U.S., Taliban plan to sign peace agreement next week

The United States and the Taliban are on target to sign a peace agreement next week after a seven-day period of reduced violence, American and Taliban officials said Friday.

Period in which Taliban to reduce violence now in effect — prelude to Feb. 29 signing in Qatar

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa on Wednesday. He said in a statement that the peace agreement will also lead to an eventual permanent ceasefire. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States and the Taliban are on target to sign a peace agreement next week after a seven-day period of reduced violence, American and Taliban officials said Friday.

That agreement, to be signed in Doha, Qatar on Feb. 29, will pave the way for a withdrawal of U.S. troops and intra-Afghan negotiations. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it will also lead to an eventual permanent ceasefire.

"We are preparing for the signing to take place on February 29," Pompeo said in a statement. "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 road map for Afghanistan."

The reduced violence period, to be observed by Afghan, international and Taliban forces, began Saturday at 12:00 a.m. local time, and was previously announced by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a televised address.

U.S. President Donald Trump has made no secret of his desire to get the U.S. out of its "endless wars" but the road ahead is fraught with difficulties.

It's still not clear who will represent Kabul at the negotiation table for the intra-Afghan talks, considered a key pillar in finding a lasting peace in the war-torn country. The Afghan election commission earlier this week declared Ghani the winner of presidential elections held in September but his main rival Abdullah Abdullah denounced the result.

The Taliban have refused to talk to Ghani's government and also denounced the election results, saying they will talk to government representatives but only as ordinary Afghans.

It's not yet clear how Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, seen in this 2019 photo, will be represented at the peace talks. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

The Taliban issued its own statement on the reduction of violence deal.

"Both parties will now create a suitable security situation in advance of the agreement signing date, extend invitations to senior representatives of numerous countries and organizations to participate in the signing ceremony, make arrangements for the release of prisoners, structure a path for intra-Afghan negotiations with various political parties of the country and finally lay the groundwork for peace across the country with the withdrawal of all foreign forces," the Taliban said in a statement Friday.

The Taliban added that it will not allow "the land of Afghanistan to be used against security of others so that our people can live a peaceful and prosperous life under the shade of an Islamic system."

The Pentagon has declined to say whether the U.S. had agreed to cut its troop levels in Afghanistan to zero. Defence Secretary Mark Esper has said if the seven-day truce is successful and the Afghan peace talks begin, the U.S. would reduce its troop contingent "over time" to about 8,600.

There are about 12,000 U.S. troops in the country currently.

Suhail Shaheen, spokesperson for the Taliban's political office in Doha, tweeted that the Taliban expect a complete withdrawal. In a Pashto-language tweet, he said: "Based on the agreement with the U.S., all international forces will leave Afghanistan and the invasion will end and no one will be allowed to use Afghan soil against others."

Neighbouring Pakistan, which has long been accused of backing the Taliban, welcomed the reduction-in-violence plan.

"We hope the Afghan parties would now seize this historic opportunity and work out a comprehensive and inclusive political settlement for durable peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region," said a Pakistan Foreign Ministry statement. Pakistan hosts more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the developments as "a critical test of the Taliban's willingness and ability to reduce violence, and contribute to peace in good faith."

"This could pave the way for negotiations among Afghans, sustainable peace and ensuring the country is never again a safe haven for terrorists," he said.

The alliance has some 16,000 troops in Afghanistan helping to train its security forces, but it could draw down its operation to accommodate any firm peace agreement.

With files from Reuters