US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo makes a speech during the signing ceremony of a peace agreement between the US and the Taliban in Doha on February 29, 2020. Photo: Fatih Aktas / Anadolu Agency

After nearly two decades of conflict that has ravaged Afghanistan’s impoverished population, the United States and the Taliban signed a historic accord Saturday that Washington hopes will mark the beginning of the end of its longest war.

The pact signed in Doha would see the Pentagon and foreign partner forces pull all their troops from Afghanistan within 14 months, provided the Taliban stick to pledges to open a dialogue with the Western-backed Kabul government and push back against jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda.

Supporters of the deal, which was signed in Doha after more than a year of fractious talks, say it marks a critical first step toward peace, though many Afghans fear it amounts to little more than a dressed-up surrender that will ultimately see the Taliban return to power.

“There is no doubt we have won the war. … This (is) why they are signing a peace treaty,” chief Taliban negotiator Abbas Stanikzai said.

Months of speculation about when the deal would be signed, and what its contents would be, culminated in a plush conference room in the Qatari capital, when Taliban fighter-turned-dealmaker Mullah Baradar signed the accord along with Washington’s chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing a peace agreement during a ceremony in the Qatari capital Doha on February 29, 2020. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace / AFP

The pair then shook hands, as people in the room shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest).

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looked on and alluded to the difficult work that remains to be done.

“I know there will be a temptation to declare victory, but victory for Afghans will only be achieved when they can live in peace and prosper,” he said.

The Taliban swept to power in 1996 with a hardline interpretation of Islamic sharia law, banning women from working, closing girls’ schools, and forbidding music and other entertainment.

Since the US-led invasion that ousted them after the September 11, 2001 attacks, America has spent more than $1 trillion on fighting and rebuilding in the country.

About 2,400 US soldiers have been killed, along with tens of thousands of Afghan troops, civilians and Taliban fighters.

‘Powerful path’

President Donald Trump, who has promised to finish America’s “endless wars”, urged Afghanistan to embrace the chance for a new future.

“If the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan live up to these commitments, we will have a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home,” he said on the eve of the signing.

The Doha accord has left many Afghans fretting that their relatively recent freedoms under the country’s new constitution may be on the chopping block for the sake of peace.

Even the requirement for a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” was listed only as an agenda item – and not a precondition – for future talks between Kabul and the Taliban, slated to begin March 10 in Oslo. 

“Today is a dark day, and as I was watching the deal being signed, I had this bad feeling that it would result in their return to power rather than in peace,” Afghan activist Zahra Hussaini, 28, said. 

In Kabul, small groups gathered in cafes to watch the signing, but reaction was muted.

Questions swirl around the position of the Afghan government, which was excluded from the direct US-Taliban talks.

The country faces a fresh political crisis after President Ashraf Ghani’s main rival contested the results of elections last year and has threatened to set up a rival administration. 

“We have the political will and the capacity to make peace because of the resilience of our society, the dynamism of our economy and the capability of our state,” Ghani said.

The signing followed a week-long partial truce in Afghanistan aimed at building confidence between the warring parties and showing that the Taliban can control their fighters.

The US, which currently has between 12,000 and 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, will draw that number down to 8,600 within 135 days of the signing.

If the Taliban abide by the terms of the accord, the US and its partners “will complete the withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan” within 14 months, in a “conditions-based” pullback.

The two sides also agreed to swap thousands of prisoners in a “confidence building measure”.

‘Important first step’

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg heralded the agreement as a “first step to lasting peace”. 

“We have to be prepared for setbacks, spoilers, there is no easy way to peace but this is an important first step,” he said in Kabul.

Still, he left the door open for NATO forces to return if the security situation deteriorates, while the US said it “would not hesitate to nullify” the accord if necessary.

Ahead of the signing, the insurgents said they had halted all hostilities on February 22, only the second nationwide ceasefire in 19 years of warfare.

The Taliban’s pledge to guarantee Afghanistan is never again used by jihadist movements such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group to plot attacks abroad will be key to the deal’s durability.

Its sheltering of Al-Qaeda was the main reason for the US invasion following the 9/11 attacks.

The Taliban, which had risen to power in the 1990s, suffered a swift defeat and retreated before re-emerging to lead a deadly insurgency against the new Western-backed government in Kabul.

After the NATO combat mission ended in December 2014, the bulk of Western forces withdrew, leaving Afghanistan in an increasingly precarious position.