The US and the Taliban have signed an agreement aimed at paving the way towards peace in Afghanistan after more than 18 years of conflict.
The US and its Nato allies have agreed to withdraw all their troops from the country within 14 months if the militants uphold the deal.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Taliban leaders attended the signing ceremony in Doha in Qatar.
Talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are due to follow.
Under the agreement signed in Doha, the militants also agreed not to allow al-Qaeda or any other extremist group to operate in the areas they control.
The US invaded Afghanistan weeks after the September 2001 attacks by the Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda group.
More than 2,400 US troops have been killed during the conflict. About 12,000 are still stationed in the country. President Trump has promised to put an end to the conflict.
Landmark deal rife with uncertainties
This historic deal has been years in the making, as all sides kept seeking advantage on the battlefield.
The agreement is born of America’s determination to bring troops home and a recognition, at least by some Taliban, that talks are the best route to return to Kabul.
It’s a significant step forward, despite deep uncertainty and scepticism over where it will lead. When the only alternative is unending war, many Afghans seem ready to take this risk for peace.
Taliban leaders say they’ve changed since their harsh rule of the 1990s still seared in the memory of many, and most of all Afghan women.
This process will test the Taliban, but also veteran Afghan leaders of the past, and a new generation which has come of age in the last two decades and is hoping against hope for a different future.
How did US-Taliban talks come about?
Since 2011, Qatar has hosted Taliban leaders who have moved there to discuss peace in Afghanistan. It has been a chequered process. A Taliban office was opened in 2013, and closed the same year amid rows over flags. Other attempts at talks stalled.
In December 2018, the militants announced they would meet US officials to try to find a “roadmap to peace”. But the hard-line Islamist group continued to refuse to hold official talks with the Afghan government, whom they dismissed as American “puppets”.
Following nine rounds of US-Taliban talks in Qatar, the two sides seemed close to an agreement.
Washington’s top negotiator announced last September that the US would withdraw 5,400 troops from Afghanistan within 20 weeks as part of a deal agreed “in principle” with Taliban militants.
Days later, Mr Trump said the talks were “dead”, after the group killed a US soldier. But within weeks the two sides resumed discussions behind the scenes.
A week ago the Taliban agreed to a “reduction of violence” – although Afghan officials say at least 22 soldiers and 14 civilians have been killed in Taliban attacks over that period.
What’s the background to the Afghan war?
It began when the US launched air strikes one month following the 11 September 2001 attacks and after the Taliban had refused to hand over the man behind them, Osama bin Laden.
The US was joined by an international coalition and the Taliban were quickly removed from power. However, they turned into an insurgent force and continued deadly attacks, destabilising subsequent Afghan governments.
The international coalition ended its combat mission in 2014, staying only to train Afghan forces. But the US continued its own, scaled-back combat operation, including air strikes.
The Taliban has however continued to gain momentum and last year the BBC found they were active across 70% of Afghanistan.
Nearly 3,500 members of the international coalition forces have died in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion.
The figures for Afghan civilians, militants and government forces are more difficult to quantify. In a February 2019 report, the UN said that more than 32,000 civilians had died. The Watson Institute at Brown University says 58,000 security personnel and 42,000 opposition combatants have been killed.
Why has the war lasted so long?
There are many reasons for this. But they include a combination of fierce Taliban resistance, the limitations of Afghan forces and governance, and other countries’ reluctance to keep their troops for longer in Afghanistan.
At times over the past 18 years, the Taliban have been on the back foot. In late 2009, US President Barack Obama announced a troop “surge” that saw the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan top 100,000.
The surge helped drive the Taliban out of parts of southern Afghanistan, but it was never destined to last for years.
The BBC World Service’s Dawood Azami says there are five main reasons the war is still going on now. They include:
- a lack of political clarity since the invasion began, and questions about the effectiveness of the US strategy over the past 18 years
- the fact each side is trying to break what has become a stalemate – and that the Taliban have been trying maximise their leverage during peace negotiations
- an increase in violence by Islamic State militants in Afghanistan – they’ve been behind some of the bloodiest attacks recently
There’s also the role played by Afghanistan’s neighbour, Pakistan.
There’s no question the Taliban have their roots in Pakistan, and that they were able to regroup there during the US invasion. But Pakistan has denied helping or protecting them – even as the US demanded it do more to fight militants.
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