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WASHINGTON – U.S. and Taliban negotiators signed a historic agreement Saturday in Qatar that could end 19 years of war in Afghanistan and allow President Donald Trump to begin the promised withdrawal of American troops.
The four-page pact spells out a timetable for the United States to withdraw its 13,000 troops from Afghanistan; in exchange, the Taliban agreed to sever its ties with al-Qaida, the terrorist group that launched the 9/11 attacks against the U.S.
“Everybody’s tired of war,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “It’s been a very long journey. It’s been a hard journey for everybody."
The agreement sets the stage for further negotiations between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban, a militant Islamist group that once ruled Afghanistan and provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden. American officials hope those talks will lead to a power-sharing deal, a permanent end to the bloody conflict and a full withdrawal of American forces.
But a permanent peace – and an end to America's longest war – rests on a commitment by the Taliban, a fractious insurgency, to end its deadly attacks on U.S. forces and to renounce its ties to al-Qaida.
"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," the president said in a statement released ahead of Saturday's signing ceremony in Doha.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the top U.S. negotiator for Afghanistan, signed the pact as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looked on. In remarks at the ceremony, Pompeo said the deal was based on the reality that the conflict was militarily unwinnable without a massive deployment of additional U.S. forces. The Taliban also saw the war as a lost cause, he noted.
"This is a hopeful moment, but it's only the beginning," Pompeo said. “There's a great deal of hard work ahead."
In the coming weeks, the United States will begin a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, reducing its forces from 13,000 troops to 8,600. Pompeo said the remaining U.S. troops will serve as leverage to ensure the Taliban lives up to its promises.
In Kabul, Defense Secretary Mark Esper echoed that message – saying the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops would be based on the Taliban reining in its fighters.
"Should the Taliban fail to honor their commitments, they will forfeit their chance to sit with fellow Afghans and deliberate on the future of their country. Moreover, the United States would not hesitate to nullify the agreement," Esper said in prepared remarks.
If the Taliban fulfills its commitments to renounce al-Qaida and begin intra-Afghan talks, the U.S. agreed to a withdrawal of all remaining American forces from Afghanistan within 10 months. The U.S. also agreed to immediately facilitate a controversial prisoner exchange, under which up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government could be released. The Taliban would free as many as 1,000 prisoners, as demanded by the Afghan government.
Trump said he expected withdrawals to begin immediately.
"If bad things happen, we’ll go back," Trump said. "We'll go back with a force like nobody’s ever seen."
The president, speaking at a news conference primarily focused on the coronavirus, announced he would soon be meeting with Taliban leaders. He declined to provide additional information about where or when that meeting would take place.
The U.S.-Taliban deal, crafted during painstaking, on-again-off-again negotiations that began in 2018, was finalized after seven days of reduced violence, a confidence-building measure both sides undertook as a prerequisite to signing an agreement.
Saturday's announcement comes with many caveats. In September, negotiators hailed a breakthrough in talks only to see hope for peace dissipate and violence continue. A withdrawal of American troops also would likely take several months.
"It's not like ... this will bring flowers and roses and doves overnight," said a senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The next step will be even more challenging: getting the Taliban and the Afghan government – bitter opponents with sharply divergent views about the future of their country – to reach a peace agreement in a country riven by tribal factions, devastated by war and overrun with criminal and terrorist elements.
Those talks are expected to begin is Oslo, Norway, within 10 days, but neither side has designated negotiators yet. And the Afghan government, backed by the U.S., is in the midst of a political crisis, with two leaders proclaiming victory in the country's September election.
The reduction in violence is supposed to continue as the intra-Afghan talks proceed, and the U.S. is hoping to secure a full cease-fire in Afghanistan as one of the first elements of those talks.
Some Republicans warned against signing the deal, arguing that the Taliban is a terrorist group that cannot be trusted to live up to any commitments. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said the agreement would jeopardize America's national security and compared it to the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.
"Releasing thousands of Taliban fighters, lifting sanctions on international terrorists, and agreeing to withdraw all U.S. forces in exchange for promises from the Taliban ... would be reminiscent of the worst aspects of the Obama Iran nuclear deal," Cheney said in a statement Saturday.
But others, including a top former Obama administration official, hailed the agreement as a remarkable step forward.
“No agreement is perfect, and the U.S.-Taliban deal is no exception," said Robert Malley, who was a senior White House adviser on the Middle East under President Barack Obama.
"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,” said Malley, now president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan organization focused on preventing conflict.
Previewing the agreement last week, Pompeo seemed to concede the peace deal was not a resounding victory but rather a practical way to extricate American troops from what has been a costly war.
“We have to be realistic. We're proud of our gains, but our generals have determined that this war is unlikely to be won militarily without tremendous additional resources,” he told reporters Tuesday in Washington. “All sides are tired of fighting. ... We should seize the moment.”
Pompeo refused to say what, if any, red lines the U.S. would set in the intra-Afghan negotiations that are set to begin in early March. The U.S. will participate in those talks in a supportive role, but Pompeo said it will be led by Afghans and the U.S. will not require any guarantees for women’s rights or other democratic reforms.
Still, Afghan civil society and women’s groups will be part of the negotiations, said a second administration official, who also spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity. It will be a “very high priority for us” to protect women’s rights, the official said.
“We aren't without influence in the process going forward. The United States is still a major presence in Afghanistan," this official said. "There's all sorts of ways that we and others will be able to help defend the rights of women in Afghanistan, and certainly, that would be very much” in the interest of the United States.
Before the 2001 U.S. invasion, the Taliban subjected women and girls to ruthless violence and oppression. Women could not work or study; they could not leave their homes without a man; and they could be flogged for showing even an inch of skin under required full-body veils, known as burqas.
Afghan women have seen enormous gains after the 2001 international intervention, with many schools now open to girls and some women allowed to work and be involved in the political process. But many fear those changes will not be preserved in the intra-Afghan negotiations.
Meanwhile, the country remains violent and divided. On Feb. 8, two Army Special Forces soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. Insurgent attacks that caused casualties in the last quarter of 2019 were at the highest level since recording began in 2010, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
The inspector general also found fault with the administration's lack of a strategy to deal with narcotics, which generate cash the Taliban uses to pay fighters and buy weapons and bombs.
Taliban insurgents retain control over large portions of the countryside, while the government primarily holds sway in large cities like Kabul, the capital. Extremist groups linked to ISIS, or the Islamic State, another terrorist group, remain active in rural areas.
In addition, the U.S. conducted more airstrikes in Afghanistan in 2019 than in any other year of the war, including 2011, the year of peak U.S. involvement with 100,000 troops on the ground.
There are about 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Their mission is split between training Afghan security forces and conducting counterterrorism missions.
Pompeo acknowledged that talks could fail to achieve a permanent peace.
"Factions will undoubtedly emerge to want to spoil our good work," Pompeo said Saturday. "We must call them out and reject their schemes."
U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks orchestrated by bin Laden, who operated in Afghanistan under the Taliban's rule. Airstrikes backed a small contingent of U.S. commandos and troops who helped local forces topple the Taliban. Removed from government, the Taliban mounted an increasingly deadly insurgency.
More than 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed there, and more than 20,000 have been wounded in the fighting. Last year, the Pentagon estimated the cost to taxpayers for the war at $737 billion.
Trump announced during a visit to Afghanistan on Thanksgiving that peace talks had resumed after a brief hiatus last year.
"The Taliban wants to make a deal – we’ll see if they make a deal. If they do, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t. That's fine," Trump told reporters traveling with him.
In September, Trump abruptly canceled a then-secret summit with the Taliban, as well as Ghani and other Afghan officials, after the militant group killed a U.S. soldier. That controversial meeting, aimed at finalizing an agreement that had been in the works for months to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan, would have taken place at Camp David two days before the 18th anniversary of 9/11.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: U.S., Taliban sign deal, peace talks to begin, US troops to withdraw