The U.S. is ready to take its biggest step toward ending the two-decade war in Afghanistan on Saturday with the signing of a peace deal with the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic group ousted by American forces after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The accord to be signed in Qatar rests on a simple exchange: The U.S. will start withdrawing some of its 13,000 troops in the country as long as the Taliban keeps areas it controls from becoming terrorist havens. The Taliban must also begin talks with negotiators from the Afghan government, opposition and civil society for a lasting cease-fire and, the U.S. hopes, an eventual political deal.
It’s an enormous gamble born of President Donald Trump’s desire to end what he called “endless wars,” and bring American troops home. A conflict that started over the Taliban’s refusal to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has since become America’s longest conflict, taking the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers and costing taxpayers an estimated $900 billion.
The accord is being greeted with a mix of hope and fear by Afghans exhausted by the endless war but fearful that the Taliban will recapture control and reimpose draconian rule that limits freedom and bars women from education and public life.
Despite the U.S. efforts, the Taliban is now at its strongest since being forced from power a generation ago. It contests or controls about half the country, while opium production is soaring and civilian casualties are near their highest since data started being tracked a decade ago.
The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 Afghans have been wounded or killed in the past ten years alone. Even as Taliban and U.S.-backed Afghan forces have fought to a stalemate, Islamic State terrorists gained a foothold in the country long known as the “graveyard of empires.”
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“Everyone is tired of war,” said Masood Mahfuz, 42, whose brother was killed in a Taliban bombing three years ago. “We are thirsty for peace. The only way is to make peace with the Taliban and forget the past.”
U.S. military commanders long ago assessed that the war would be unwinnable absent the presence of tens of thousands of more troops and a broad political accord. Trump, who railed against the Afghan war before becoming a presidential candidate, authorized peace talks overseen by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to start in September 2018.
“This is the best chance yet I’ve seen in 15 years to move the peace process forward,” said Andrew Wilder, the vice president for Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace who spent more than 10 years overseeing humanitarian programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But the deal being signed — after a seven-day reduction in violence by both sides — raises hard questions about whether the U.S. departure will really lead to Taliban-Afghan talks, what the future of women’s rights will be and whether the country can move on from decades of conflict.
The agreement comes as the Afghan government is in turmoil. The results of the country’s September election, announced this month, are disputed. President Ashraf Ghani claimed victory while his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, rejected the results as hopelessly flawed.
Yet, under pressure from the U.S., Ghani agreed to postpone his inauguration as the signing goes ahead.
The next milestone is supposed to be talks in Oslo, perhaps as early as mid-March, where the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators are to sit down across the table from each other. But the Taliban have repeatedly refused to talk with Ghani’s government, calling it a U.S. puppet. And Afghan leaders, divided themselves, refuse to recognize the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
So while the U.S.-Taliban negotiations may have been fraught so far, the hardest part lies ahead.
For ordinary Afghan citizens, the doubts linger: Have the talks so far merely been a ruse by the Taliban, which will move to expand its authority once the Americans depart? Why would the fundamentalist group stop fighting now, with the Afghan government under such pressure? The distrust may be too deep to bridge.
“A peace deal with the Taliban is a waste of time,” said Said Khaleda Ahmadi, 29, who works in the government. “They must be killed and rooted out wherever they are.”
Skeptics inside Afghanistan argue that restrictions on women remain severe in areas controlled by the Taliban. Women are whipped for speaking to male strangers and girls, in many cases, still can’t go to school. Underage girls are married off to much older men.
“First, the U.S. tells us ‘we are behind you’ but on the other hand they say ‘get united and carry the burden on your own shoulders,”’ said Mahboba Saraj, a board member of Kabul-based Afghan Women’s Network. “We don’t know what they mean by saying that. Will they leave us behind?”
The U.S. has made clear its priorities focus on counterterrorism. Pressed by reporters at a briefing on Feb. 25, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo underscored that any political deal must be worked out by Afghan negotiators, with the U.S. in an observer role. He declined to say how the U.S. might seek to protect the rights of women and other vulnerable groups.
“The United States effort is to let the Afghans lead this process, and they’ll come up with a resolution that is, I’m sure, uniquely theirs, just like every nation across the world does,” Pompeo said.
Wilder, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, said he is realistic about the difficulties ahead.
“One of the critical areas is that we not view the U.S.-Taliban agreement as a ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment,” Wilder said. “Signing the agreement is going to be the beginning of the process, not the end.”
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