U.S. to Sign Deal With Taliban to End America’s Longest War

The U.S. will sign a peace agreement with the Taliban on Feb. 29 intended to end America’s longest running war, after negotiators agreed to terms that will pave the way for a troop withdrawal and new talks with Afghanistan’s government.

The signing, set to take place in Doha, Qatar, after months of negotiations, will hinge upon a seven-day reduction in violence that starts at midnight Friday and was a key demand from President Donald Trump, who backed out of a deal with the Taliban in September after a U.S. soldier was killed in a suicide bombing.

“Challenges remain, but the progress made in Doha provides hope and represents a real opportunity,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a statement. “The United States calls on all Afghans to seize this moment.”

The agreement is a bet by Trump that the Taliban, which once provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, will help him meet a pledge in his 2016 campaign to get America out of what he called “endless wars.”

It’s also a gamble that Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, who was just declared the winner of a disputed election, will retain enough authority to pull together representatives for the intra-Afghan dialogue that U.S. officials say must begin within 10 days of the Feb. 29 signing.

Ghani’s rival, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, has accused Ghani of rigging the vote and declared himself the victor. Their dispute remains unresolved and will raise questions about whether Ghani’s government will have the leverage to make an eventual deal stick.

The Taliban had ruled Afghanistan until a U.S.-led coalition ousted the group after the U.S. invaded the country in 2001. A U.S. delegation led by envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been negotiating with the Taliban since late 2018, and it’s Khalilzad who will sign the deal with the Taliban in Doha.

The group has also rejected the outcome of the Afghanistan vote, saying it had no legitimacy because it was conducted under the “umbrella of occupation.”

In September, Trump abruptly called off the talks — which he had envisioned would conclude with a signing ceremony at Camp David in Maryland — in response to a suicide bombing in Kabul that killed an American soldier.

A U.S. defense official cautioned earlier this month that, even with Taliban leaders pledging a seven-day reduction in violence — a pledge stopping short of a cease-fire — attacks would be likely to continue because of the many splinter groups in Afghanistan.

The official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, also said the Taliban shares U.S. antipathy toward Islamic State, viewing the terrorist group as a dangerous threat.

A central question will be the fate of American troops now in Afghanistan. The The U.S. now has about 13,000 of the almost 23,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of 100,000 in 2011.

A senior State Department official said last week that the U.S. could withdraw troops in phases but only if the Taliban meet certain conditions. It’s unclear how many troops might remain, but the U.S. is certain to leave some special forces soldiers there and retain the capability to launch attacks on targets it believes are threatening a peace.

Despite the U.S. having spent an estimated $900 billion on the Afghan conflict, the Taliban are at their strongest since being ousted from power. The group controls or contests about half the country and regularly stages attacks in Kabul.

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