprehensive ceasefire and future governance.
Officials and experts see this posing challenges as the Afghan government has until now been sidelined.
Before talks with the Taliban, Afghanistan’s two main political rivals – Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah – must settle a dispute over which officials, opposition members and activists should negotiate with the insurgents.
Under the deal, the Taliban wants 5 000 fighters released from Afghan-run jails, but it is not clear whether the Afghan government will agree.
Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said in an interview with Tolo news channel the Afghan government made no commitment to release 5 000 prisoners by March 10, a date stipulated in the deal.
Mohib said the deal lacked clarity about Taliban ties with Pakistan.
Afghanistan routinely accuses neighbouring Pakistan of supporting Taliban militants. Pakistan denies doing so and in turn accuses Afghanistan of supporting militants fighting the Pakistani government.