US says preparing to sign peace deal with Taliban on February 29
Peace takes roots as partial truce in Afghanistan starts tomorrow: Pompeo says intra-Afghan talks to begin shortly after agreement signing
February 21, 2020 04:26 PM
The United States is preparing to sign a deal with the Taliban on February 29, building on an agreement on reducing violence across Afghanistan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday.
"Upon a successful implementation of this understanding, signing of the US-Taliban agreement is expected to move forward," he said in a statement released after visiting Saudi Arabia.
A week-long "reduction in violence" between the Taliban, the US and Afghan security forces will commence shortly, Afghanistan's National Security Council spokesman said.
Pompeo said that intra-Afghan negotiations would begin shortly after the February 29 signing, expected to take place in the Qatari capital Doha. They will "build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire and the future political roadmap for Afghanistan," he said.
The US top diplomat said that challenges remain, but that progress made so far "provides hope and represents a real opportunity. The United States calls on all Afghans to seize this moment".
The week-long "reduction in violence" between the Taliban, the US, and Afghan security forces will commence shortly, an official said Friday, ahead of the possible signing of a deal between Washington and the insurgents.
If the partial truce goes ahead, it would mark a historic step in more than 18 years of gruelling conflict in Afghanistan and would pave the way for a deal that could, ultimately, see the war end.
"The reduction in violence will start from 22 February and will last for one week," Javed Faisal, Afghanistan's National Security Council spokesman, told AFP.
US Forces-Afghanistan declined to comment. One Taliban source in Pakistan confirmed to AFP the partial truce would commence Saturday.
The United States has been in talks with the Taliban for more than a year to secure a deal in which it would pull out thousands of troops in return for Taliban security guarantees and commitments.
A reduction in violence would show the Taliban can control their forces and demonstrate good faith ahead of any signing, which would see the Pentagon withdraw about half of the 12,000-13,000 troops currently in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials have said the US-Taliban deal could be finalised February 29 in Doha, assuming the reduction in violence proceeds to plan.
The Taliban source in Pakistan said: "both sides have agreed to sign the agreement on February 29", adding that talks between the Taliban and the government, needed to cement a broader peace deal, are slated to start March 10.
- 'It's happening' -
A second Taliban official in Pakistan told AFP the reduction in violence might not start until Sunday.
Whether it is "Saturday or Sunday does not matter. The Taliban leadership council has basically given a green light to start the reduction in violence and sign the deal," the official said, adding, "it's happening".
In Afghanistan's southern province of Kandahar, which is seen as the Taliban's heartland, one insurgent told AFP he had received orders to stand down.
"We have got the orders from our leadership that reduction in violence period will start from Saturday, and we have been ordered to be ready for it," the source said.
However, another Taliban commander Hafiz Saeed Hedayat, who was also based in Kandahar, said he had only been ordered to refrain from attacking major cities and highways. "This means maybe the violence will continue in the districts," said Hedayat.
However Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai said the move signalled a wider change in thinking for both the Taliban and the US after years of fighting. "Both sides have shown their commitment to sign the peace deal, and it's a big development - a significant one."
The US and the Taliban have been tantalisingly close to a deal before, only to see President Donald Trump nix it in September at the 11th hour amid continued insurgent violence.
Any truce comes fraught with danger, and analysts warn the attempt to stem Afghanistan's bloodshed is laced with complications and could fail at any time. Or, worse still, they say warring parties could exploit a lull to reconfigure their forces and secure a battlefield advantage.
On Thursday, the deputy leader of the Taliban said the insurgents are "fully committed" to a deal with Washington. "That we stuck with such turbulent talks with the enemy we have fought bitterly for two decades, even as death rained from the sky, testifies to our commitment to ending the hostilities and bringing peace to our country," Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times.
Haqqani is also head of the Haqqani network, a US-designated terror group that is one of the most dangerous factions fighting Afghan and US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Nato, Russia welcome
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Friday welcomed a historic US-Taliban agreement, saying it had opened a possible route to sustainable peace in Afghanistan. "I welcome today's announcement that an understanding has been reached on a significant reduction in violence across Afghanistan," Stoltenberg said in a statement.
"This is a critical test of the Taliban’s willingness and ability to reduce violence, and contribute to peace in good faith.
"This could pave the way for negotiations among Afghans, sustainable peace, and ensuring the country is never again a safe haven for terrorists," he added.
NATO has a 16,000-strong mission in Afghanistan to train, support and advise local forces.
Russia also hailed the historic agreement between the United States and the Taliban as an "important event" for peace in Afghanistan.
Moscow's Afghanistan envoy, Zamir Kabulov, told state news agency RIA Novosti he would take part in the signing ceremony on February 29 if invited. "It will be an important event for the peace process in Afghanistan," he added.
Kabulov said Moscow hoped that nothing would stand in the way of the accord, urging all sides in Afghanistan to begin dialogue after the conclusion of the deal. "The real work will start afterwards," he was quoted as saying.
"This phase is important to us. That's why the signing of the agreement between the United States and Taliban is necessary and important."