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US, Taleban sign historic deal to withdraw troops

DOHA: US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taleban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing a peace agreement during a ceremony in the Qatari capital yesterday. – AFP

DOHA: The United States signed a landmark deal with the Taleban yesterday, laying out a timetable for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months as it seeks an exit from its longest war. The agreement is expected to lead to a dialogue between the Taleban and the Kabul government that, if successful, could ultimately see an end to the grinding 18-year conflict. Taleban fighter-turned-dealmaker Mullah Baradar signed the accord alongside Washington’s chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, in a conference room in a luxury hotel in the Qatari capital. 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, and alluded to the difficult work that remains to be done. “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. The Taleban swept to power in 1996, banning women from working, closing girls’ schools, and forbidding music and other entertainment.

Since the US-led invasion that ousted them after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, America has spent more than $1 trillion on fighting and rebuilding in the country. About 2,400 US soldiers have been killed, along with unknown tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taleban fighters and Afghan civilians. “We’re seizing the best opportunity for peace in a generation,” Pompeo told a press conference.

US President Donald Trump, who has promised to finish America’s “endless wars”, urged the Afghan people to embrace the chance for a new future. “If the Taleban 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 on the eve of the signing.

The Taleban’s chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai hailed another “day of victory” in Afghanistan’s long history of repelling foreign powers. “This is the kind of day that our ancestors celebrated after they defeated the British and the Soviets,” he said as he and other jubilant Taleban members took part in a march in Qatar, in a video shared by Taleban sources.

The Doha accord was drafted over a tempestuous year of dialogue marked by the abrupt cancellation of the effort by Trump in September. But the position of the Afghan government, which has been excluded from direct US-Taleban talks, remains unclear and the country is gripped by a fresh political crisis amid contested election results. The signing comes after a week-long, partial truce that has mostly held across Afghanistan, aimed at building confidence between the warring parties and showing the Taleban can control their forces.

The US, which currently has between 12,000 and 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, will draw that number down to 8,600 within months of the agreement being signed. If the Taleban abide by the terms of the accord, the US and its partners “will complete withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan” within 14 months. The two sides also agreed to swap thousands of prisoners in a “confidence building measure”. And the unprecedented direct negotiations between the Taleban and Afghanistan’s government will begin by March 10, likely in Oslo, senior US officials said.

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 Norwegian former prime minister told reporters in Kabul. The insurgents said they had halted all hostilities yesterday in honor of the agreement. “Since the deal is being signed today, and our people are happy and celebrating it, we have halted all our military operations across the country,” Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP.

Any insurgent pledge to guarantee Afghanistan is never again used by militant movements such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group to plot attacks abroad will be key to the deal’s viability. The Taleban’s sheltering of Al-Qaeda was the main reason for the US invasion following the 9/11 attacks. The group, which had risen to power in the 1990s in the chaos of civil war, suffered a swift defeat at the hands of the US and its allies. They retreated before re-emerging to lead a deadly insurgency against the new government in Kabul.

After the NATO combat mission ended in Dec 2014, the bulk of Western forces withdrew from the country, leaving it in an increasingly precarious position. While Afghans are eager to see an end to the violence, experts say any prospective peace will depend on the outcome of the intra-Afghan talks. But with President Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah at loggerheads over contested election results, few expect the pair to present a united front, unlike the Taleban, who would then be in a position to take the upper hand in negotiations. – AFP

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