DOHA/KABUL: The US signed a historic peace deal with the Taliban on Saturday that includes a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and takes a first step toward ending the 18-year conflict — the longest war in US history.
The agreement was signed by US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban’s top negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, after more than a year and a half of talks that excluded President Ashraf Ghani and his government.
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).
Baradar said the deal was a “victory for the Islamic nation” and pledged to abide by the agreement which bars the group from using Afghan soil against any country or against US interests.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and diplomats from more than 20 countries took part as observers at the signing ceremony in Doha. “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,” Pompeo said.
Saudi Arabia welcomed the peace agreement between the US and the Taliban, and hopes it will lead to a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire, the Kingdom's foreign ministry said.
Under the deal, the US, which has up to 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, will draw that number down to 8,600 within 135 days of the signing.
If the Taliban abide by the accord, the US and their coalition partners “will complete the withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan” within 14 months, in a “conditions-based” pullback. The Taliban are required to open a dialogue with the Ghani government in Kabul and reject terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.
The two sides also agreed to swap thousands of prisoners in a “confidence-building measure.”
The agreement represented progress toward lasting peace,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “We have to be prepared for setbacks, spoilers, there is no easy way to peace, but this is an important first step,” he said in Kabul.
Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mobib, said the government “did not agree with all dimensions and points” in the agreement, especially the description of the Taliban as the “Islamic Emirate.”
Ghani said the agreement was based on conditions that the Taliban must meet. “Withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan depends on how much the Taliban fulfill their commitments,” he said.
The Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Hebatullah, described the agreement as a “significant milestone.”
The deal came after nearly a week of reduced violence by the Taliban, which had committed to preventing suicide attacks, rocket fire and bombings — a key US demand ahead of the final agreement on Saturday.
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.
But the position of the Afghan government, which has been excluded from direct US-Taliban talks, remains unclear and the country is gripped by a fresh political crisis amid contested election results.
The Doha accord was drafted over a tempestuous year of dialogue marked by the abrupt cancellation of the effort by Trump in September.
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 Taliban can control their forces.
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.
Since the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban after the September 11, 2001 attacks, America has spent more than $1 trillion in fighting and rebuilding in Afghanistan.
About 2,400 US soldiers have been killed, along with unknown tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians.
The insurgents said they had halted all hostilities Saturday in honour 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," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP.
Any insurgent pledge to guarantee Afghanistan is never again used by extremist movements such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh to plot attacks abroad will be key to the deal's viability.
The Taliban'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 December 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 talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government.
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 Taliban, who would then be in a position to take the upper hand in negotiations.