The United States has signed a historic agreement with the Taliban that could lead to the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and an end to the country’s 18-year conflict.
The agreement signed in Doha in Qatar on February 29 lays out a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for various security commitments from the insurgents and a pledge to hold talks with the government in Kabul.
U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the deal and said he would meet soon with Taliban leaders.
According to a joint declaration published by the U.S. and Afghan governments on February 29, the United States and NATO would withdraw all troops in Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban upheld the commitments made in the agreement.
The deal was signed by U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, leader of the political wing of the group.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Taliban leaders attended the signing ceremony. Representatives from over two dozen countries and international organizations, among them the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Turkey, were also present at the event.
"We are just at the beginning," Pompeo said ahead of the signing. "A significant reduction in violence will create conditions for peace, and the absence of it the conditions for failure," he added.
Pompeo said that Afghans need to live in peace and prosperity with respect for the rights of women, while the United States must be assured there will not be a terrorist threat from the country.
Speaking in Kabul, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that the United States would not hesitate to nullify the deal if the Taliban did not uphold its end.
"If the Taliban upholds the agreement the United States will begin a conditions-based, and I repeat a conditions-based, reduction in forces," Esper said, calling this a "pivotal moment in the peace process."
Esper and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed a joint statement committing the Afghan government to support the U.S.-Taliban deal, which is viewed with skepticism by many war-weary Afghans.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg heralded the agreement as a "first step to lasting peace."
"The way to peace is long and hard. We have to be prepared for setbacks, spoilers, there is no easy way to peace but this is an important first step," the former Norwegian prime minister told reporters in Kabul.
The European Union welcomed the peace agreement by the Taliban and the United States and the joint Afghan-U.S. joint declaration as "important first steps" toward a lasting resolution of the country's decades-long conflict.
"The current opportunity to move towards peace should not be missed," EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell says in a statement, adding that negotiations talks should start "without delay" and include all political factions and groups of society.
"The conflict needs a political solution in which human rights, including women's rights, are respected and common grievances are addressed," the statement said.
Under the agreement, the United States would draw its forces down to 8,600 from 13,000 in the next three to four months, with the remaining U.S. forces withdrawing in 14 months. The complete pullout, however, would depend on the Taliban meeting their commitments to prevent terrorism.
NATO pledged to adjust the coalition troop levels in the first phase too, bringing down NATO's numbers to about 12,000 from roughly 16,000 troops at present.
The signing comes after a week in which both U.S.-led forces and the Taliban committed to a reduction in violence.
The Taliban has so far refused to talk directly to the Afghan government, calling it a puppet of the West.
Talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban could still prove difficult, with many in Kabul doubting the extremists' sincerity or their ability to control all of the group's militants.
At a press conference at the White House later on February 29, Trump said he will "be meeting personally with Taliban leaders in the not-so-distant future." Trump also said he thought negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government would be successful because "everyone is tired of war."
Robert Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, welcomed the deal. "No agreement is perfect, and the U.S.-Taliban deal is no exception. 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."
A U.S.-led coalition of forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to drive the Taliban from power after the group refused to hand over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Since then, about 2,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed in fighting, along with tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers, extremist fighters, and civilians.
Trump campaigned on a pledge of pulling U.S. forces out of "endless wars." On February 28, he urged the warring sides to seize the opportunity to make peace.
"Soon, at my direction, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will witness the signing of an agreement with representatives of the Taliban, while Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will issue a joint declaration with the government of Afghanistan," Trump said in a statement.
"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," Trump said.
"These commitments represent an important step to a lasting peace in a new Afghanistan, free from Al-Qaeda, [Islamic State], and any other terrorist group that would seek to bring us harm," Trump said.
He added, however, that "ultimately it will be up to the people of Afghanistan to work out their future."
"We, therefore, urge the Afghan people to seize this opportunity for peace and a new future for their country," he added.
In September 2019, Trump suddenly called off a planned signing ceremony with the Taliban at Camp David, Maryland, after a series of Taliban attacks.
But talks eventually resumed, led by U.S. special envoy Khalilzad, in Qatar, where the Taliban has a representative office.
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal, AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters, The New York Times, and the BBC