US, Taliban sign landmark peace deal set to end 18 years of conflict in Afghanistan

The historic Statessigneda peace deal with Taliban militants on Saturday aimed to end 18 years of bloodshed in Afghanistan and allow US troops to return home after the longest US war.

Under the agreement, the United States would reduce its forces to 8,600, down from 13,000 in the next 3 to 4 months, with the remaining US forces withdrawing in 14 months.

Full withdrawal, however, would depend on the Taliban’s compliance with its commitments to prevent terrorism. The signing could help President Donald Trump keep a key campaign promise to extract America from its “endless wars.”

President George W. Bush ordered the United States to invade Afghanistan in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Some of the American troops currently in service there were not yet born when the World Trade Center s collapsed on a clear, sunny morning that changed the way Americans see the world.

It only took a few months to overthrow the Taliban and send Osama bin Laden and key al-Qaida militants to rush across the border to Pakistan, but the war lasted for years as the United States attempted to establish a stable and functioning state in one of the least developed countries in the world. The Taliban have regrouped and currently dominate half the country.

The United States has spent more than $ 750 billion and on all sides the war has cost tens of thousands of lives lost, permanently marked and indelibly interrupted. But the conflict has also been frequently overlooked by American politicians and the American public.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the ceremony in Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office, but did not sign the agreement. Instead, it was signed by the US peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The Taliban hosted Bin Laden and his al-Qaida network while they plotted and then celebrated the hijackings of four airliners that crashed in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania , killing nearly 3,000 people.

Pompeo said privately at a conference of U.S. ambassadors to the State Department this week that he was only going there because President Donald Trump insisted on attending, according to two attendees.

An “endless war”

Dozens of Taliban members organized a small victory march in Qatar during which they held up the white flags of the militant group, according to a video shared on the Taliban websites. “Today is the day of victory, which came with the help of Allah,” said Abbas Stanikzai, one of the Taliban’s chief negotiators, who joined the march.

Trump has repeatedly promised to take the United States out of its “endless wars” in the Middle East, and the withdrawal of troops could provide a boost as he seeks re-election to a country tired of being involved in distant conflicts.

US troops are slated to drop to 8,600 from around 13,000 in the weeks following Saturday’s signing. New levies will have to depend on the Taliban’s compliance with certain counter-terrorism conditions, which compliance will be assessed by the United States.

Trump has approached the Taliban deal with caution, avoiding the rumbling surrounding other major foreign policy actions, such as his talks with North Korea.

Last September, on short notice, he canceled what was to be a signing ceremony with the Taliban at Camp David after a series of new attacks by the Taliban. But he has since supported the talks led by his special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Taliban promise not to let extremists use the country as a gathering ground to attack the United States or its allies. But American officials are reluctant to trust the Taliban to fulfill their obligations.

The future of Afghanistan in the balance

The future of Afghanistan is uncertain. The agreement paves the way for peace talks involving Afghan factions, which are likely to be complicated. Under the agreement, 5,000 Taliban are to be released from Afghan-run prisons, but it is unclear whether the Afghan government will do this. One also wonders whether the Taliban fighters loyal to various warlords will be ready to disarm.

It is unclear what will happen to the progress made in women’s rights since the overthrow of the Taliban, which had suppressed women and girls under a strict brand of sharia law. Women’s rights in Afghanistan were a major concern of the Bush administration and Obama, but there remains a deeply conservative country, with women still fighting for fundamental rights.

There are currently more than 16,500 soldiers under the NATO banner, including 8,000 American. Germany has the next contingent with 1,300 soldiers, followed by Great Britain with 1,100 men.

A total of 38 NATO countries are providing forces to Afghanistan. The alliance officially concluded its combat mission in 2014 and now provides training and support to the Afghan forces.

The United States has a separate contingent of 5,000 soldiers deployed to carry out counter-terrorism missions and to provide air and ground support to Afghan forces upon request.

Since negotiations with the Taliban began, the United States has intensified air strikes against the Taliban and a local Islamic State branch. Last year, the U.S. Air Force dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than any year since 2013.

Seven days ago, the Taliban began a seven-day “reduction of violence” period, a precondition for signing the peace agreement.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)