US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a cofounder of the Taliban, sign an agreement Saturday in Doha, Qatar, aimed at a US withdrawal from Afghanistan and final peace talks there. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images)

US, Taliban Sign Deal to Start Afghan Peace Talks, Draw-down of Foreign Forces

Former hostage attends Doha ceremony, Taliban official tells The Media Line agreement to include prisoner swaps

[Islamabad] US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Abdul Ghani Baradar, a top political figure for the Taliban, have signed a deal aimed at initiating intra-Afghanistan peace talks and a withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.

They signed the deal on Saturday in Doha, capital of Qatar, where negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, initially kept secret, took place intermittently for about a year and a half.

The ceremony, held at the Grand Sheraton Doha Hotel, followed a week-long conditional test-period involving a call for a “reduction in violence.” US officials said there were scattered incidents of violence throughout the week, although overall, the reduction had been realized.

The Taliban sent a 31-member delegation to Qatar. Also present for the US was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had flown into Doha in the morning.

If the deal moves forward as planned, peace talks aimed at a final agreement will begin between the Taliban and the Afghan government. US forces will also leave the country in just over a year, and the Taliban will cease giving assistance to other Islamist groups, such as al-Qaida.

The US began a more-than 18-year engagement in Afghanistan after al-Qaida staged the 9/11 attacks, which killed some 3,000 people in New York City, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the only one of four US airliners hijacked that day failed to crash into a building.

Timothy Weeks, an Australian professor held by the Taliban for more than three years, was in Doha for the signing ceremony.

Last November, the Taliban released Weeks together with Prof. Kevin King, a US citizen, in a prisoner swap involving the Afghan government and three prominent Taliban leaders it had imprisoned. Both hostages were teaching English at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, the city in which they were kidnapped in 2016 by the Haqqani network, a guerrilla group affiliated with the Taliban.

The Taliban leaders freed in the swap were Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Abdul Rashid Umari. Haqqani is a younger brother of Taliban deputy chief Siraj Uddin Haqqani; he personally received Weeks at the Doha airport.

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s Doha-based spokesperson, told The Media Line: “To build confidence and promote mutual trust in the future, it was decided between the US and the Taliban that after signing the deal and before starting the intra-Afghan dialogue, the Kabul administration will release [more than] 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while, in return, the Taliban will release 1,000.”

Shaheen rejected reports that the Taliban political team had met with Afghan government ministers before the Doha ceremony.

“We did not invite Afghan ministers to come to Doha, nor are we interested in talking with them,” he said.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, told The Media Line that the US-Taliban deal is a “welcome development” although, in and of itself, is not a peace accord. Instead, it will “simply open up the path to pursue” such a deal.

“Stability in Afghanistan and the region will be riding on the outcome of an Afghan peace process, and once it starts, it will be a long time before the sides get to an endgame,” he explained.

“One big question about the US-Taliban deal is how soon will US troops start withdrawing from Afghanistan after the agreement is signed,” Kugelman continued.

“There could be problematic implications for stability if US forces begin leaving Afghanistan before the Taliban have committed to stop fighting and start talking with the Afghan government,” he noted.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was involved in negotiating the exchange that saw the freeing of Weeks and the others. During his July 2019 visit to the US, he repeatedly said the Taliban might soon release two Western hostages as negotiations on a peace deal for Afghanistan made progress, with his country’s help.

US President Donald Trump at the time thanked Pakistan for helping to facilitate the talks, and Qatar invited a representative of Islamabad to the signing ceremony on Saturday.

After a long delay caused by disputes over vote-counting, it was announced on February 18 that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani won re-election in September’s national vote, yet he has postponed his swearing-in as per US advice. According to sources at the presidential palace in Kabul, there were “concerns that the controversy over his re-election might hamper the signing of the deal with the Taliban” in Doha.

Kamal Zadran, a Kabul-based security expert, told The Media Line that “the successful implementation” of the week-long semi-truce proves that the Afghan Taliban want to end the conflict.

“During the ‘reduction in violence,’ senior US and Afghan officials who had been kept behind bomb-proof buildings in Kabul’s Red Zone area were freely moving through the streets of the capital and taking selfies with ordinary Afghans, and it sent a good message to the entire world,” Zadran said.

“Although it was only a temporary cessation in violence,” he added, “the survivors of suicide blasts, bombings [and people] suffering from various psychological disorders… are hopeful for long-lasting peace and stability in the war-devastated country.”

On Thursday, Pakistani Prime Minister Khan made a one-day visit to Doha during which he met with Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. Khan reiterated Islamabad’s continued support for an Afghan-led peace process, Radio Pakistan reported.

Khan also told the emir he appreciated Qatar’s role leading to Saturday’s signing ceremony.

“The two leaders expressed hope that all Afghan stakeholders will seize this historic opportunity to reach an inclusive political settlement for the establishment of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan,” Radio Pakistan said.

Asif Haroon, a retired Pakistani brigadier general and Islamabad-based defense analyst, told The Media Line that the US had “grudgingly agreed” to sign the agreement in Doha.

“Initially, the peace talks were aimed at compelling the Taliban to sign the agreement on US terms,” he said. “The Taliban, however, refused to accept one-sided terms and conditions, and at the same time intensified their attacks, which impelled the US to conclude that it could neither defeat nor contain them, nor exit [Afghanistan] safely.”

Pointing to the recent visit by President Trump to India, Haroon claims that the Trump Administration, “after the shameless failure in Afghanistan,” now “wants to establish a huge counter-terrorism center in India,” something Islamabad will not take well to.

“Pakistan’s reaction will largely harm US interests in the region” if such a plan comes to fruition, he said.

“China, Russia and Iran will be the beneficiaries. On the other side, the powerful Taliban in Afghanistan will never abandon their strategic partner [Pakistan],” he stated.

Haroon urged US policy-makers to stop President Trump and his advisers from taking such a move and continue to look toward Islamabad as a strategic partner.

“Pakistan… has all along played a positive role and was instrumental in convincing the Taliban to hold talks and reach a political settlement to restore peace,” he explained.

“Russia and China stayed out of the war and consolidated their respective military powers, economies and statures in the global dynamic,” Haroon said. “They are watching with amusement the endgame of the sole superpower’s declining power from the sidelines, with a twinkle in their eyes.”

Lawrence Rifkin continued to this report.

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