US-Taliban set to sign troop withdrawal deal as Pompeo lands in Doha

Reuters Kabul, Afghanistan , Doha, Qatar Feb 29, 2020, 05.04 PM(IST)

Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Doha. Photograph:( AFP )

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Pompeo arrived on a flight from Washington and was due to hold a meeting with the Qatari Emir before attending the signing ceremony.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Qatar's capital city, Doha on Saturday to witness the signing of a historic deal with Taliban insurgents in an effort to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan.

Pompeo arrived on a flight from Washington and was due to hold a meeting with the Qatari Emir before attending the signing ceremony.

The deal paves the way for the United States to gradually withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. But there are doubts over whether it will lead to a lasting peace as it merely paves the way for talks between the Afghan sides that many expect could be much more complicated.

Hours before the deal, the Taliban ordered all its fighters in Afghanistan "to refrain from any kind of attack ... for the happiness of the nation."

Also read: How India changed its gameplan on tackling the Taliban in Afghanistan

"The biggest thing is that we hope the US remain committed to their promises during the negotiation and peace deal," said Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the hardline Islamist group.

Mujahid said it was "irritating and provocative" that foreign military aircraft continued to fly over Taliban territory, but militia fighters were following the order to stand-down.

'Monumental Day'

Millions of Afghans are hoping that the deal could pave the way for an end to America's longest war, fought in their country.

The war, which has killed tens of thousands of people, began when the United States launched attacks on Afghanistan just weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington by the Afghanistan-based al Qaeda militant group.

Watch: US-Taliban peace deal would lead to complete withdrawal of US troops?

Washington accused the Taliban of harbouring al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, and with its allies ousted the group from power. But the Taliban has remained a potent force and currently controls about 40% of Afghan territory.

For U.S President Donald Trump, the deal represents a chance to make good on his promise to bring US troops home. But security experts have also called it a foreign policy gamble that would give the Taliban international legitimacy.

"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."

A 31-member Taliban delegation was in Qatar to oversee the signing by their political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Foreign ministers and bureaucrats from Pakistan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan arrived at the venue ahead of the signing ceremony, slated to take place at the Sheraton hotel in Doha.

Trump said in a statement on Friday said the deal will pave way for US troop numbers to drop to 8,600 from about 13,000 in the weeks following the deal.

Further reductions of Western forces will hinge on the Taliban adhering to a "reduction in violence" pledge, a condition that will be assessed by the United States.

'My country deserves it'

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 Javed Hassan, 38, a school teacher living on the outskirts of Afghan capital, Kabul.

Hassan's children were killed in a bomb blast carried out by the Taliban in 2018. Since then, he has been writing letters to world leaders urging them to end the Afghan war.

But prospects for peace remain uncertain given the next step is reaching agreement with the Afghan government.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrived in Kabul on Saturday, in a move officials and experts said was aimed at reassuring the Afghan government about the United States' commitment to the country.

Under the deal, the Taliban wants 5,000 fighters to be released from Afghan-run jails, but it is not clear whether the Afghan government will agree.

There are also questions about whether Taliban fighters loyal to hardline Islamist splinter groups will be willing to adhere to the reduction in violence agreement.

Some senior commanders of the Taliban who arrived in Doha for the signing said they will ensure that the US and Afghan governments accept all the conditions laid down by the group, according to Afghan defence officials.

Sources in the Taliban earlier this month said they were prepared to launch a spring offensive and had recruited more than 6,000 fighters and suicide bombers if the agreement collapses.