US and Taliban finalising agreement to end war in Afghanistan

After nearly two decades of fighting, Wednesday’s deal could pave way to end America’s longest war

epa07780987 Afghan security forces attend a ceremony to mark the Independence Day in Herat, Afghanistan, 19 August 2019.  Afghanistan is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its independence from British rule on 19 August.  EPA/JALIL REZAYEE

The US and the Taliban on Wednesday were finalising an agreement to end America’s longest and most costly war, bringing nearly two decades of conflict to an end.

Sources in Kabul told The National a deal had been reached on many of the main issues, but the announcement would not be made until final details were resolved, and US lead negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad has met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

There would be ceremonies in Oslo, picked to host possible intra-Afghan talks, and another in Kabul to mark the agreement.

“Yes, the deal is signed,” a source said on Wednesday.

The source said the main elements of the deal were for a reduction in violence in two provinces agreed to by both sides, the start of inter-Afghan negotiations on ending the war, the release of Taliban fighters and the withdrawal of US forces.

The troop pull-out would begin from a list of bases agreed to by both sides, but the source declined to identify them.

A senior Afghan security official and a source close to the Taliban told The National that Mr Khalilzad would meet Mr Ghani on Wednesday night to discuss the next steps.

The Taliban and US officials had agreed on a timeline of about 14 to 24 months for the withdrawal of US forces, a senior security official said.

The government did not want US forces to stay in Afghanistan over the long term, but added that their "conditions-based" presence was needed at this stage, Mr Ghani's spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told Reuters.

"We want to end the bloodshed," Mr Sediqqi said. "We cannot accept the orders of the Taliban. They must accept our demands and we demand peace."

The US has 14,000 troops in Afghanistan and provides air support for Afghan soldiers. Nato also has a mission in the country with 17,000 soldiers from several countries.

"We hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence-seeking nation," Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha, said on Wednesday.

The US and Taliban began the ninth round of talks in Qatar  at the weekend to end the 18-year conflict.

But there are concerns in Kabul that a hasty US withdrawal will lead to the Taliban gaining the upper hand in the war despite assurances from Mr Khalilzad that America will not abandon the government.

If confirmed, the reduction in violence and the start of inter-Afghan talks could pave the way for the government to negotiate its own deal with the insurgents who once ruled the country.

For years, the Taliban refused to negotiate with the government, saying that they were a puppet of the West and that negotiations could only take place with Washington.

Mr Ghani has offered direct talks with the Taliban but they have demanded the withdrawal of US forces first.

Kabul and the US are keen to get clarity on the deal before elections scheduled for September.

But until last year, American leaders maintained that any peace deal would have to be brokered by Kabul.

US President Donald Trump, who campaigned to bring troops home, shifted that stance and began the long process of talks.

So far during the talks, the Taliban have refused to stop attacks against the government but at a meeting earlier in the year they agreed to a non-specific reduction in attacks on civilians.

On Wednesday, the insurgents killed at least 14 members of a pro-government militia in Herat province, officials said.

Government officials said 14 members of the militia were killed and several civilians were wounded during the clashes.

Abdul Ahad Walizada, a police spokesman, said the men were killed in the Rubat-e-Sangi district of Herat province after a large number of Taliban fighters stormed security checkpoints in the Chahardara area.

"At least nine others were wounded in the clashes and the Taliban militants were pushed back after Afghan forces reinforced the area," Mr Walizada said.

Taliban officials were not immediately available for comment.

The Taliban now control more territory than at any point since 2001, when the US invaded after the September 11 attacks in the US.