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US, Taliban sign deal to withdraw troops from Afghanistan

The United States and the Taliban signed a historic deal Saturday aimed at winding down America's longest war.

With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo watching over, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban's political chief, Abdul Ghani Baradar, signed a deal in Doha, Qatar, to begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

In exchange, the Taliban is assuring it will not allow Afghanistan to be used by terrorists to attack the United States.

Despite the milestone, a long road remains before peace in Afghanistan, including intra-Afghan talks where the entire deal still has the potential to collapse.

"This is how we will ensure that Afghanistan never again serves as a base for international terrorists," Pompeo said ahead of the deal signing.

"We're just at the beginning. Furthering the cause of peace will require serious work and sacrifice by all sides," he added. "This agreement will mean nothing and today's good feelings will not last if we don't take concrete actions on commitments and promises that have been made."

The United States and the Taliban have been at war in Afghanistan since after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks carried out by al Qaeda operatives harbored by the Taliban.

President Trump campaigned on ending America's so-called endless wars and had made reaching a deal with the Taliban a top foreign policy priority heading into his 2020 reelection campaign.

Saturday's agreement was signed after a seven day "reduction in violence" agreement that was deemed largely successful by U.S. officials. The partial truce was not a full ceasefire, something the intra-Afghan negotiations will now try to work out.

"It was not perfect, but the Taliban demonstrated, even if only for a week, that when they have the will to be peaceful, they can be," Pompeo said.

Under the deal signed Saturday, the United States will draw down from the 12,000 troops in Afghanistan now to 8,600 troops in 135 days. The remaining troops will continue to fight terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS.

The deal calls for a full withdrawal in 14 months if the Taliban lives up to its commitments.

The Taliban, in turn, "will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies," the agreement says.

The Taliban also committed to sending a "clear message that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan" and will instruct its members not to cooperate with groups or individuals that threaten the United States, according to the deal.

The agreement also ushers in the start of talks to reconcile the Taliban and the Afghanistan government. Talks are scheduled to start March 10.

The intra-Afghan talks will be launched with a prisoner release, according to Saturday's deal. The Taliban will have 5,000 prisoners released, while the Afghan government side will have 1,000. Remaining prisoners will be released in three months.

Skeptics of Trump's efforts have long warned the intra-Afghan stage would be the hardest, as the Taliban has been loath to sit down with a government it sees as a puppet of the United States.

Also now complicating the intra-Afghan talks is political turmoil from Afghanistan's September elections. President Ashraf Ghani was just declared victorious in his reelection this month, but his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, is still disputing the election results. Abdullah claimed victory himself and vowed to form his own government.

There are also concerns about whether incorporating the Taliban into the government would mean rolling back rights for women and minorities.

Other provisions of the deal signed Saturday call for the United States to review its sanctions against Taliban members, engage with the United Nations for the removal of U.N. Security Council sanctions against the Taliban and seek Security Council endorsement of the deal.

Trump on Saturday dispatched Defense Secretary Mark Esper to Afghanistan to issue a joint declaration with Ghani aimed at reassuring the Afghan government of the United States' commitment to the country.

The joint declaration affirms the United States and Afghan government are "committed to working together to reach a comprehensive and sustainable peace agreement that ends the war in Afghanistan for the benefit of all Afghans and contributes to regional stability and global security."

"We join here today with real hope for the future of Afghanistan," Esper said at a joint news conference. "The ongoing efforts to achieve a political settlement after many long years of fighting reflect a shared desire for a sovereign, unified Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors."

Esper warned that the United States would "not hesitate to nullify the agreement" if the Taliban does not honor its commitments.

Also in Afghanistan was NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. NATO allies have about 16,000 troops in Afghanistan.

NATO's North Atlantic Council said in a statement Saturday it would begin to "implement conditions-based adjustments, including a reduction to our military presence."

"Recent progress on peace has ushered in a reduction of violence and paved the way for intra-Afghan negotiations between a fully inclusive Afghan national team and the Taliban to reach a comprehensive peace agreement," the statement said. "We call on the Taliban to embrace this opportunity for peace."

U.S. lawmakers remain cautious about the deal. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who had been briefed on the plan, told reporters Thursday he believes the agreement is the "best of a series of bad options," but expressed concern about "going to zero [troops] too quickly."

Some Trump's close GOP allies have been more alarmed, warning the Taliban is not to be trusted. In a letter to Pompeo and Esper this week, 22 House Republicans led by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) expressed "serious concerns" about the deal and asked for "assurances that you will not place the security of the American people into the hands of the Taliban, and undermine our ally, the current government of Afghanistan."

[Source: By Rebecca Kheel, The Hill, Washington, 29Feb20]

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