U.S., Taliban sign deal aimed at ending war in Afghanistan

 

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The United States signed a peace agreement with Taliban militants on Saturday aimed at bringing an end to 18 years of bloodshed in Afghanistan and allowing U.S. troops to return home from America's longest war.

Under the agreement, the U.S. would draw its forces down to 8,600 from 13,000 in the next 3-4 months, with the remaining U.S. forces withdrawing in 14 months. The complete pullout, however, would depend on the Taliban meeting their commitments to prevent terrorism.

President George W. Bush ordered the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Some U.S. troops currently serving there had not yet been born when the World Trade Center collapsed on that crisp, sunny morning that changed how Americans see the world.

It only took a few months to topple the Taliban and send Osama bin Laden and top al-Qaida militants scrambling across the border into Pakistan, but the war dragged on for years as the United States tried establish a stable, functioning state in one of the least developed countries in the world. The Taliban regrouped, and currently hold sway over half the country.

The U.S. spent more than $750 billion, and on all sides the war cost tens of thousands of lives lost, permanently scarred and indelibly interrupted. But the conflict was also frequently ignored by U.S. politicians and the American public.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the ceremony in Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office, but did not sign the agreement. Instead, it was signed by U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The Taliban harbored bin Laden and his al-Qaida network as they plotted, and then celebrated, the hijackings of four airliners that were crashed into lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania, killing almost 3,000 people.

Addressing reporters after the signing ceremony, Pompeo said the U.S. is “realistic” about the peace deal it signed, but is “seizing the best opportunity for peace in a generation.”

He said he was still angry about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and that the U.S. will not ”squander" what its soldiers “have won through blood, sweat and tears.” He said the U.S. will do whatever is necessary for its security if the Taliban do not comply with the agreement.

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An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Spc. Branden Tyme Kimball, early Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Kimball, 21, of Central Point, Ore., died at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, from a non-combat related incident. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Spc. Branden Tyme Kimball, early Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Kimball, 21, of Central Point, Ore., died at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, from a non-combat related incident. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
From left, General Counsel of the Army James McPherson, President Donald Trump, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville, Vice President Mike Pence, Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston and Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist stand during the casualty return of Sgt. 1st Class Javier J. Gutierrez and Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rey Rodriguez, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Gutierrez, 28, of San Antonio, and Rodriguez, 28, of Las Cruces, N.M., died in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained during combat operations. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
An Army carry team marches away from transfer cases containing the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rey Rodriguez, left case, and Sgt. 1st Class Javier Jaguar Gutierrez, right case, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Rodriguez, 28, of Las Cruces, N.M., and Gutierrez, 28, of San Antonio, died in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained during combat operations. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence watches as a U.S. Army carry team salutes the transfer case's containing the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Javier Gutierrez, of San Antonio, Texasa and Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rodriguez, of Las Cruces, N.M., Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense both died Saturday, Feb. 8, during combat in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
This image provided by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command shows Sgt. 1st Class Antonio R. Rodriguez, 28, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who died Feb. 8, 2020 from wounds sustained during combat operations in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. (US Army Special Operations Command via AP)
In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, fallen Air Force Capt. Ryan Phaneuf, 30, of Hudson, N.H., is seated in an aircraft. The Pentagon on Wednesday, Jan. 29, released the names of two Air Force officers killed in the Monday, Jan. 27, 2020 crash of their Bombardier E-11A electronic surveillance plane, in Ghazni Province, in eastern Afghanistan. An American official added that there were no indications so far the plane had been brought down by enemy fire. (U.S. Air Force Photo via AP)
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, center, walks Gen. Scott Miller, right, chief of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, at the U.S. military headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. Esper arrived Sunday in Afghanistan, where stalled peace talks with the Taliban and persistent violent attacks by the insurgent group and Islamic State militants have complicated the Trump administration’s pledge to withdraw more than 5,000 American troops. He told reporters traveling with him that he believes the U.S. can reduce its force in Afghanistan without hurting the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Lolita C. Balbor)
This August, 2019 photo provided by the Nevada Army National Guard shows Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hopper of the Nevada Army National Guard at a deployment ceremony in Nevada. Hopper, who is serving in Afghanistan, has received a uniform religious exception to sport a beard based upon his Norse pagan beliefs. He is the first guard soldier to receive a religious accommodation approval for a beard. (Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka/Nevada Army National Guard via AP)
An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Elis Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Morovis, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Ortiz was killed in action Sept. 5, when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ortiz was supporting Operation Freedom's Sentinel. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Resolute Support (RS) forces guard at the site of a car bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The Afghan government says at least 10 civilians are dead and another 42 wounded after a Taliban suicide car bombing rocked the Afghan capital near a neighborhood housing the U.S. Embassy and the NATO Resolute Support mission. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
Resolute Support (RS) forces arrive at the site of a car bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. A car bomb rocked the Afghan capital on Thursday and smoke rose from a part of eastern Kabul near a neighborhood housing the U.S. Embassy, the NATO Resolute Support mission and other diplomatic missions. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
In this Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, photo, An Afghan man reads a local newspaper about peace in Kabul, Afghanistan. For almost a year, Afghanistan’s more than 30 million people have been in the awkward position of waiting as a United States envoy and the Taliban negotiate their country’s fate behind closed doors. An agreement on ending America’s longest war, which the U.S. once hoped to reach by Sunday, Sept. 1, not only could set a timeline for U.S. troops’ withdrawal but also nudge aside this month’s presidential election and open the way for a Taliban return to power. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Army Master Sgt. Jose Gonzalez, 35, of La Puente, Calif., past Vice President Mike Pence, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Gonzalez died as a result of wounds sustained from small arms fire while engaged in combat operations in Faryab Province, Afghanistan, while supporting Operation Freedom's Sentinel. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
This undated photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense shows Master Sgt. Luis F. Deleon-Figueroa. Master Sgt. Luis F. Deleon-Figueroa, 31, and Master Sgt. Jose J. Gonzalez, 35, died as a result of small arms fire in northern Faryab Province. Both were members of 7th Special Forces Group, which is based at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The deaths came as United States envoy Zalmay Khalilzad resumed negotiations with the Taliban Thursday aimed at ending America's longest war. (U.S. Department of Defense via AP)
Shawn Gregoire, second from right, mother of U.S. Army Spc. Michael Nance, along with his brother and father, far left, and others watch as a U.S. Army carry team moves the transfer case containing the remains of Nance during a dignified transfer at Chicago Midway International Airport, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, in Chicago. Nance died July 29 of wounds sustained in a combat-related incident in Tarin Kowt, in southern Afghanistan. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)
This January 2002 photo provided by the Alexandria Sheriff's Office in Alexandria, Va. shows John Walker Lindh. Lindh, the young Californian who became known as the American Taliban after he was captured by U.S. forces in the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, is set to go free Thursday, May 23, 2019, after nearly two decades in prison. (Alexandria Sheriff's Office via AP)
A U.S. Marine Corps carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Staff Sgt. Christopher A. Slutman, Thursday, April 11, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Slutman, of Newark, Del., was among three American service members killed by a roadside bomb on Monday, April 8, 2019, near Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Afghans watch a civilian vehicle burnt after being shot by US forces following an attack near the Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Three American service members and a U.S. contractor were killed when their convoy hit a roadside bomb on Monday near the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, the U.S. forces said. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
An Afghan security force hold bullet shell a day after an attack near the Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Three American service members and a U.S. contractor were killed when their convoy hit a roadside bomb on Monday near the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, the U.S. forces said. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
Vice President Mike Pence stands at attention as a U.S. Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Spc. Joseph P. Collette, Sunday, March 24, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Collette, of Lancaster, Ohio, was killed March 22 while involved in combat operations in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
A U.S. Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Spc. Joseph P. Collette, Sunday, March 24, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Collette, of Lancaster, Ohio, was killed March 22 while involved in combat operations in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, left, arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday morning, Feb. 11, 2019, to consult with Army Gen. Scott Miller, right, commander of U.S. and coalition forces, and senior Afghan government leaders. The unannounced visit is the first for the acting secretary of defense, Pat Shanahan. He previously was the No. 2 official under Jim Mattis, who resigned as defense chief in December. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
This undated image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. 1st Class Elliott J. Robbins, who died Sunday, June, 30, 2019, of non-combat injuries in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Robbins, 31, from Ogden, Utah, and was assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group. (U.S. Army via AP)
From left, Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox, Maj. Gen. Jefferson S. Burton, Civilian Aid to the Secretary of the Army John Edwards, and Brig. Gen. Christine Burckle salute as members of the Utah National Guard Honor Guard carry a casket containing the remains of Maj. Brent R. Taylor at at the National Guard base Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. in Salt Lake City. The remains of a Utah mayor killed while serving in the National Guard in Afghanistan were returned to his home state on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, as hundreds of soldiers saluted while his casket covered in an American flag was carried across a tarmac and into a hearse. (Matt Herp/Standard-Examiner, via, Pool)
In this September 2, 2018 photo, provided by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, delivers remarks during the Resolute Support mission change of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghan officials said Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018 that three top Kandahar province officials have been killed by their own guards in an attack at a security meeting that also wounded two U.S. troops. A Taliban spokesman who claimed responsibility for the attack tells The Associated Press that Miller, was the target. NATO officials say Miller escaped unharmed. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Sharida Jackson, via AP)
A U.S. Army soldier sings a song during the change of command ceremony at Resolute Support headquarters, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018. U.S. Army Gen. Austin Miller has assumed command of the 41-nation NATO mission in Afghanistan following a handover ceremony. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)
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Pompeo had privately told a conference of U.S. ambassadors at the State Department this week that he was going only because President Donald Trump had insisted on his participation, according to two people present.

Dozens of Taliban members had earlier held a small victory march in Qatar in which they waved the militant group's white flags, according to a video shared on Taliban websites. “Today is the day of victory, which has come with the help of Allah,” said Abbas Stanikzai, one of the Taliban's lead negotiators, who joined the march.

Trump has repeatedly promised to get the U.S. out of its “endless wars” in the Middle East, and the withdrawal of troops could provide a boost as he seeks re-election in a nation weary of involvement in distant conflicts.

Trump has approached the Taliban agreement cautiously, steering clear of the crowing surrounding other major foreign policy actions, such as his talks with North Korea.

Last September, on short notice, he called off what was to be a signing ceremony with the Taliban at Camp David after a series of new Taliban attacks. But he has since been supportive of the talks led by his special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Under the agreement, the Taliban promise not to let extremists use the country as a staging ground for attacking the U.S. or its allies. But U.S. officials are loath to trust the Taliban to fulfill their obligations.

The prospects for Afghanistan's future are uncertain. The agreement sets the stage for peace talks involving Afghan factions, which are likely to be complicated. Under the agreement, 5,000 Taliban are to be released from Afghan-run jails, but it's not known if the Afghan government will do that. There are also questions about whether Taliban fighters loyal to various warlords will be willing to disarm.

It's not clear what will become of gains made in women's rights since the toppling of the Taliban, which had repressed women and girls under a strict brand of Sharia law. Women's rights in Afghanistan had been a top concern of both the Bush and Obama administration, but it remains a deeply conservative country, with women still struggling for basic rights.

There are currently more than 16,500 soldiers serving under the NATO banner, of which 8,000 are American. Germany has the next largest contingent, with 1,300 troops, followed by Britain with 1,100.

In all, 38 NATO countries are contributing forces to Afghanistan. The alliance officially concluded its combat mission in 2014 and now provides training and support to Afghan forces.

The U.S. has a separate contingent of 5,000 troops deployed to carry out counter-terrorism missions and provide air and ground support to Afghan forces when requested.

Since the start of negotiations with the Taliban, the U.S. has stepped up its air assaults on the Taliban as well as a local Islamic State affiliate. Last year the U.S. air force dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than in any year since 2013.

Seven days ago, the Taliban began a seven-day “reduction of violence" period, a prerequisite to the peace deal signing.

“We have seen a significant reduction in violence in Afghanistan over the last days, and therefore we are also very close to the signing of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday in Brussels.

He was in Kabul on Saturday for a separate signing ceremony with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper. That signing was intended to show continuing NATO and U.S. support for Afghanistan.

“The road to peace will be long and hard and there will be setbacks, and there is a risk always for spoilers," Stoltenberg said. “But the thing is, we are committed, the Afghan people are committed to peace, and we will continue to provide support.”

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Gannon reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Tameem Akhgar in Kabul, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed.

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