After a week-long “reduction in violence,” the US and Taliban are poised to sign a historic agreement Saturday, which would set into motion the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan and potentially pave the way to ending America’s longest-fought war.President Donald Trump announced Friday that he had dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “witness the signing of an agreement with representatives of the Taliban” and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to “issue a joint declaration with the government of Afghanistan.””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,” Trump 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 deal will be inked in Doha, Qatar, which served as the base for on-and-off talks between US and Taliban negotiators for more than a year. Those negotiations have been led on the US side by Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. The two sides had reached “an agreement in principle” in early September 2019, Khalilzad said at the time. Shortly thereafter, Trump called off the talks and said he canceled a secret Camp David summit with the militant group after they took credit for a deadly attack in Kabul that killed a US service member.In a surprise visit to Afghanistan in November, Trump announced that the talks had restarted. The US President made the announcement shortly after the Taliban released an American and Australian professor in exchange for the release of three Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government. The State Department announced in early December that Khalilzad had rejoined talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital.
The signing of the agreement would see the realization of a campaign promise for Trump, who has sought to diminish US involvement in wars overseas. Under the plan, the American military presence would be reduced to 8,600 troops from the current 12,000 to 13,000 over the course of 135 days, according to two sources familiar with the agreement.Pompeo, speaking at the State Department Tuesday, noted that such a drawdown would be “conditions-based,” adding that it “sets a high bar for the things that will take place in order for America to ensure that we can accomplish both of those missions: a peace and reconciliation solution in Afghanistan and ensuring that the homeland continues to be as risk free as we can possibly make it.”A senior Afghan politician told CNN Friday that Afghan government is wary about the upcoming deal, which is meant to trigger intra-Afghan dialogue between Afghan stakeholders and the Taliban. “These negotiations, if they take place, will be the first time that Afghans representing all sides of the conflict will sit down together and begin the hard work of reconciliation,” Pompeo said Tuesday.Developing the team to send to the talks has been deeply challenging but the tentative plan is for each side — the Afghans and the Taliban — to have 15 representatives, sources told earlier this week.
Members of Congress and regional experts have raised concerns about the deal, which has yet to be made public. On Wednesday, Rep. Liz Cheney led a group of 21 other Republican lawmakers in expressing “serious concerns” about the anticipated agreement.In a letter to Pompeo and Esper, they wrote that they are “are seeking 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.”There were a record high number of attacks carried out in Afghanistan last year by the Taliban and other anti-government groups. The violence in Afghanistan has continued this year, with the Taliban killing two US service members earlier this month.There are also concerns that a deal with the Taliban could put at risk the gains made by Afghan civil society and women. Repeatedly pressed about a commitment to women’s rights, Pompeo on Tuesday did not specifically answer.”Our mission set there has been much broader than that,” Pompeo said.”Our mission set there is to deliver good security outcomes for the Afghan people, to let their political process work its way through,” he said. “I’m very confident that the very concerns that you raised will be addressed as part of these conversations.”