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Updated at 8:58 a.m. ET
The U.S. and the Taliban have struck a deal that paves the way for eventual peace in Afghanistan. U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the head of the militant Islamist group, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, signed the potentially historic agreement Saturday in Doha, Qatar, where the two sides spent months hashing out the agreement.
Under the terms of the deal, the U.S. commits to withdrawing all of its military forces and supporting civilian personnel, as well as those of its allies, within 14 months. The drawdown process will begin with the U.S. reducing its troop levels to 8,600 in the first 135 days and pulling its forces from five bases.
The rest of its forces, according to the agreement, will leave “within the remaining nine and a half months.”
The Afghan government also will release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill, in exchange for 1,000 Afghan security forces held by the Taliban.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to America’s sons and daughters who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, and to the many thousands who served over the past nearly 19 years,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement celebrating the deal, which comes on the heels of a seven-day “Reduction in Violence” agreement in Afghanistan.
“The only responsible way to end the war in Afghanistan is through a negotiated political settlement. Today is a reflection of the hard work of our Nation’s military, the U.S. Department of State, intelligence professionals, and our valued partners,” he added. “The United States is committed to the Afghan people, and to ensuring that Afghanistan never becomes a safe haven for terrorists to threaten our homeland and our Allies.”
Along with members of the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. intends to “remove members of the Taliban from the sanctions list with the aim of achieving this objective by May 29, 2020.” And Washington aims to remove the group from U.S. sanctions by Aug 27, 2020.
The Taliban “will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
The U.S. will “request the recognition and endorsement of the UN Security Council for this agreement.”
The Afghan government will also begin negotiations with the Taliban to map out a political settlement which would establish the role the Taliban would play in a future Afghanistan. These negotiations are expected to start next month. One of the first tasks in these intra-Afghan talks will be to achieve a lasting ceasefire in Afghanistan.
Separately, in Kabul, Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg signed a joint declaration with the Afghan government – represented by President Ashraf Ghani – that commits the Afghans to these up-coming negotiations with the Taliban and to provide Afghanistan with security guarantees as this process unfolds.
This deal has been worked out by US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban over months of negotiations in Doha, Qatar. The U.S. and Taliban had reached an agreement last summer. President Trump walked away from that near-deal after a U.S. servicemember was killed in a September car bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The possibly historic agreement has been 18 months in the making. It follows nine rounds of on-again, off-again talks in Doha — the Qatari capital where the Taliban maintains an office — that began in 2018. An earlier agreement that was to be signed last September was scuttled by the Trump administration after a U.S. service member was killed in Afghanistan.
Only the U.S., led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban have taken part in the negotiations, an arrangement that New York University’s Barnett Rubin says was designed by the Taliban and resisted until recently by the U.S.
“Since 2010 [the Taliban] always insisted there would be two stages: international and then intra-Afghan,” says Rubin, who served from 2009-2013 as special advisor to the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and now directs the Afghanistan Pakistan Regional Program at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation.
The Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan, which lasted just five years, ended abruptly with the invasion of a U.S.-led military coalition shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Their overthrow was in reprisal for having harbored Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, whose militants hijacked and crashed four American airliners in those attacks.
Over the past three years, the Taliban have fought U.S. and Afghan forces to what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley calls “a state of strategic stalemate.”
President Trump has repeatedly vowed to end America’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan, the most prolonged of all U.S. conflicts. Yet, within months of assuming the presidency, Trump added 4,000 U.S. troops to the 8,900 American forces already deployed there.
The deal signed in Doha follows a week-long “reduction in violence” period, during which Taliban fighters promised to suspend major attacks and U.S. forces agreed to suspend offensive operations, except attacks against Islamic State insurgents. Local observers have described an 80% drop in violence since the lull in warfare began last Sunday.
“We have seen just these last six days a significant reduction in violence in Afghanistan,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Friday, shortly before flying to the Doha signing ceremony. Earlier in the week, Pompeo called the partial truce “imperfect,” but said “it’s working.”
Here are some of the key elements in that political resolution:
1. A withdrawal of U.S. troops
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It’s not clear how quickly U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan under the Doha agreement. Initially, there is a reported 135-day window from the time of the pact’s signing for the U.S. to begin a troop withdrawal, which has been a central demand of the Taliban.
“There is an initial drawdown where there is a date and there’s a number,” says a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There is also an aspirational timeline for withdrawal that is entirely conditions-based, and it will depend on [the Taliban’s] performance as we judge their performance.”
The success of February’s seven-day partial truce is seen as a crucial first step.
“That sets the stage for the other elements, which include the United States promising to draw down from roughly 13,000 American troops in Afghanistan to about 8,600, which would be the same number we had when President Obama left office,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution scholar and longtime supporter of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. “So, it’s not a huge change. It’s just a reduction from the sort of mini-Trump buildup.”
In the initial stages of the deal, U.S. troops would also be evacuated from five forward operating bases.
O’Hanlon warns this agreement cannot repeat what the U.S. signed with the North Vietnamese in the 1973 Paris peace talks, “where we basically take on faith that the enemy is going to behave itself once we’re gone.”
But a State Department official insists the Taliban will continue to be subject to an edifice of sanctions imposed over the years by both the U.S. and the United Nations Security Council.
“Part of the process of making peace is to begin to take down the edifice, but the language [in the peace accord] is carefully constructed to be conditional, depending on Taliban performance,” says the official. “If the Taliban don’t do what we hope they’ll do, our requirements to begin to take down that edifice are vitiated.”
A senior Afghan official tells NPR that the U.S. forces that do remain would focus on the three missions they are currently carrying out: counter-terrorism operations, training of Afghan forces and air support for Afghan ground forces.
A drawdown of the approximately 7,000 forces from other NATO member states in Afghanistan would take place in tandem with the departure of U.S. troops.
2. A commitment by the Taliban to end support for U.S.-deemed “terrorist organizations”
U.S. officials insist the troop withdrawal timeline will depend primarily on one condition: the degree to which the Taliban fulfills its commitment in the peace deal not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a base of operations by insurgencies such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
“The Taliban must respect the agreement, specifically regarding their promises of severing ties with terrorists,” Pompeo said earlier this week at the State Department. “We have our deep counterterrorism interest there, making sure that the homeland is never attacked. It’s one of the central underpinnings of what President Trump has laid before us.”
The Taliban’s renunciation of ties with al-Qaida, though, may be more easily said than done.
“This is a complex issue because the Haqqani network is often seen as a strong affiliate of al-Qaida and it’s also part of the Taliban leadership,” says the Brooking Institution’s O’Hanlon. “So we don’t really quite know what that means, but presumably, core al-Qaida and the Taliban would not be allowed to speak [to each other] and we would be listening with all of our electronic capabilities to make sure that was the case.”
The Haqqani network is one of Afghanistan’s most experienced insurgent groups, long thought to be responsible for some of the more sophisticated and large scale attacks, especially in the capital, Kabul. It’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is the Taliban’s current deputy and recently penned an op-ed in the New York Times.
The State Department recognizes there are concerns about the Taliban’s historical bonds with al-Qaida. “We think this is a decisive and historic first step in terms of their public acknowledgment that they are breaking ties with al-Qaida,” says one official. “That’s going to be a work in progress.”
Just as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is the Taliban’s main demand in this agreement, the U.S. has made the Taliban’s forswearing of ties to other insurgencies its top ask.
“We went into Afghanistan with NATO after 9/11 because of the threat to the United States and our allies,” the State Department official says. “We are still there because we are concerned about the terrorist threat.”
But one former senior U.S. official suggests the Trump administration may be exaggerating that threat.
“In my estimation, we have largely achieved our counter-terrorism objective today. Al-Qaida is much diminished in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with most of its senior leaders killed and those who remain marginalized,” retired Army General Douglas Lute, who served as point man for the Afghan war effort in both the Bush and Obama White Houses, recently wrote in prepared Congressional testimony. “There is a branch of the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan, but I have seen no evidence that it presents a threat to the U.S. and it is under pressure from the Afghans, including from the Taliban.”
3. Maintaining a communications channel
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The U.S. and the Taliban are expected to continue the lines of communications they have already established during the talks in Doha, both to support implementation of the agreement and to de-conflict their respective military operations against ISIS in eastern Afghanistan.
Suspicions that there was a secret annex to the deal that also involved sharing intelligence with the Taliban prompted a cautionary letter to Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper this week from 22 House Republicans. They demanded that any deal between the U.S. and the Taliban be made public with no secret annexes or side deals, including one for intelligence sharing or a joint counterterrorism center with the Taliban.
“This would be a farce,” the lawmakers wrote, “and put American lives at risk.”
A State Department official on Thursday denied the U.S. was entering into any kind of “cooperative partnership” with the Taliban.
4. Prisoner swaps
The Afghan government has also agreed to release 5000 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture in exchange for a 1000 Afghan security forces held by the Taliban.
“We have absolutely committed to helping mediate and resolve this tough issue,” says a State Department official, referring to the release of Taliban prisoners. “There are some people that we’re not concerned about. There’s some people we may be more concerned about.”
The same official expressed admiration for the care Taliban leaders have shown for freeing their fighters, while adding, “The agreement makes explicit that those who are released need to make commitments that they won’t go back to the battlefield and that they will support the agreement.”
While noting the need for early action on releasing prisoners to build confidence among the Taliban in the peace process, the official said both the numbers of prisoners and the timeline for their release are “aspirational” and will depend on “Taliban performance.”
5. Intra-party talks among Afghans
A second phase of the peace process would bring together Afghan government officials, opposition figures, civil society representatives and the Taliban to discuss a political roadmap for bringing an end to the war.
The talks are expected to take place in Oslo, Norway, to begin around mid-March. The U.S. will be present along with others, including Germany, Indonesia and the U.N., but only in the role of supporting and facilitating the talks.
“It’s not like the Taliban are endlessly evil or that this will bring flowers and roses and doves overnight,” says one U.S. official. “We’ve reached a point where there’s a critical mass on all sides where people want to change, want a better future, want a better option, and our job is to continue to create the incentives, continue to create the momentum for people to move forward and change the negative trajectory.”
A host of difficult issues are to be addressed in the intra-Afghan talks, including:
a. A long-term cease-fire
The reduction in violence of the past week is intended to be a step toward an overall cessation of hostilities to be worked out in Oslo.
“The agreement explicitly calls on the Taliban to sit down with the other Afghans in the intra-Afghan negotiations, where they will discuss the modalities and the timing of a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire,” says a State Department official. “There’s a lot of mistrust, decades of fighting, so it’s not going to be easy.”
This would likely entail a dismantling of the Taliban’s military force with the aim of either demobilizing or integrating its members into the Afghan security forces — a goal O’Hanlon considers daunting.
“I think the only realistic way to handle the security forces is that you keep all the different forces more or less in place,” he says. “The Taliban continue to hold the parts of the country where they’re most influential in certain rural areas, the Afghan army and police control the cities and major highways, and maybe there’s a U.N. observation force making sure they don’t fight each other.”
b. Power sharing
Yet to be determined is the role the Taliban might play in Afghanistan’s political future.
The nation continues to roil over results of the disputed September presidential election. President Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner in mid-February, but that result is not recognized by his challenger, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and a planned swearing-in of Ghani for a second term has been postponed until March 10, at the request of the U.S.
“You have a very fragmented country right now within Afghanistan, even apart from the Taliban and the central government who are clearly at war,” says Bahar Jalali, who directs the women’s mentoring program at the American University of Afghanistan. “There’s a lot of consternation with the Taliban coming back and re-emerging as viable political actors. What’s going to happen with that?”
c. Women’s rights
After women were prohibited under Taliban rule from attending school, working or appearing in public without a male relative as escort, they’ve won back those rights and gained others in areas no longer dominated by the Taliban.
In his New York Times opinion piece last week, deputy Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani appeared to play down concerns that women would lose their restored freedoms.
“I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights,” Haqqani wrote, “where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.”
But many are skeptical of the Taliban’s intentions and doubt such assurances.
“We saw what the Taliban’s version of Islam looked like in the late 1990s and early 2000s, right before the U.S. military intervention,” says Jalali. “That gives nobody any good sense of comfort about the Taliban upholding the rights of women under Islamic law.”
Jalali fears the U.S. is simply looking for a way out of Afghanistan before November’s election.
“That really speaks to Trump’s burning desire to exit from Afghanistan and to say, hey, I ended the Forever War, you know, I can claim credit for that,” she says. “I keep saying [it’s a] low threshold for peace and a low threshold for ending the war.”
For O’Hanlon, the Doha peace agreement is only a start.
“It’s a tiny step forward,” he says. “It’s a good step forward, but it doesn’t really mean that phase two or round two is going to follow naturally.”