US to sign peace deal with Taliban
WASHINGTON, Feb 15: The US government and the Taliban, by the end of this month, are to sign their peace treaty which includes a plan for a week-long ceasefire and withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan over a period of 18 months.
Top sources involved in the negotiations between the US and the Taliban in Qatar, said that the two sides have agreed to sign the peace deal on February 29, just four days after President Donald Trump concludes his trip to India.
The deal, which the Trump administration has been negotiating for long, includes talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani which are to begin on March 10.
The Afghan government had stayed away from the US-Taliban negotiations, due to strong reservations about the militant group`s religious extremism and violence. The sources said that the US, as per the treaty, has also agreed to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners between February 29 and March 10.
The Taliban, on the other hand, has consented to a week-long ceasefire when neither they nor the US troops will conduct any operations. "Both sides have succeeded in defining what reduction of violence would entail," a source in Qatar said.
The negotiations for the peace deal, after they were resumed in January after four months this year, had been stuck over the disagreement on the definition of"reduction in violence". The Trump administration has committed itself to withdraw all its forces from the war-torn country over a period of 18 months.
The US and NATO forces launched a war against terror in Afghanistan 18 years ago after the global Islamist terror group Al Qaeda sheltered and supported by Taliban attacked the US on September 11, 2001. America has around 11,000 troops in Afghanistan and has been gradually withdrawing forces.
President Trump, who is running for re-election later this year, during his last election campaign promised that he will end America`s wars and bring back US troops home. There remains a long way to go to a peace settlement and end to the nearly two-decade-old U.S. military presence that began shortly after the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda. U.S. officials have been clear that the 13,000 U.S. troops will be cut to about 8,600 this year, with or without a withdrawal deal.
The reduction in violence agreement "is a good step on a very long road," said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. A U.S. withdrawal agreement would be followed by negotiations on a political settlement between the Taliban and an Afghan delegation that would include government officials. One of the first issues would be a nationwide ceasefire.
The so-called intra-Afghan dialogue, however, is likely to be difficult and protracted. The Taliban have refused to speak directly to the government, which they denounce as a U.S. puppet. Kabul's negotiating team has yet to be named, and there has been long wrangling over its composition.
It also remained to be seen if the Taliban leadership has full control over all its fighters. The senior U.S. official made clear that a full U.S. withdrawal will depend on the Taliban fulfilling commitments to end their close ties with al Qaeda and other extremist groups.
"Our commitment, in terms of reduction of forces which is both conditions-based and in phases, is very much tied to delivery on the commitments that they have made, and will be," said the official. "There will be no hosting, no training, no recruitment, no fund-raising."
The official, however, noted that provision covered only Taliban-controlled territory, meaning it does not apply to Taliban sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan, which U.S. officials accuse of supporting the insurgents. Islamabad denies the allegation.
The official said the reduction in violence agreement was very specific and covered all Afghan forces. The U.S. military would monitor violence levels to verify whether the Taliban were honoring it. U.S. and Taliban negotiators have been meeting in Doha since 2018 even as fighting has raged and hundreds of civilians and combatants have been killed as the insurgents have expanded their territorial control.
Last month the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government agency, assessed that there were a record-high number of attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces in the last three months of 2019. -REUTERS