The Trump administration has hailed a peace deal signed with the Afghan Taliban as the first significant step towards ending the longest-running US war.
The deal commits the US and allied forces to withdraw all their troops within 14 months, including a cut of about 4,000 US troops in the next 135 days, bringing the number of troops in the country to 8,600, if the Taliban upholds its end of the agreement including cutting ties to al-Qaeda.
“We will closely watch the Taliban’s compliance with their commitments, and calibrate the pace of our withdrawal to their actions,” said US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who flew to Doha to witness the signing. “This is how we will ensure that Afghanistan never again serves as a base for international terrorists.”
Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban who Pakistan released from prison in 2018 in order to attend the talks, signed on the behalf of the Taliban in Doha. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy and former ambassador to Afghanistan who has spent months working on the deal, signed on behalf of the US.
“I hope that with the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan, that the Afghan nation under the Islamic regime will embark on a new prosperous life,” said Mullah Baradar, adding the group was committed to enforcing the agreement.
Nato welcomed news of the deal and said it was “committed to working with the Afghan people and government” to support next steps toward peace.
It also confirmed that the alliance and its partners in the Afghan security mission, known as “Resolute”, would reduce their military presence in the country in recognition of the new agreement. Resolute consists of 17,000 troops from 39 countries at present.
Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, said Saturday’s deal marked a “significant moment” in the pursuit of peace in Afghanistan.
“The current reduction in violence is welcome and I hope it will be maintained, but meaningful negotiations between the Afghan leadership and the Taliban are the real prize and I hope this opportunity will be seized,” Mr Raab said.
Saturday’s agreement, based on months of talks that were temporarily suspended in September amid an upsurge in violence, stops well short of ending the 18-year conflict that has killed more than 2,400 US troops and tens of thousands of Afghans.
Nor does it determine what role the Taliban, the militant Islamist group that wants a return to sharia law in Afghanistan, will play in the country’s government and civil society.
American troops have been deployed in Afghanistan since a US-led coalition invaded in 2001 and their withdrawal would fulfil an election pledge by Donald Trump to bring back US forces and put a stop to America’s “endless wars”.
In exchange for the American withdrawal, the Taliban has committed to scaling back violence, guaranteeing not to threaten the security of the US and its allies and engaging in March 10 peace talks with Afghan political and civic leaders with a view to achieving a permanent ceasefire.
The deal also stipulates the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held in Afghanistan in exchange for guarantees that they will not pose a threat to the US and its allies. The US would also remove sanctions against and rewards out for the capture of specific Taliban members by August 27. The US would seek the endorsement of the UN Security Council for the deal.
Mark Esper, US defence secretary, who was in Kabul on Saturday to underline continued US commitment to Afghanistan’s political leaders, who were excluded from the peace talks because the Taliban refused to recognise them, made a joint declaration with president Ashraf Ghani alongside Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg. He said the agreement included “measures to prevent the use of Afghan soil by terrorist groups or other individuals who seek to harm the United States or our allies”.
US negotiators worked hard to win bipartisan support in Washington for the peace plan and sought to get countries from Russia to Afghanistan’s neighbour, Pakistan, on board. The Taliban also thanked China, Russia and Iran for its support for the deal.
But al-Qaeda and Isis, both of which have established a significant presence in Afghanistan, were set to repudiate the deal and could scupper efforts to end the conflict.
“The Americans will try everything possible to keep the Afghan peace process going during 2020 as President Trump seeks re-election,” a senior Pakistani government official in Islamabad told the FT, expressing doubt over whether the peace deal would hold into 2021 or beyond.
Some US officials fear Taliban rank-and-file could split with the leadership and join al-Qaeda or Isis and that efforts to integrate Taliban figures into the government and security apparatus will be unworkable.
Taliban spokesman Zabih Mujahid told the FT the group’s leadership did not foresee any problems in implementing the deal but warned if any party violated the terms “we would naturally return to finding a solution through military and jihadi means”.
Saturday’s agreement follows a seven-day test period in which Taliban leaders were asked to demonstrate that they controlled their forces and reduce violence on the ground, while the Afghan army halted operations and the US agreed not to launch air strikes on the country except against Isis.
Peace talks between the Taliban, Afghan political leaders in government and opposition as well as representatives of civil society are due to start on March 10 in Oslo but a US official warned the timetable could slip as Afghan parties made their way to Norway. “It will be our very early objective to gain a complete ceasefire once all the parties are at the table,” a senior US administration official said.
Additional reporting by Sami Yousafzai in Islamabad