DOHA, QATAR –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.
The agreement is expected to lead to a dialogue between the Taliban and the Kabul government that, if successful, could ultimately see an end to the grinding 18-year conflict.
Taliban fighter-turned-dealmaker Mullah Baradar signed the accord alongside Washington’s chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, at a gilded desk in a conference room in a luxury Doha hotel.
The pair then shook hands, as people in the room shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest).
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looked on as the two inked the deal, after urging the insurgents to “keep your promises to cut ties with Al-Qaeda”.
On the eve of the signing, President Donald Trump urged the Afghan people to embrace the chance for a new future.
“If the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan live up to these commitments, we will have a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home,” he said. signed a final peace deal after months of negotiations in Qatar’.
The two sides have long wrangled over the US demand for a ceasefire before the signing of the final peace agreement, which has four points: a timeline of 14 months for the withdrawal of all US and NATO troops from Afghanistan; a Taliban guarantee that Afghan soil will not be used as a launchpad that would threatened the security of US; the launch of intra-Afghan negotiations by March 10; and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.
In a statement, the Taliban said it had reached an agreement “about the termination of occupation of Afghanistan”.
“The accord about the complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and never intervening in its affairs in the future is undoubtedly a great achievement,” it added.
Earlier on Saturday, the Taliban ordered all its fighters to halt fighting and “refrain from attacks”.
Mohammed Naeem, a Taliban representative in Doha, described the deal as “a step forward”.
“With this deal comes the end of war in Afghanistan,” he quoted as saying by the Al Jazeera.
For his part, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Taliban to honour its commitments.
“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 Doha ceremony.
Minutes before the deal was signed, a joint statement released by the US and the Afghan government said the US and NATO troops would withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months.
About 14,000 US troops and approximately 17,000 troops from 39 NATO allies and partner countries are stationed in Afghanistan in a non-combatant role.
“The United States will reduce the number of US military forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 and implement other commitments in the US-Taliban agreement within 135 days of the announcement of this joint declaration and the US-Taliban agreement,” the joint statement said.
It added that the Afghan government will engage with the United Nations Security Council “to remove Taliban members from sanctions list by May 29”.
“No agreement is perfect, and the US-Taliban deal is no exception,” said Robert Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, said.
“But it represents the most hopeful step to end a war that has lasted two decades and taken countless American and especially Afghan lives. It ought to be celebrated, bolstered and built upon to reach a genuine intra-Afghan peace.”
The talks were launched in 2018 as part of a push by US President Donald Trump’s administration to strike a deal with the Taliban, which has been fighting the US-led forces in Afghanistan since it was toppled from power in 2001.
The peace deal also proposes an intra-Afghan dialogue with the government in Kabul and the release of 5,000 Taliban members from prison.
The Taliban has so far refused to speak to the Western-backed Afghan government, saying it is a “puppet regime”.
The intra-Afghan talks are to begin on March 10 but no specific details have been given.
A weeklong “reduction in violence” between the Taliban, the US and Afghan security forces saw a sudden drop in violence and casualties across the country after taking effect on February 22.
The Taliban now controls or holds influence over more Afghan territory than at any point since 2001 and has carried out near-daily attacks against military outposts throughout the country.
The two sides were on the verge of signing a peace agreement in September when Trump abruptly cancelled the talks after a Taliban attack killed an American soldier.
Trump has long expressed eagerness to bring US soldiers home and to end the country’s longest war as he seeks re-election in 2020.
More than 100,000 Afghans have been killed or wounded since 2009 when the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan began documenting casualties.