The United States and the Taliban are on the verge of signing a historic deal that could pave the way to ending America’s longest-ever war.
The deal due to be signed on February 29 will trigger the phased withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and kick off talks among warring Afghan factions over a power-sharing arrangement.
The deal hinges on the success of a weeklong “reduction of violence” that takes effect at midnight on February 22. If the partial truce holds, the United States and the Taliban will sign the peace deal with the backing of the Western-backed government in Kabul.
The culmination of more than 18 months of grueling talks, the deal is seen as a major step toward ending the nearly 19-year war. But experts say the agreement is laden with pitfalls and key components remain murky, warning that spoilers and a political crisis in Kabul spurred by an election dispute could derail the process.
'Reduction Of Violence'
During the weeklong “reduction of violence” due to start on February 22, U.S. and Afghan forces on one side, and Taliban militants on the other, will refrain from conducting major operations. The partial truce excludes terrorist groups, including Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters that the Taliban had committed to halting roadside and suicide bombings as well as rocket attacks. The official said the United States would monitor the truce and determine if there are any violations.
A senior Afghan official, also speaking anonymously, told RFE/RL that the Taliban had committed to reducing its attacks from around 75 operations per day to under 15. The militants would refrain from attacking major cities, highways, and U.S. and Afghan bases, he said.
U.S. and Afghan forces would not carry out any offensive operations, but they have the right to respond if attacked, the Afghan official said.
The temporary truce, however, falls short of a key U.S. and Afghan demand: a cease-fire.
“The seven-day violence-reduction agreement is significant because of the precedent it would set -- there's never been anything like it during 19 years of war -- and because of the pathway it would provide to launch a formal peace process,” said Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
“To be sure, it's not a cease-fire, but it's the next best thing and the best shot at launching a long-elusive peace process,” he added.
Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based analyst, said the Taliban refused a cease-fire because it would weaken its leverage in negotiations and "undermine their narrative, which is the locomotive behind recruiting new fighters and keeping them motivated."
But the truce could be undermined by potential spoilers from all sides.
Hard-line Taliban factions opposed to the talks, pro-government factions that believe the conditions are not conducive to talks, and the various violent groups not involved in talks -- including IS militants -- could all seek to sabotage negotiations, Kugelman said.
U.S. Withdrawal Agreement
If the weeklong reduction of violence holds, the United States and the Taliban will officially sign the peace accord on February 29.
The deal is largely the same one negotiated in September before U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly pulled the plug after a deadly Taliban attack that killed an American soldier.
Under the agreement, the United States will start a phased withdrawal of its approximately 13,000 troops in Afghanistan. Washington will initially remove 5,400 troops within 135 days of signing the agreement. The rest will pull out within the next 18 months if the Taliban meets its own commitments.
Mir said the U.S. decision to sign a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban and provide a timetable for its military pullout is a “victory” for the Taliban.
“The Taliban could hold off the talks and use different violent tactics to further loosen Washington's resolve,” he said. “They know well that the ongoing political fragmentation and infighting among the political elite in Kabul will give them the upper hand in the intra-Afghan negotiations because they don't function according to a timetable.”
Under the deal, the Taliban will severe its ties with Al-Qaeda, a largely diminished force.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and ousted the Taliban after it refused to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks.
The Taliban is also committed to preventing terrorist groups, including IS militants, from operating in or carrying out attacks from areas in Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban. The militant group controls or contests about half of the country, although it does not rule any major urban areas.
The militant group is also obliged to launch direct peace negotiations with government officials and other Afghans, including women and civil society groups. The talks are likely to take place in Norway.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement has arguably left the two thorniest issues -- a permanent cease-fire and a future power-sharing agreement -- to be decided in intra-Afghan talks.
“The fact that these two issues have been relegated from the U.S.-Taliban talks -- because the Taliban did not agree to them -- to the new set of negotiations indicates that the bilateral U.S.-Taliban agreement is not a peace agreement,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the independent Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“Peace and a comprehensive cease-fire first is what Afghans wish [for] the most,” added Ruttig. “But to expect that the Taliban would agree to a cease-fire at the start of intra-Afghan talks might be unrealistic.”
Considering the sensitivity of the issues and the chronic divisions among the Afghan political elite, Ruttig said he expected intra-Afghan negotiations to be “very complicated and possibly take a long time.”
The talks are expected to start within 10 days of the deal being signed.
The Taliban had long rejected direct talks with Kabul, which it considers a U.S. puppet.
During intra-Afghan talks, government officials will participate in a private capacity.
Underscoring the potential challenges, Kabul has yet to name a negotiating team to lead talks with the Taliban. Washington has called on the government to name “an inclusive, national negotiating team,” amid accusations by opposition political figures that they were being sidelined from the process.
Political infighting in Kabul has also threatened to derail the U.S.-Taliban peace deal.
The disputed, long-delayed result from the September 28 presidential election has triggered a political crisis that threatens to spill over into violence.
President Ashraf Ghani on February 18 was finally declared the winner of the vote, but main challenger Abdullah Abdullah -- the country's chief executive officer -- rejected the outcome, declared himself the winner, and vowed to form a parallel government.
“Given the ugly political environment in Afghanistan -- one compounded by an election result already rejected by the loser -- it will be a tall order to expect Kabul to put together a negotiating team and present a common front in talks with the Taliban,” said Kugelman.
“It's also hard to imagine the Taliban negotiating a power-sharing agreement within a political system that the insurgents have long rejected and vowed to overthrow by force,” he said.