DOHA/KABUL • The United States signed a historic deal with Taleban insurgents yesterday that could pave the way for a full withdrawal of foreign soldiers from Afghanistan over the next 14 months and represent a step towards ending the 18-year-old war there.
While the deal paves the way for the US to gradually pull out of its longest war, many expect that talks between the multiple Afghan sides will be far more complicated.
The deal was signed in the Qatari capital Doha by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taleban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo witnessed the ceremony.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper travelled to Kabul on a visit seen by officials as aimed at reassuring the Afghan government about the US commitment to the country.
"Today is a monumental day for Afghanistan," the US embassy in Kabul said on Twitter. "It is about making peace and crafting a common brighter future. We stand with Afghanistan."
For President Donald Trump, the deal represents a chance to make good on his promise to bring US troops home. He said it will pave the way for US troop numbers to drop to 8,600 from over 12,000.
But security experts have called the deal a foreign policy gamble that would give the Taleban international legitimacy.
Hours before the deal, the Taleban ordered all its fighters in Afghanistan "to refrain from any kind of attack".
"The biggest thing is that we hope the US remain committed to their promises during the negotiation and peace deal," said Mr Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the hardline Islamist group. He said it was "irritating and provocative" that foreign military aircraft continued to fly over Taleban territory.
Under the deal, the Taleban wants 5,000 fighters to be released from jails but it is not clear whether the Afghan government will agree.
For millions of Afghans, the deal represents some hope for an end to years of bloodshed. "Peace is extremely simple and my country deserves it. Today is the day when maybe we will see a positive change," said school teacher Javed Hassan, 38, whose children were killed in a bomb blast by the Taleban in 2018.
But prospects for peace remain uncertain, given the next step is reaching agreement with the Afghan government.
The accord comes amid a fragile political situation in Afghanistan.
The Independent Election Commission said on Feb 18 that President Ashraf Ghani won a Sept 28 vote, which was beset by claims of rigging, technical problems and other irregularities.
But Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah claimed victory and vowed to name a parallel government.
Mr Michael Kugelman, Asia Programme deputy director at the Wilson Centre, said: "Washington is essentially trying to show that its full strength is behind this deal and it wants to also indicate to Kabul that it's fully behind Afghanistan as the peace and reconciliation process moves towards a formal beginning.
"(Mr Esper's trip is) perhaps an indication that the US is ready to essentially accept the new government in Afghanistan."
The war, which has killed tens of thousands of people, began when the US launched attacks on Afghanistan soon after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington by Al-Qaeda. The US accused the Taleban of harbouring the group and its leader Osama bin Laden, and, with its allies, ousted the group from power.