Feb 29, 2020 - World

U.S. reaches "huge milestone moment" in Afghanistan peace process

 US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (R) sign a peace agreement between U.S., Taliban, in Doha, Qatar on Feb. 29. Photo: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

The U.S. has signed a deal with the Taliban aimed at ending its war in Afghanistan after 18 years, starting with the withdrawal of around 4,000 troops "within months."

Why it matters: America has wanted out of Afghanistan for at least a decade. The deal signed in Doha should finally accomplish that — but peace for Afghanistan remains far from secure.

What to watch: As the U.S. begins to pull troops out, the Taliban has agreed to prevent terror groups from filling the void and to enter negotiations with the Afghan government.

  • The first hurdle for those sides to clear is a prisoner swap, involving some 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan troops.
  • They must also agree on Afghanistan's political future. 
  • It's unclear whether the current "reduction in violence" will hold throughout those negotiations.
  • It's also uncertain what will happen to the protections the U.S. has helped guarantee for minorities and women, including access to education, after American troops are gone.

What they're saying:

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was on hand in Doha, said "the future of Afghanistan is for Afghans to determine," adding that the agreement "creates the conditions" for peace but would be worthless absent "concrete action on commitments stated."
  • Sher Mohammad Abas Stanekzai, the Taliban's deputy negotiator, called today a "day of victory." The group's multimedia chief celebrated "the defeat of the arrogance of the White House in the face of the white turban," per the NYT.
  • President Trump said he expected U.S. troops to start leaving Afghanistan on Saturday. "I'll be meeting personally with Taliban leaders in the not too distant future, and we'll be very much hoping that they will be doing what they say they're going to be doing," Trump said in a White House briefing on Saturday. "They will be killing terrorists, they will be killing some very bad people. ... We've had tremendous success in Afghanistan in the killing of terrorists ... but now it's time for somebody else to do that work, and that will be the Taliban, or it could be surrounding countries."
  • The other side: "Signing this agreement with Taliban is an unacceptable risk to America's civilian population," former national security adviser John Bolton tweeted Saturday. "This is an Obama-style deal. Legitimizing Taliban sends the wrong signal to ISIS and al Qaeda terrorists, and to America's enemies generally."

How it happened: Negotiations began in September 2018, led by veteran U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad.

  • The Afghan government bristled at their exclusion, but the Taliban would negotiate first only with the U.S.
  • A deal was almost reached last fall, complete with a ceremony at Camp David, but collapsed after the Taliban killed a U.S. soldier.
  • The current deal sets a timeline for U.S. withdrawal, first to 8,600 troops and then to zero within 14 months. That timeline might not hold up depending on events on the ground.

The big picture: Since the American invasion in the wake of 9/11, 3,500 U.S. and allied troops have been killed, tens of thousands of Afghans have lost their lives, and the U.S. has spent $2 trillion.

  • Polls suggest most Americans tend to consider the war a failure.
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