(ABC News) — In a historic signing ceremony with the top U.S. diplomat and the Taliban’s second-highest-ranking leader, the U.S. and the militant group agreed to begin to end America’s longest war.
The deal will commit the U.S. to begin withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, in exchange for the Taliban sitting down to peace negotiations with other Afghans and severing ties with terror groups like al-Qaida — which the Taliban harbored ahead of the Sept. 11 attacks, prompting a U.S. invasion and over 18 years of war.
After over a year and a half of negotiations, details of the final agreement are finally being released, although there are annexes that will not be released, according to senior administration officials, who said they do not include any U.S. commitments, only enforcement mechanisms.
While many of the steps in the deal are conditioned on actions from both sides, there are some immediate impacts as the ink dries in Doha, Qatar, where chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, his deputy Molly Phee and their team have spent over a year and a half negotiating with the Taliban’s representatives.
A week-long deal to reduce violence will continue, as the U.S. immediately begins to draw down its approximately 13,000 troops in Afghanistan to 8,600, according to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other senior administration officials.
That withdrawal will take months to complete, but U.S. officials, including Gen. Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, have said that new number is still sufficient to carry out their mission.
Any withdrawal of U.S. forces beyond that is contingent on the Taliban meeting its commitments, according to the deal.
There is “an aspirational timeline for withdrawal that is entirely conditions-based, and it will depend on their performance as we judge their performance,” a senior administration official said.
Explicitly, withdrawal is tied to the Taliban meeting its counterterrorism commitments — to repudiate al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and take steps to demonstrate that.
“People are concerned about the historic relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida. We think this is a decisive and historic first step in terms of their public acknowledgment that they are breaking ties with al-Qaida,” the senior administration official told ABC News.
There will be verification mechanisms in place to ensure that happens, the official added, including “our military and other asset presence on the ground.” In exchange, they said, the U.S. will eventually start to deconstruct the “edifice” of economic and diplomatic pressure like sanctions.
But any further U.S. troop reduction is also tied to the Taliban’s behavior in Afghan peace negotiations, according to the senior officials, although it is not dependent on any particular outcome of that process.
“If the political settlement fails, if the talks fail, there is nothing that obliges the United States to withdraw troops,” said a second senior administration official, before adding that President Donald Trump still has the “prerogatives as commander-in-chief” to withdraw U.S. forces as he sees fit.
Aiming for March 10, those peace negotiations will bring together the Taliban and representatives of Afghanistan, including government officials, civil society leaders and women, the senior officials said, to determine the future Afghan government and a “road map” for the country. But government officials will attend in a “private” capacity, as the Taliban still refuses to recognize the government or the constitution — a concession that has angered many Afghan officials.
Esper is in Kabul to sign a joint declaration with President Ashraf Ghani and his rival and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah to reassert U.S. support for the Afghan government and commit Ghani, Abdullah, their supporters and others to backing the next steps.
Expected to take place in Oslo, Norway, the negotiations will be facilitated by the U.S., along with the United Nations, Norway, Germany, Indonesia and Uzbekistan, among others, the first senior official said.
Both senior officials cautioned those talks could be delayed, especially as post-election fighting between Ghani and Abdullah continues. Khalilzad will return to Kabul after the signing ceremony to push them to select an inclusive delegation to the negotiations, but it may prove difficult as Abdullah continues to claim to have won the presidency, five months after the votes were cast and 11 days after Ghani was declared the winner despite concerns over the count.
The signing ceremony Saturday came only after a week-long truce to reduce violence across the country was deemed successful.
The Taliban agreed not to undertake major attacks, while the U.S. and Afghan security forces pledged to hold any airstrikes or raids on Taliban facilities, according to the second senior official, who said the reduction showed the Taliban had “both the commitment and the capability to enforce” that kind of truce.
With the deal signed, there will be a further reduction of violence, the first senior official said, that is supposed to last as the Afghan peace negotiations take place.
Both senior administration officials said the U.S. will push the parties to extend that reduction into a complete ceasefire across the country as quickly as possible — and for the protection of women’s and minorities’ rights, which critics say should have been a precondition all along.
But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday, “Our mission set there has been much broader than that,” later adding “the Afghans will drive the solution,” including on women’s rights. Senior officials have said the U.S. will use its financial assistance as leverage to ensure those protections make it into the new government.