KABUL -- The Afghan government and Taliban have agreed on rules and procedures for negotiations, overcoming a stalemate in months of talks aimed at ending 19 years of war.
The December 2 announcement was considered a breakthrough because it advances talks beyond basic procedural questions to more substantive issues, including reaching an elusive cease-fire.
“The current negotiations of both negotiation teams show that there is willingness among Afghans to reach a sustainable peace and both sides are committed to continue their sincere efforts to reach a sustainable peace in Afghanistan,” Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan government's negotiating team, said in a post to Twitter.
A representative for the Taliban posted a nearly identical statement on Twitter.
In a joint statement, both sides said “a joint working committee was tasked to prepare the draft topics for the agenda” of peace talks.
The progress comes after months of talks in the Qatari capital, Doha. The two sides remain at war, and Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces have continued.
The agreement is “a step forward towards beginning the negotiations on the main issues, including a comprehensive cease-fire as the key demand of the Afghan people for a lasting peace," Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi wrote on Twitter, quoting President Ashraf Ghani.
Both the United States and Qatar called the agreement a "milestone.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated the two sides on "perseverance and willingness to find common ground" and said the United States would "work hard with all sides in pursuit of a serious reduction of violence and cease-fire.”
Washington's special representative for Afghan peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, tweeted that the agreement “demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues.”
“The people of Afghanistan now expect rapid progress on a political roadmap and a cease-fire,” he wrote in a separate tweet.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the breakthrough amid uncertainty over the alliance's future in Afghanistan.
“You can discuss whether it is a big or a small step, but the important thing is that it’s the first step,” Stoltenberg said, after chairing a videoconference of NATO foreign ministers. “It’s the first time actually that the Taliban and the Afghan government are able to sign a document agreeing on the framework, the modalities, for negotiations addressing a long-term, peaceful solution.”
He urged the two sides to agree on a cease-fire and establish a political road map.
The U.S.-backed government has held power in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in 2001, although the Taliban control large swaths of the country and the government in Kabul is considered weak.
Under a U.S.-Taliban deal signed in Doha in February, all foreign forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for security guarantees from the militant group. NATO has roughly 11,000 troops in Afghanistan from several countries.
In November, the Trump administration announced that 2,000 American troops will exit Afghanistan by mid-January, leaving just 2,500 behind.
How the peace process develops, and the pace of any further U.S. withdrawal, is expected to be determined after the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden takes power in January.