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Afghanistan’s future in the balance as US, Taliban sign deal

Members of the Taliban delegation gather ahead of the signing ceremony with the United States in the Qatari capital Doha /AFP

Washington and the Taliban are set to sign a landmark deal in Doha on Saturday that would see them agree to the withdrawal of thousands of US troops from Afghanistan in return for insurgent guarantees.



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President Donald Trump urged the Afghan people to embrace the chance for a new future, saying the deal held out the possibility of ending the 18-year conflict.

“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 on the eve of the event.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Doha to witness the signing of the accord, while Trump said Defence Secretary Mark Esper would separately issue a joint declaration with the Kabul government.

The agreement is expected to lead to a dialogue between the Kabul government and the Taliban that, if successful, could ultimately see the Afghan war wind down.

AFP/File / WAKIL KOHSARWashington and the Taliban plan to sign a landmark deal on the withdrawal of US forces which could herald the start of a new era for Afghanistan after decades of conflict

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 deal, drafted over a tempestuous year of dialogue marked by the abrupt cancellation of the effort by Trump in September, is expected to lay out a timetable for a US force withdrawal.

It 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.

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.

– ‘Happy and celebrating’ –

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.

AFP / Noorullah SHIRZADAAfghan youths release balloons and pigeons as they celebrate the reduction in violence so far

As many as 30 nations are expected to be represented at Saturday’s signing in the Qatari capital. The US will stage a separate ceremony in Kabul with the Afghan government at 1215 GMT, an Afghan source told AFP.

While Kabul will not be represented at the Doha signing, set for 1245 GMT, it will send a six-person taskforce to the Qatari capital to make initial contact with the Taliban political office, established in 2013.

Qatar, a peninsula nation protruding from the Arabian desert into the Gulf and better known for its gas riches and controversial 2022 World Cup bid victory, was a seemingly unlikely choice to host negotiations.

But by providing neutral space for talks on ending the conflict, it has boosted its international profile and helped it defy a painful regional embargo led by Saudi Arabia, which accuses it of being too close to Islamist movements.

– Blood and treasure –

AFP/File / JAVED TANVEERUS soldiers and their wrecked vehicle after a Taliban suicide attack in Kandahar in August 2017

The US, which currently has between 12,000 and 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, could draw that number down to 8,600 within months of the agreement being signed.

Further reductions would depend on the Taliban’s engagement with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, who they have until now dismissed as a US puppet.

“This is just a precursor to get that process started, it’s not a cause for celebration among the government or its allies,” said International Crisis Group analyst Andrew Watkins.

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 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.


Feb 29, 2020

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