US, Taliban ink historic deal on Afghanistan’s future

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Troop withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months

Doha, Feb 29 :  The United States signed a landmark deal with the Taliban on Saturday, laying out a timetable for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months as it seeks an exit from its longest-ever war.

The agreement is expected to lead to a dialogue between the Taliban and the Kabul government that, if successful, could ultimately see an end to the grinding 18-year conflict.

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).

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looked on as the two inked the deal, after urging the insurgents to “keep your promises to cut ties with Al-Qaeda”.

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.

The United States and its allies will withdraw all their forces from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban abide by the terms of the accord.

After an initial reduction of troops to 8,600 within 135 days of Saturday’s signing, the US and its partners “will complete withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan” within 14 months.

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 jihadist movements such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group 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.

Afghan govt, Taliban to meet for face-to-face peace talks in Oslo by March 10

Washington, Feb 29 :  The intra-Afghan peace talks, involving representatives from the Afghan government, the Taliban and various other groups, will be held in Norway’s capital Oslo by March 10, officials here said on Saturday, as the US signed a landmark agreement with the Taliban in Doha to bring peace in the war-torn country.

This will be probably for the first time since the 9/11 attacks that the representative of a duly elected Afghan government and the Taliban would be meeting face-to-face for peace talks.

“The parties will be meeting in Oslo. That negotiation will kick off as soon as each of the various components of that can get their negotiators to Oslo. We certainly expect it to be in the first half of March. It may take a week, a week and a half, for all the parties to travel there,” a senior administration official told reporters here.

Throughout this period, the reduction in violence remains in place, so it will give the US a good opportunity to test the durability of the reduction in violence and also perhaps set a better stage for it to move towards a permanent ceasefire once all the parties are at the table, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“The parties at the table will be the Afghan government and the Opposition; it will be the Taliban; it will be Afghan civil society, and especially women’s groups will all be parties for this negotiation at the table. The United States will be present, but this will be an intra-Afghan negotiation,” said the official.

As part of the agreement, the US has established a communications channel, which is currently based in Doha, where it will continue its role of mediating between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

That communications channel is responsible for supporting the implementation of the agreement, another senior administration official said.

“Obviously, we would be present in intra-Afghan negotiations,” the official said, adding that in Oslo, several other countries have expressed their intention to play a helpful role.

“There’ll be other governments who will be supporting and facilitating the talks, so it would be, for example, us, the United States; Indonesia is likely to play a role, Germany is likely to play a role, Uzbekistan is interested in playing a role.  So different types of partners that can help the parties,” the second official said.

The United Nations would also be playing a role.

“So they’re working out the design of how to do that most effectively, so I think that I would come back to you on how that develops,” said the official.

According to the official, upon reaching Oslo, there will be commitments that the parties will be making that will further reduce the level of violence.

“Our aspiration is very early on, once we have all the parties at the table, to reach a real ceasefire, which will require a lot more effort and will require all voices in Afghanistan to be represented at the table, because everyone will need to be committed to that for it to hold,” said the official.

Responding to a question, the official said that it is “genuinely hard to predict” how this is going to unfold, given the complexity of the situation and the various positions of the parties.

“Ideally, what would happen is that they would come to an early conclusion on an approach,” the official noted.

They need to identify the many difficult types of issues. For example, security forces, how do they begin consolidation; reconciliation, how do they do that; sort of what their governance structure should be, the official said.

“They don’t have to actually agree to all those things, but they have to identify what are the things they have to tackle to set up a political roadmap for the country, and maybe put some timeline against it. So that would be an initial agreement, and then they would subsequently execute,” the official said.

“What we want to see is progress by all parties. So the non-Talib Afghans as well the Taliban to seriously start working this out. And again, our expectation is that it won’t be easy, but possibly they can move more quickly on just identifying selecting the universe of tasks that they have to tackle,” the official observed.

More than 18-year-long Afghan war has killed tens of thousands of civilians and Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Some 2.5 million Afghans are registered as refugees abroad and another two million are displaced within their country.

The war has cost the US taxpayer more than USD 1 trillion in military and rebuilding costs since the US-led invasion of 2001.

More than 100,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured over the past decade, according to the United Nations.

US-Taliban deal is first step to Afghanistan peace process: EU

Brussels, Feb 29 :  The European Union said Saturday a landmark deal between the US and the Taliban, and a separate US-Afghanistan declaration, are “important first steps towards a comprehensive peace process” in Afghanistan.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement that “the current opportunity to move towards peace should not be missed” and the bloc expected “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led negotiations to start without delay in an inclusive manner and aiming at a lasting peace”.

The signing of the US-Taliban accord in the Qatari capital Doha is historic, opening the way to a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in return for Taliban security guarantees.

There are hopes it will put an end to nearly two decades of conflict in Afghanistan, where US-led forces have propped up the government in Kabul in the face of an unceasing Taliban insurgency.

To achieve peace, though, the accord will have to lead to intra-Afghan talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The Afghan government was not directly involved in the negotiations resulting in Saturday’s deal signed in Doha. But US Defense Secretary Mark Esper was in Kabul to make a joint declaration with the government.

Borrell said the EU stood ready to help with an Afghan peace process in which “all political factions, where notably Afghan women and minorities as well as the civil society, are represented in a meaningful manner”.

He added: “It is vital that all people of Afghanistan feel represented in the next government and in peace negotiations. This would help address grievances, including in the context of the recent electoral process, and promote reconciliation.”

‘Will not hesitate to nullify’ agreement if Taliban break deal: Pentagon chief

Kabul, Feb 29 :  The United States “will not hesitate to nullify” its historic deal with the Taliban if the insurgents renege on their security guarantees and commitment to hold talks with the Afghan government, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Saturday.

His comments came as the US signed an accord with the Taliban in Doha, laying out a timetable for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months as it seeks an exit from its longest-ever war.

But on a visit to Kabul, Esper warned that “should the Taliban fail to honour 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,” he added.

India reacts cautiously

New Delhi, Feb 29 : In a guarded reaction to the peace deal between the US and the Taliban, India on Saturday said its consistent policy has been to support all opportunities that can bring peace, security and stability in Afghanistan and ensure end of terrorism.

India’s Ambassador to Qatar P Kumaran was among a host of diplomats present at the ceremony where the deal was inked.

“India’s consistent policy is to support all opportunities that can bring peace, security and stability in Afghanistan; end violence; cut ties with international terrorism; and lead to a lasting political settlement through an Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled process,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said.

He was reacting to signing of the US-Taliban deal in Doha and issuance of a joint declaration between the Afghan and US governments in Kabul.

“As a contiguous neighbour, India will continue to extend all support to the Government and people of Afghanistan in realising their aspirations for a peaceful, democratic and prosperous future where the interest of all sections of Afghan society are protected,” Kumar said.

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