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Taliban, US sign peace deal

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The peace deal was signed after 18 months of talks in Doha Sorin Furcoi Al Jazeera]

Peace deal signed in Qatari capital, Doha, will pave the way for the complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan within 14 months


Doha, Qatar: The US and the Taliban have signed a landmark peace agreement after nearly 20 years of war that could result in American troops leaving Afghanistan within 14 months, The Guardian newspaper reported on Saturday.

The deal also paves the way for talks between Afghans to end one of the longest-running conflicts in the world.

The Taliban have agreed to sever ties with al-Qaida and other international terror groups and sit down for peace talks with other Afghans, including a government they have always denounced as a US puppet. In return, Washington will start a phased withdrawal of troops.

The ceremony in Doha was attended by many international delegates Sorin Furcoi Al Jazeera

Troop levels will be cut to 8,600 over the next 135 days and five bases will be closed. If both sides keep to their commitments, all US military forces could leave Afghanistan by spring 2021, although Washington is thought to want to keep intelligence operatives on the ground fighting Isis and al-Qaida.

But Kabul, which holds the Taliban fighters, is not a party to the agreement and it is unclear if it will be willing to release so many enemy combatants onto an active battlefield. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has not commented on the plans.

The long-term enemies sealed the pact in front of a sign declaring “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”, after a week of “violence reduction”. The near-ceasefire was meant to demonstrate the militants’ ability to control their foot soldiers, but also gave the country a rare taste of something like peace.

Civil war – in various iterations – has torn Afghanistan apart over 40 years. With the majority of the population under 30, most have known nothing but conflict. So there is excitement that efforts to negotiate an end to the war have made progress.

But there is also widespread concern about Taliban motives in signing a deal they have described as a “victory”, and fears the US may use the deal as cover to leave regardless of the state of the war. No Afghans apart from the militants have been part of talks so far.

“Like many Afghans, I have mixed feelings. The general secrecy around the deal, the lack of presence of non-Taliban Afghans in the process, the fact that the US-Taliban talks seemed to marginalise other Afghan voices, all have made me anxious,” said Shaharzad Akbar, the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“However, on the other hand, if the agreement allows for a reasonable timeline for a responsible withdrawal and ensures intra-Afghan talks, there is room for hope about a substantive reduction in conflict and violence. Peace will require much more.”

The Taliban have been describing the deal as a victory on social media, and reportedly told their soldiers it is just a tactical pact they can break at will, citing religious precedent.

“There are warning signs. Some of the Taliban social media accounts are quite jubilant about this ‘win’, as they see it,” said Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “One of the things that makes me worried is that if the Taliban leadership were serious about negotiations, you would expect them to be preparing the troops for a different stage in ‘the struggle’, and that doesn’t seem to be happening at all.”

US officials were at pains to credit Donald Trump as the president gears up his re-election campaign. US critics suggested last-minute concessions were made in order for Trump to boast about a foreign policy achievement.

“Two weeks ago in Munich, [Mike Pompeo] made a commitment to me and other members of Congress: the Afghan peace deal would NOT require the Afghan [government] to release Taliban prisoners. Today’s deal requires them to release 5,000,” the Democratic congressman Tom Malinowski wrote on Twitter.

In an apparent effort to allay concerns that the Doha deal is more cover for a US withdrawal than the first step towards peace, the US defense secretary, Mark Esper, and the Nato secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, flew to Kabul for a parallel ceremony with the Afghan government.

Ghani and the chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, currently locked in a bitter dispute about who won last year’s presidential election, sat together on a platform.

This confusion about who is running the country is one of several key concerns overshadowing planned peace talks among Afghan factions, where any political settlement will be hashed out.

A joint statement from the US and Afghan governments promised that without an Afghan peace deal, the US troop withdrawal would not be completed. The Taliban agreement promised that the “date and modalities for a permanent ceasefire” would be announced along with a “future political roadmap of Afghanistan”.

Britain is strongly supportive of the “potentially transformative” US deal, despite the deaths of 454 soldiers fighting the Taliban. It is expected to withdraw 200 of its own 1,100 forces in Afghanistan.

Around Afghanistan, there was a mixture of cynicism and enthusiasm.

“I support this deal and everything that brings peace, but I am sure this is not a deal for peace; the Americans have sold the government to the Taliban,” said 25-year-old Mohammad Naser, a computer repairman.

But Shahram, 29, a soldier on guard outside the governor’s office in the western city of Herat, said the deal brought new hope. “Over the last seven days I did not go to war, I was not asked to go and kill people but to stay here and guard them and I am happy about it. I wish for peace, I am optimistic.”

US officials and Taliban representatives have signed a final peace deal after months of negotiations in Qatar’s capital to end the United States’s longest war, fought in Afghanistan since 2001.

Saturday’s agreement, signed in Doha in the presence of leaders from Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey, India, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, will pave the way for the US to gradually withdraw its troops.

The two sides have long wrangled over the US demand for a ceasefire before the signing of the final peace agreement, which has four points: a timeline of 14 months for the withdrawal of all US and NATO troops from Afghanistan; a Taliban guarantee that Afghan soil will not be used as a launchpad that would threaten the security of the US; the launch of intra-Afghan negotiations by March 10; and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.

In a statement, the Taliban said it had reached an agreement “about the termination of occupation of Afghanistan”.

“The accord about the complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and never intervening in its affairs in the future is undoubtedly a great achievement,” it added.

Earlier on Saturday, the Taliban ordered all its fighters to halt fighting and “refrain from attacks”.

Mohammed Naeem, a Taliban representative in Doha, described the deal as “a step forward”.

“With this deal comes the end of the war in Afghanistan,” he told Al Jazeera.

For his part, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Taliban to honour its commitments.

“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 at the Doha ceremony.

Troop withdrawal

Minutes before the deal was signed, a joint statement released by the US and the Afghan government said the US and NATO troops would withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months.

About 14,000 US troops and approximately 17,000 troops from 39 NATO allies and partner countries are stationed in Afghanistan in a non-combatant role.

“The United States will reduce the number of US military forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 and implement other commitments in the US-Taliban agreement within 135 days of the announcement of this joint declaration and the US-Taliban agreement,” the joint statement said.

It added that the Afghan government will engage with the United Nations Security Council “to remove Taliban members from sanctions list by May 29”.

“No agreement is perfect, and the US-Taliban deal is no exception,” said Robert Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group.

“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.”

The talks were launched in 2018 as part of a push by US President Donald Trump’s administration to strike a deal with the Taliban, which has been fighting the US-led forces in Afghanistan since it was toppled from power in 2001.

The peace deal also proposes an intra-Afghan dialogue with the government in Kabul and the release of 5,000 Taliban members from prison.

The Taliban has so far refused to speak to the Western-backed Afghan government, saying it is a “puppet regime”.

The intra-Afghan talks are to begin on March 10 but no specific details have been given.

A weeklong “reduction in violence” between the Taliban, the US and Afghan security forces saw a sudden drop in violence and casualties across the country after taking effect on February 22.

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