DOHA, Qatar — The United States and the Taliban have signed a peace agreement aimed at ending the 18-year war in Afghanistan, America’s longest.
The signing could help President Donald Trump fulfill a key campaign promise to extract America from its “endless wars.” Under the agreement, the U.S. will begin withdrawing thousands of troops in exchange for Taliban commitments to prevent Afghanistan from being a launchpad for terrorist attacks.
If the Taliban meet their commitments, all U.S. troops would leave in 14 months.
There are about 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with that number set to drawdown to about 8,600 in the coming weeks. Further drawdowns are to depend on the Taliban meeting certain counter-terrorism conditions, compliance that will be assessed by the United States.
During a press conference to address the issue of coronavirus, Trump said troops would start coming home from Afghanistan “today.” Officials from the Pentagon, U.S. Central Command and Resolute Support headquarters could not immediately be reached for a response.
Speaking to troops in Kabul, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said meeting the ultimate drawdown goal depends on what the Taliban do.
“Fully reducing our presence in Afghanistan down to zero — our ultimate goal — will take many months,” he said. “Even as we drawdown our forces, our train, advise, and assist efforts will continue, and we will not hesitate to strike terrorist threats throughout the country as they emerge.”
Esper added that the U.S. will retain the option to act, if necessary.
“Central to our agreement with the Taliban are measures to prevent the use of Afghan soil by terrorist groups or other individuals who seek to harm the United States or our allies. Should that ever become compromised, we will take all necessary measures to protect our homelands and our people.”
All told, there have been more than 2,400 U.S. troop deaths and nearly 21,000 troops wounded in action since hostilities began.
“America and its allies have made tremendous sacrifices in pursuit of these goals, as have the people of Afghanistan,” Esper said earlier at the joint signing ceremony, according to a transcript provided by the Pentagon. “We honor our brave service members who have served here, especially those who have been casualties in this war. And we remember the innocent civilians lost in this struggle. The ongoing efforts to achieve a political settlement after many long years of fighting, reflect a shared desire for a sovereign, unified Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors.”
Esper met with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani ahead of the U.S.-Afghanistan joint declaration ceremony to discuss progress in the peace process following the successful implementation of the reduction in violence.
Esper reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Afghan partners as the conditions-based U.S.-Taliban agreement is implemented, and as Afghans move forward to work towards a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire during intra-Afghan negotiations, according to a read-out provided by the Pentagon. Esper also reaffirmed U.S. commitment to the longstanding security relationship with the government of Afghanistan into the future.
“Both Secretary Esper and President Ghani agreed that this marks the beginning of the process to achieve a lasting peace for the Afghan people, and security and stability in Afghanistan,” according to the read-out.
Thanking President Donald Trump’s leadership, Esper said “we are finally making substantial progress toward ending our nation’s longest war. Today’s release of the Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States marks a pivotal moment in the peace process. Our declaration acknowledges the deep bond shared by Afghan and U.S. forces, and reflects our commitment to working together to achieve a sustainable negotiated agreement that ends the war, for the benefit of all Afghans. Central to this agreement are measures to prevent the use of Afghan soil by terrorist groups or other individuals who seek to harm the United States or our allies.”
Esper said that in the week leading up to the signing, “we have observed a significant reduction in violence, which has created the necessary conditions for the United States to approve an agreement with the Taliban.
“We call on the Taliban to abide by their commitments as outlined in the agreement with the United States, to include maintaining the ongoing reduction in violence across the country,” said Esper. “As intra-Afghan negotiations progress, the United States will watch the Taliban’s actions closely to judge whether their efforts towards peace are in good faith. If the Taliban uphold the agreement, the United States will begin a conditions-based reduction in forces.”
The defense secretary said the U.S. “will work with other members of the coalition to carry out a proportional reduction in troop levels. However, should the Taliban fail to honor their commitments, they will forfeit their chance to sit with fellow Afghans and deliberate on the future of their country. Moreover, the United States would not hesitate to nullify the agreement.”
Meanwhile, he added, the U.S. and international partners remain committed to our longstanding security relationship with the government of Afghanistan.
“For several years now, the Afghan Security Forces have been in the lead for providing security, and their effectiveness continues to grow. We will continue to provide them support as necessary to assist in their defense against internal and external threats to the sovereignty of Afghanistan.”
Attack on America
President George W. Bush ordered the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some U.S. troops currently serving there had not yet been born when the World Trade Center collapsed on that crisp, sunny morning that changed how Americans see the world.
It only took a few months to topple the Taliban and send Osama bin Laden and top al-Qaida militants scrambling across the border into Pakistan, but the war dragged on for years as the United States tried establish a stable, functioning state in one of the least developed countries in the world. The Taliban regrouped, and currently hold sway over half the country.
The U.S. spent more than $750 billion, and on all sides the war cost tens of thousands of lives lost, permanently scarred and indelibly interrupted. But the conflict was also frequently ignored by U.S. politicians and the American public.
U.S. 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 U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
The Taliban harbored bin Laden and his al-Qaida network as they plotted, and then celebrated, the hijackings of four airliners that were crashed into lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania, killing almost 3,000 people.
Addressing reporters after the signing ceremony, Pompeo said the U.S. is “realistic” about the peace deal it signed, but is “seizing the best opportunity for peace in a generation.”
He said he was still angry about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and that the U.S. will not ”squander" what its soldiers “have won through blood, sweat and tears.” He said the U.S. will do whatever is necessary for its security if the Taliban do not comply with the agreement.
Pompeo had privately told a conference of U.S. ambassadors at the State Department this week that he was going only because President Donald Trump had insisted on his participation, according to two people present.
Dozens of Taliban members held a small victory march in Qatar in which they waved the militant group’s white flags, according to a video shared on Taliban websites. “Today is the day of victory, which has come with the help of Allah,” said Abbas Stanikzai, one of the Taliban’s lead negotiators, who joined the march.
Trump has repeatedly promised to get the U.S. out of its “endless wars” in the Middle East, and the withdrawal of troops could provide a boost as he seeks re-election in a nation weary of involvement in distant conflicts.
Trump has approached the Taliban agreement cautiously, steering clear of the crowing surrounding other major foreign policy actions, such as his talks with North Korea.
Last September, on short notice, he called off what was to be a signing ceremony with the Taliban at Camp David after a series of new Taliban attacks. But he has since been supportive of the talks led by his special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Under the agreement, the Taliban promise not to let extremists use the country as a staging ground for attacking the U.S. or its allies. But U.S. officials are loath to trust the Taliban to fulfill their obligations.
The prospects for Afghanistan’s future are uncertain. The agreement sets the stage 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 jails, but it’s not known if the Afghan government will do that. There are also questions about whether militias loyal to various warlords will be willing to disarm.
It's not clear what will become of gains made in women's rights since the toppling of the Taliban, which had repressed women and girls under a strict brand of Sharia law. Women's rights in Afghanistan had been a top concern of both the Bush and Obama administration, but it remains a deeply conservative country, with women still struggling for basic rights.
There are currently more than 16,500 soldiers serving under the NATO banner, of which 8,000 are American. Germany has the next largest contingent, with 1,300 troops, followed by Britain with 1,100.
In all, 38 NATO countries are contributing forces to Afghanistan. The alliance officially concluded its combat mission in 2014 and now provides training and support to Afghan forces.
The U.S. has a separate contingent of 5,000 troops deployed to carry out counter-terrorism missions and provide air and ground support to Afghan forces when requested.
Since the start of negotiations with the Taliban, the U.S. has stepped up its air assaults on the Taliban as well as a local Islamic State affiliate. Last year the U.S. air force dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than in any year since 2013.
Seven days ago, the Taliban began a seven-day “reduction of violence" period, a prerequisite to the peace deal signing.
“We have seen a significant reduction in violence in Afghanistan over the last days, and therefore we are also very close to the signing of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday in Brussels.
“The road to peace will be long and hard and there will be setbacks, and there is a risk always for spoilers," Stoltenberg said. “But the thing is, we are committed, the Afghan people are committed to peace, and we will continue to provide support.”
Gannon reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.