United States and Taliban sign deal to withdraw troops from Afghanistan

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The United States and the Taliban signed a deal on Saturday to start ending America’s longest war.

The deal, signed in Doha, laid out how the US will begin withdrawing troops with a reduction from about 12,000 soldiers to 8,600 over the next 135 days and a full withdrawal within the next 14 months.

The condition-based withdrawal will depend on the Taliban upholding their promise to cut ties with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and to not use Afghan soil to host groups opposed to America.

The war, that started with the US invasion in Afghanistan in October 2001 shortly after the September 11 attacks, has killed tens of thousands of people, as well as around 3,500 US and coalition troops.

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, who visited Kabul on Saturday, said that the agreement will “pave the way for Afghan negotiations, so that a permanent ceasefire may be achieved. This will only happen if Afghans join together to embrace this opportunity. “

Mr Esper flew to Kabul for an afternoon to meet with President Ashraf Ghani and Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

Ahead of the signing ceremony in Doha, they addressed the nation in Kabul.

“Thanks to ’s leadership, we are making progress in ending America’s longest wars,” Esper said, adding that “we join with real hope for the future of Afghanistan.”

Sergeant Jay Kenney, 26, with the 101st Airborne Division, Task Force Destiny, assists wounded Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers off the Blackhawk UH-60A helicopter after they were rescued in an air mission in Kandahar on December 12, 2010 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Getty Images

An Afghan Northern Alliance fighter mans the front line against the Taliban on October 2, 2001 near Jabul os Sarache, 30 miles north of Kabul. Getty Images

Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of Afghanistan travelling via helicopter for the final campaign rally in Bamiyan, Afghanistan on September 25, 2019. Afghans will head to the polls on Saturday, September 28th. Getty Images

Mustafa Tamanna, 10, son of Afghan reporter Zabihullah Tamanna, weeps during the funeral ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 7, 2016. Tamanna was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by the Taliban. Getty Images

Northern Alliance soldiers come back from the front line after a battle near Charatoy town in the north of Afghanistan on October 10, 2001. REUTERS

A Northern Alliance fighter throwing rocks as part of a popular national game yards away from a multiple Grad missile launcher in October 12, 2001 in the Salang Gorge in Northern Afghanistan. Getty Images

A French soldier from the 7th Mountain Regiment, part of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) stands on a boulder overlooking Kabul during a patrol August 3, 2002 in Afghanistan. The ISAF has been patrolling Kabul since January 2002, working with the government and a new police force to prevent the violence and lawlessness that threatened to engulf the city after a U.S.-led coalition forced the Taliban from power. Getty Images

US Marine Sgt. Jerry Brown (L) of Jacksonville, North Carolina watches over a weapons cache found during a patrol near the American military compound at Kandahar Airport in January 16, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Marines recovered mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery rounds discovered in various caches near the base while on the patrol. Getty Images)

Members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry patrol through poppy fields in the village of Markhanai in May 6, 2002 in the Tora Bora valley region of Afghanistan. Getty Images

The United States and Britain on October 7, 2001 launched a first wave of air strikes against Afghanistan. President George W. Bush said the action heralded a "sustained, comprehensive and relentless" campaign against terrorism. REUTERS

A young Afghan girl eats a piece of bread at the Chaman refugee camp on November 8, 2001 on the Pakistan border with Afghanistan. The UNHCR has estimated that since September 11, 2001 over 135,000 Afghans have crossed the border into Pakistan, adding to the already millions of refugees living in the country. Getty Images

Afghan opposition Northern Alliance soldiers leap over a trench as they return from front line positions after battle near the town of Charatoy in the north of Afghanistan October 10, 2001. REUTERS

An Afghan child peeks out from the doorway of his family's home as a US Army soldier from the 101st Airborne stands guard in the eastern Afghan village of Hesarak on July 16, 2002 during what the Army refers to as a 'sensitive site exploitation' mission or 'SSE'. Getty Images

Fred Perry, a British Royal Engineer soldier, reads the book "Black Hawk Down" inside his tent after a day of work on January 29, 2002 at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) barracks at the Kabul airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Afghan soldiers (L) speak to a local Afghan, while a medic in the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, Charlie Company (R) monitors a soldier who has just survived a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) while driving a vehicle during a mission near Command Outpost Pa'in Kalay, on March 19, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Maiwand District, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Marines on a light armored vehicle prepare for patrol as an AH1W "Super Cobra" helicopter flies by on December 28, 2001 at the U.S. Marine Corps Base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

A Norwegian ISAF (International Security Assistance Force)soldier from Recce Squadron 3 patrols on October 4, 2004 in Kabul, Afghanistan as election officials get ready for the Presidential elections. Getty Images

Interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai (L) is greeted by a group of Afghan military officers on his arrival to Kandahar airbase on May 04, 2002 in Southern Afghanistan. Getty Images

Soldiers in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division wade though a creek to avoid buried insurgent bombs while on patrol October 16, 2010 in Zhari district west of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

British commandos descend from a mountain observation post overlooking the beginning of the Helmand River at the Kajaki hydroelectric dam on March 13, 2007 in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. Getty Images

101st Airbornes 1st Sgt. Kerry Black from Westmoreland, Tennessee uses an Afghan child's sling shot on February 6, 2002 as children crowd around him while he patrols on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Marine Cpl. Jonathan Eckert of Oak Lawn, IL attached to India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment works his improvised explosive device (IED) sniffing dog Bee as they secure a compound during a patrol near Forward Operating Base (FOB) Zeebrugge on October 11, 2010 in Kajaki, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Afghan refugees walk across the border into Pakistan on October 11, 2001 as they leave Afghanistan at the Chaman crossing point on the 4th day of U.S.-led air strikes against the ruling Taliban and terrorist networks in the country. Getty Images

Anti-Taliban Afghan fighters watch several explosions from U.S. bombings in the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan on December 16, 2001.

British Marines run under fire from the Taliban during a morning operation on March 18, 2007 near Kajaki in the Afghan province of Helmand. Getty Images

Afghan Army troops prepare to board a British chinook helicopter from their base at Shorabak on March 12, 2007 in Southern Helmand province, Afghanistan. Getty Images

British Marine Joe Harvey from Stafford, England (R), watches as British forces come under fire by Taliban insurgents on March 18, 2007 near Kajaki in the Afghan province of Helmand. Getty Images

U.S. Army 101st Airborne 3-187 "Bravo" company soliders pass through a corn field while conducting a sensitive site exploitation (SSE) mission July 23, 2002 near the town of Narizah in Southeastern Afghanistan. Getty Images

Scouts from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), pull overwatch during Operation Destined Strike while 2nd Platoon, Able Company searches a village below the Chowkay Valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan on August 22, 2006. US Army

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For over a year, America and the Taliban have been negotiating a deal that could end the fighting and see international troops withdraw. At a ceremony in Doha on Saturday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the lead US negotiator, sat with representatives of the Taliban to sign the deal.

In detail, the document lays out the next steps for the country and while it doesn't end the war overnight, it offers a way forward for both US troops withdrawal and the beginning of an intra-Afghan dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

“In the last week, we have seen a reduction in violence,” President Ghani said from his palace in Kabul. “This will help in direct negotiations with the Taliban. All people of Afghanistan are looking forward to permanent peace.”

Although a first step has been laid out, many believe that intra-Afghan talks might pose a bigger challenge.

Hours before the deal, the Taliban ordered all its fighters in Afghanistan "to refrain from any kind of attack ... for the happiness of the nation."

Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada called on all fighters to respect the deal and said all male and female compatriots will be given their "due rights”.

Mr Stoltenberg, the head of the international alliance that has a significant presence in Afghanistan, said the body supports the agreement and is ready to drawdown forces in accordance with the terms.

"Peace is long and hard and we have to be prepared for setbacks and spoilers ... Nato supports this peace deal," said Mr Stoltenberg.

While he said the force was ready to reduce its numbers, it could increase their presence again if the situation deteriorated.

According to the agreement signed in Doha, American forces could leave Afghanistan within 14 months.

But Mr Esper made clear that all the points being signed were interlinked – they must all be implemented by the Taliban for the deal to go ahead.

“I would like to say it will full clarity: all the points in the agreement are conditional. They will only be implemented if the Taliban respects and implements the conditions. The withdrawal of forces depends on it,” he said during a ceremony in Kabul acknowledging the signing of the deal in Doha.

Mr Ghani also sought to ease concerns over the next phase for the country if international forces start to leave.

“We have security agreements with the US and Nato and they have been approved by the National Assembly of Afghanistan and these agreements remain intact,” he said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Doha to oversee the signing ceremony.

He said the agreement will mean nothing if concrete action is not taken on commitments and promises.

Mr Pompeo added that the Taliban have shown they have the will to be peaceful with the successful implementation of a reduction in violence agreement over the last week.

Shortly after the deal was signed, the United Nations said they were ready to support an Afghan-led peace process that includes women, minorities and the youth. One of the main concerns for many in Afghanistan is the future of hard-fought rights for these groups if the ultra-conservative Taliban are allowed back into government.

The UN also urged the continuation of the reduced violence agreement that came into force a week ago.

From Kabul, Mr Esper touched on the reduced violence agreement.

"Some incidents happened, but most lived a peaceful week," he said. "This will help in direct negotiations with the Taliban and all people of Afghanistan are looking forward to a permanent peace in Afghanistan."

What the US-Taliban deal includes:

There are currently around 12,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan and approximately 17,000 more from 39 Nato countries and its allies.

Under the declaration agreement, seen by The National, the US will reduce military forces to 8,600 and implement other commitments in the agreement within 135 days.

According to the document signed on Saturday, officially called the ‘Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’, Washington said it will work with partners, including Nato, to reduce their forces at the same time. The final pull-out will take place within 14 months.

Meanwhile, the Taliban and the Kabul government will begin talks on the future of the country and the US will facilitate discussions and aim for confidence-boosting measures such as prisoner releases by both sides.

“We are committed to start direct negotiations after the declaration in Doha has been signed. We have sent a contact team to Doha to discuss the details and the agenda for the direct negotiations between the government and the Taliban, but preparations are generally complete,” said Afghan State Ministry of Peace Senior Advisor Shoaib Rahim, adding that a 15 member negotiation team was created months ago after rounds of consultations. “They are prepared to start talks whenever decided.”

The US and the Afghan government will release up to 5,000 prisoners while the Taliban will release up to 1,000 prisoners by March 10.

The US aims to remove sanctions on Taliban members by August 2020, working with the United Nations Security Council.

The US and the Taliban seek positive relations with each other.

The US will request the UN Security Council recognise and endorse the agreement and related deals.

The deal says the US will remain committed to good relations and economic cooperation with the government in Kabul.

Officials and experts said Mr Esper's meeting in Kabul on Saturday was aimed at reassuring the Afghan government of the ongoing US commitment to the country ahead of the deal.

“No agreement is perfect, and the US-Taliban deal is no exception,” said the Crisis Group’s President Robert Malley. “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”.

Ashraf Ghani, a former professor and World Bank employee, was declared President this week after disputed results dragged out the final election outcome for months. He narrowly secured his win in the contested race by garnering 50.6 per cent of the disputed vote. He will serve five more years as President. After being excluded from last year’s failed US-Taliban peace negotiations, the Pashtun politician demanded to play a bigger role in this year’s talks. But at the behest of the Taliban he was not invited to participate in the discussions. The reasons for his exclusion are two-fold, first, the Taliban does not recognise the legitimacy of the Afghan government. Second, the Taliban’s priority in the negotiations is the removal of foreign forces from the country, which can only be promised by American negotiators. As a result, Mr Ghani remains sceptical of the deal’s success. Being one step removed from the process, and having few other options available to him, Mr Ghani finds himself in a position where he must acquiesce to the final deal without providing much input into the terms. Mr Ghani's position is shaky going into the proposed intra-Afghan negotiations as both the Taliban and Mr Ghani's opponent Abdullah Abdullah are refusing to accept his presidential win. Photo: EPA

Abdullah Abdullah, a former eye surgeon, serves as the country’s Chief Executive. He is the only person to ever hold the title, which brings with it prime ministerial duties. The newly created post was the result of the US mediating an awkward power-sharing deal after the 2014 elections. Dr Abdullah has unsuccessfully sought the presidency three times. After losing the election to Mr Ghani this week, Dr Abdullah decried that he would form his own government and boycott the election results. He went so far as to call the country’s independent election commissions “unlawful.” With the peace deal aiming to ending a tense political stand-off between the Afghan government and the Taliban, it seems frictions within the Afghan government could lead to a new stand-off, one between Mr Ghani and his opponents, putting at risk the intra-Afghan discussions that are baked into the trade agreement. Photo: AP

Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum was controversially chosen as Mr Ghani’s vice-president in the 2014 election. But after a falling out, Gen Dostum decided to put his support behind Mr Ghani’s opponent Dr Abdullah in the latest election. The Uzbek former warlord has been the target of several assassination attempts and faces a litany of human rights accusations against him, which include claims of torture and rape. The Afghan army general has fleed to Turkey when accusations mounted against him in the past. In 2017, Gen Dostum's political rival Ahmad Ishchi said he had been abducted, tortured and raped by Gen Dostum. Several people came forward to say they witnessed the abuse, prompting Gen Dostum to flee to Turkey. Gen Dostum could interfere in the pending intra-Afghan talks, as he's expressed discontent with the election results and threatened to form a “parallel government.” No stranger to extremity, his erratic behaviour threatens the stability of Afghanistan’s government during this crucial peace process. Photo: Getty Images

Amrullah Saleh was Mr Ghani’s running mate in the 2019 election, and is set to take on the role of vice-president. Mr Saleh is an ex-intelligence chief who has not shied away from doling out fierce criticisms against the president. The Tajik politician enjoys grass roots support among young people, which provided an advantage to Mr Ghani’s campaign. Mr Saleh was the target of an attack against his office within the Kabul headquarters of the Green Trend party during the summer of 2019. The attack killed 20 people and injured 50, resulting in a six-hour operation to rescue more than 150 civilians trapped in the aftermath of the blast. The attack came just hours after Mr Ghani and Mr Saleh launched their election campaign. Photo: REUTERS

Sarwar Danish, a Hazara politician, was chosen for the role of second vice-president during Mr Ghani’s 2014 campaign. He retained the position in the latest election. Mr Danish has been strongly critical of the peace negotiations, emphasising that peace cannot be achieved by sidelining the government from talks. He called the reduction in violence agreement a “vague proposal” intended to deceive citizens and the international community.  Photo: REUTERS

Hamid Karzai was the first elected President of Afghanistan and held the role for almost 10 years, reigning during much of the US war in Afghanistan. The Pashtun tribal leader was the first Afghan official to work alongside the Americans in attempting to forge a peace deal with the Taliban. In 2010, during his presidency, Mr Karzai made peace negotiations a priority. Unlike today’s negotiations, Mr Karzai attempted to negotiate directly with the Taliban, and invited a wide range of actors to the table, including the Americans, the Taliban, tribal leaders and other influential members of Afghan society. Photo: Reuters

As the leader of the Taliban, Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada agreed to bring the insurgent group to the negotiation table. He is acting in an advisory role throughout the discussions, serving as the steering force for chief negotiator Mr Baradar. But it falls upon Mawlawi Akhundzada to make the final decision when it comes to whether the Taliban will accept the final deal. Last week, he threatened to pull out of the negotiations if the Americans did not respond formally to the Taliban’s seven-day offer for a reduction of violence. AFP PHOTO / AFGHAN TALIBAN

Abdul Ghani Baradar runs the Taliban’s political office in Doha and has taken on the role of chief negotiator for the insurgent group during these negotiations. He’s credited with helping to establish the group’s strong position in the country, having served as the number two in command for the group’s founding leader Mohammed Omar. He was a key senior operative for the group, who once held a reputation for being even-keeled, before he fled to Pakistan when the Americans arrived in 2001. Mr Baradar was arrested in a 2010 raid and remained in a Pakistani prison for eight years. His release is believed to have been a part of a deal struck between the Americans and the Taliban. Photo: AFP

Abdul Salam Hanafi is one of the central negotiators at the table representing the Taliban. He serves as deputy head of the group’s political office in Doha. On Monday, he said the Americans and the Taliban were already drafting the final peace agreement. He added that representatives from all neighbours of Afghanistan, the United Nations Security Council, Islamic countries and European Union would be invited to the ceremony that would be held in Doha if the deal is finalised. Mr Hanafi previously served as the Taliban’s deputy minister of education and held leadership positions in the country’s northern territories. As a senior member of the group, he was added to the United Nations sanctions list in 2001, accused of being involved in drug trafficking. Photo: AP

Suhail Shaheen has served as a public figurehead for the insurgent group throughout the negotiations. He is a fluent English speaker known to give interviews to international media outlets. During the Taliban’s rule in the country, which lasted from 1996 to 2001, Mr Shaheen served as the editor of the English-language Kabul Times newspaper. He's also held senior roles within the Taliban, such as deputy ambassador at the Afghan embassy in Pakistan. Many of the statements regarding the Taliban’s position in the negotiations are delivered through Mr Shaheen. Photo: AFP

US President Donald Trump is serving as the “closer” in the negotiations. In 2019’s negotiations, he took on a similar role by inviting the Taliban to Camp David to close the deal. Amid strife between his top advisers and the death of an American soldier in Afghanistan, Mr Trump abruptly declared the peace talks "dead." Mr Trump has proven to be more patient and flexible during this round of negotiations. If the withdrawal is accomplished, the American negotiators would have fulfilled a Trump campaign promise to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, well-timed before the presidential election in November. Photo: EPA

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is the chief negotiator on the American side, colloquially referred to as “Zal,” he was the only Afghan working in the White House during the September 11 attacks. This is his second attempt to help US President Donald Trump finalise a peace deal with the Taliban. The Afghan-born diplomat, who serves as the main intermediary between the Americans and the Taliban, nearly finalised a peace agreement last year, before Trump abruptly cancelled the deal. While the heavy lifting of the negotiations is being led by Mr Khalilzad, the diplomat is working on behalf of the White House, the Pentagon and the US intelligence community, who must all agree to the final terms of the deal. Photo: AFP

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has served in many capacities throughout the negotiations, most notably acting as the US spokesman, delivering major updates about the US position to both the public and to Afghan officials. At the Munich Security Conference in February, Mr Pompeo held sideline meetings with key Afghan officials, including Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah to discuss the negotiation process that appeared close to finalisation. Photo: AFP

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper has operated throughout these discussions on behalf of the 3,500 American and Nato service members that have been killed since 2001. His position remains cautiously optimistic. He called the reduction in violence proposal “very promising,” but holds on to scepticism regarding the success of its implementation. “The best if not the only way forward in Afghanistan is through a political agreement and that means taking some risk,” he said. Photo: REUTERS

US Army General Austin Scott Miller took over the post of commander of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2018. During his tenure, Mr Miller ramped up air strikes in the country in the hopes of forcing the Taliban to the negotiation table. But it’s led to a further escalation as the Taliban responded with increasing violence in the country. Gen Miller has previously advocated for a smaller American presence in Afghanistan, stating that he does not require tens of thousands of US troops in the country to successfully fulfill the US combat and training operations. Photo: AFP

Qater is hosting the peace talks, with Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, playing a mediating role in the negotiations. Sheikh Al Thani has been a liaison between the Americans and the Taliban from the beginning of the negotiations, sitting in on several of the key discussions. When the Taliban’s chief negotiator Mr Baradar delivered an ultimatum to the Americans, demanding they accept the offered seven-day reduction in violence, rather than the American’s requested 10-days, it was Sheikh Al Thani that mediated the deadlock, according to pro-Taliban media. Photo: AFP

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Updated: February 29, 2020 10:39 PM

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