- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 29, 2020

The U.S. on Saturday signed a landmark peace agreement with its foe of nearly two decades, the Taliban, as the Trump administration officially embarked down a path that could see all American troops exit Afghanistan within 14 months and represent the beginning of the end for the longest war in U.S. history.

U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar signed the agreement in Doha, Qatar. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also present at the meeting but did not personally sign the deal.

The agreement facilitates the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan in exchange for the Taliban agreeing to formal talks with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul — which until now it has refused to recognize as legitimate — and ironclad commitments from Taliban leaders that the country never again be used as a base of operations by al Qaeda or any other terrorist group.

The signing of the pact represents a historic moment for the U.S. and, if the agreement holds, would mark the fulfillment of a major foreign policy promise from President Trump, who has vowed to end “endless wars” in the Middle East and bring American troops home. U.S. forces have been stationed in Afghanistan since October 2001, when then-President George W. Bush ordered an invasion to topple the Taliban and crush al Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The number of troops in the country has fluctuated over the past 18 years, but the constant presence of an American force in Afghanistan has made it the longest military engagement in the country’s history. The U.S. currently has about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Under the terms of the deal, that number would be cut to about 8,600 within the next four months. If the Taliban holds up its end of the deal, all U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan within the next 14 months.

There were already signs Saturday that the Afghan government is prepared to make real overtures to the Taliban.

A high-level diplomatic source from the region told The Washington Times that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would fly with an Afghan government delegation to Doha during the weekend as a show of good faith for an initial meeting with Taliban representatives.

Mr. Ghani’s so-called “primary contact group” was expected to only talk about the agenda of negotiations to be held subsequently in the coming weeks in Norway.

While Mr. Pompeo was in Doha, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper appeared in Kabul with Mr. Ghani and NATO leaders. He signaled that the deal, while a major turning point, remains fragile.

“This is a hopeful moment, but it is only the beginning,” Mr. Esper said Saturday, according to a Pentagon transcript of his remarks. “The road ahead will not be easy. Achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan will require patient and compromise among all parties. But for the first time in many years, Afghanistan has a real path toward the future this country deserves. We look forward to the coming weeks and months with great optimism as we advance these important efforts to finally achieve peace.”

On Friday, just hours before the deal was signed, Mr. Trump said the diplomatic work done by the administration over the past 18 months is finally bringing about lasting peace.

“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,” the president said in a statement. “These commitments represent an important step to a lasting peace in a new Afghanistan, free from Al Qaeda, ISIS, and any other terrorist group that would seek to bring us harm.”

The U.S. and Taliban earlier this month agreed to a “reduction in violence” as a prerequisite to a more sweeping deal. The broader agreement remains contingent on the Taliban halting attacks across the country and proving it can keep its various splinter groups in check.

Previous efforts at peace have failed due to Taliban attacks. Last September, for example, the president at the last minute canceled a Camp David summit with Taliban leaders after an attack killed U.S. personnel stationed in Afghanistan.

U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan will be contingent upon regular verifications that the Taliban is adhering to its side of the deal to help purge Afghanistan of terrorist groups, a senior U.S. official told reporters.

Another key part of the deal centers on talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The agreement calls for talks between the two sides — as well as with a range of representatives from other sectors of wider Afghan society, including women’s and youth groups — to commence by March 10 in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.

Moving forward, officials privately acknowledge the agreement could fall apart.

“The goal is to get everybody focused on getting into these negotiations. The peace deal will come out of Afghan negotiations,” one senior State Department official said this week.

But another U.S. official was blunt about what could occur if the Taliban sullies the intra-Afghan talks.

Mr. Trump revealed he plans to meet with Taliban leaders in the “not too distant future.”

Speaking at the White House, he congratulated “all those incredible people who’ve worked for so long on our endless war in Afghanistan.”

“There hasn’t been a moment like this, we’ve had very successful negotiations. We think they’ll be successful in the end,” Mr. Trump said.

“The other side is tired of war,” he added.

Mr. Trump said the U.S. will return to Afghanistan if the Taliban doesn’t live up to its commitments.

He also recognized soldiers who’ve been killed or wounded in the conflict, saying he’s met injured servicemen and women who wanted to go back to the theater despite their experience.

“We want to bring our people back home,” Mr. Trump said.

“This could all blow up. We know this, right?” the official said, adding that the reaction from the Trump administration will be harsh if the Taliban does not adhere to the commitments it has already made in talks with American officials.

“We’ll just start killing them again if that’s what happens,” the official said.

Tom Howell contributed to this report.

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