The US and Taliban are due to sign an agreement on 29 February that will lead to the withdrawal of thousands of US troops and the start of comprehensive peace talks between the Afghan government and the insurgents.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, announced that the agreement would be signed once there has been a week-long “nationwide reduction in violence”, to start at midnight on Friday, according to an understanding reached by US and Taliban negotiators meeting in Doha.
“Upon a successful implementation of this understanding, signing of the US-Taliban agreement is expected to move forward. We are preparing for the signing to take place on 29 February,” Pompeo said.
“Intra-Afghan negotiations will start soon thereafter, and will build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire and the future political roadmap for Afghanistan.”
Ahmad Shuja Jamal, director general for international affairs in Afghan’s national security council, said in a tweet: “This is an important opportunity for the Taliban to demonstrate their seriousness for peace and ending the suffering of the Afghan people.”
The Taliban issued their own statement on the deal, saying both sides would make arrangements for the release of prisoners, and “finally lay the groundwork for peace across the country with the withdrawal of all foreign forces”.
In a commentary published by the New York Times, the Taliban’s deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, suggested that his movement was prepared to make compromises at the negotiating table with Afghan government representatives, including on women’s rights.
“I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam – from the right to education to the right to work – are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity,” he wrote.
There are many unanswered questions, however, about how peace talks would proceed and who would attend them. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, was declared the winner of last year’s elections by the country’s election commission but the declaration was not accepted by his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah.
The Taliban does not recognise Ghani’s government and has said it will only talk to government officials if they attend talks as ordinary citizens. Observers have pointed out that a week-long reduction in violence is a small concession in winter, in the wake of snowfall and before a spring offensive is expected to begin.
Under the planned leap day agreement, the US is expected to reduced its military presence from 12,000 to 8,600, leaving behind a force to conduct counter-terrorism operations. Officially, the Taliban has demanded the complete withdrawal of foreign troops, but has reportedly accepted a residual counter-terrorism force in a secret annexe to the deal.
It is not clear whether the US will send troops back into Afghanistan if the intra-Afghan talks fail to get off the ground and the Taliban press ahead with their offensive.
There has been speculation in the region that Donald Trump himself might sign the deal with the Taliban, sealing a foreign policy victory as he steps up his re-election campaign. He will be in India on a state visit next week. In September the president announced that Taliban leaders had been due to travel to Camp David to sign an agreement, but he called off the trip because of a Taliban attack in Kabul.
What are your thoughts on this?