US, Taliban sign deal aimed at ending Afghan War
DOHA, Qatar — The United States and its foreign allies will withdraw all forces within 14 months and end the war in Afghanistan if the Taliban renounces terror groups and abides by a joint agreement signed in Doha on Saturday.
The agreement mandates a phased drawdown of American, NATO and foreign partner troops from Afghanistan and a disavowal of al-Qaida and other terror groups by the Taliban.
It also calls for intra-Afghan talks to include the Taliban and the government in Kabul beginning March 10, as well as security cooperation by all sides in fighting the Islamic State.
Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, signed the deal along with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s top political leader. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the highest-ranking U.S. official to attend.
President Donald Trump called the agreement a “powerful path forward to end the war” and bring the troops home, if the deal’s commitments are honored.
“I thank the hundreds of thousands of American warriors who have proudly served in Afghanistan,” Trump said in a statement Friday.
The U.S. is expected to reduce its troop strength in Afghanistan from about 12,000 to 8,600 within 135 days, the agreement states. All U.S. troops and their allies would also completely withdraw from five unspecified bases. Remaining troops would leave within 14 months of Saturday’s accord.
A reduction in troops to 8,600, about the number in Afghanistan when President Donald Trump took office in 2017, would not harm a counterterrorism mission that combats ISIS and other groups, U.S. military officials have said since last fall.
The about 8,500 non-U.S. NATO and foreign partner troops in Afghanistan, who along with the U.S. support an Afghan training and advising mission, would also drawdown proportionally by mid-July under the agreement.
The U.S. reserves the right to halt its withdrawal if the Taliban don’t meet the conditions of the agreement.
“We will closely watch the Taliban’s compliance with their commitments and calibrate the pace of our withdrawal to their actions,” Pompeo said Saturday. “This is how we will ensure that Afghanistan never again serves as a base for international terrorists.”
The U.S. will continue to fund the Afghan security forces, the agreement states.
Up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan government-aligned prisoners will be released by the first day of the planned intra-Afghan talks, under the terms of the agreement.
These intra-Afghan negotiations would tackle issues such a long-term cease-fire, the country’s constitution, the rights of women and minorities, and the integration of Taliban leaders and fighters into the government and military.
The talks will require time and patience, said Faiz Zaland, a delegate representing the Afghan government in Doha.
"To be successful we will need international cooperation and pressure, especially from the U.S. and the United Nations, to bring all Afghans to the table and make sure there is a peace,” Zaland said.
The deal also requires the Afghan government to begin talks with the U.N. that would remove Taliban members from international sanctions lists within three months. The U.S. will remove its own Taliban sanctions by Aug. 27 if the group abides by the agreement.
“The world community is here to witness,” Abdul Salam Zaeef, an Afghan ambassador under the Taliban regime who had been detained in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, told reporters prior to the signing.
Calling the agreement good for both Afghanistan and the international community, the Taliban’s Baradar said through a translator that he hopes the world will help rebuild Afghanistan.
“The world community is here to witness,” Abdul Salam Zaeef, a Taliban ambassador once detained in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, told reporters prior to the signing.
The agreement is good for both Afghanistan and the international community, Baradar said through a translator, adding he hopes the world will help rebuild Afghanistan.
“With the withdrawal of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan nation under the Islamic regime will take its relief and embark on a new prosperous life," Baradar said.
Peace with the Taliban comes with mixed reactions from many in Afghanistan, which has seen nearly continuous fighting ever since the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979. Some fear that basic rights and freedoms may be lost, as a group that in the 1990s banned most popular entertainment and education for women regains influence.
The Doha agreement follows 10 rounds of negotiations, much of which occurred in 2019, a year which saw the U.S. carry out a record-setting number of airstrikes on the Taliban and the Islamic State.
The talks seemed near a deal in September, only to be abruptly called off after a suicide bombing claimed the life of a U.S. soldier in Kabul.
Saturday’s signing came after a seven-day partial truce that halted most offensive operations in Afghanistan, meant to test the Taliban’s commitment to stopping its fighters.
Despite scattered attacks, levels of violence reached their lowest in four years, Pompeo said in his speech.
“It was not perfect, but the Taliban demonstrated, even if only for a week, that when they have the will to be peaceful, they can be,” Pompeo said during the ceremony.
After the signing, Pompeo told reporters that the U.S. would not hesitate to “do what we need to protect American lives” if the Taliban diverge from the new agreement.
"Today, we're realists," Pompeo said. "We are seizing the best opportunity for peace in a generation, built on the hard work of our soldiers, diplomats, businessmen, aid workers, friends and the Afghans themselves."
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who appeared Saturday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and NATO head Jens Stoltenberg in Kabul, called on the militants to continue the reduction in violence and said the U.S. will closely watch their actions “to judge whether their efforts towards peace are in good faith.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Phillip Wellman and Zubair Babakarkhail in Kabul contributed to this report.