Afghan government, Taliban reach breakthrough deal as calls grow for a ceasefire

By Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi
·4-min read
FILE PHOTO: Afghan National Army soldiers keep watch outside of a military compound after a car bomb blast on the outskirts of Ghazni city

By Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan government and Taliban representatives reached a preliminary deal on Wednesday to press on with peace talks, their first written agreement in 19 years of war and welcomed by the United States as a chance to halt the violence.

The agreement lays out the way forward for discussion but is considered a breakthrough because it will allow negotiators to move on to more substantive issues, including talks on a ceasefire, even as Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces have continued unabated.

"The procedure including its preamble of the negotiation has been finalised and from now on, the negotiation will begin on the agenda," Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan government's negotiating team, told Reuters.

The Taliban spokesman confirmed the agreement on Twitter.

"A joint working committee was tasked to prepare the draft topics for the agenda (of peace talks)," a joint statement from both sides said.

The agreement comes after months of talks in Doha, the capital of Qatar, encouraged by the United States, despite the ongoing violence.

A ceasefire remains the most urgent demand of international capitals and Kabul, even after the Taliban refused one during the preliminary stages of talks.

"(The agreement) is a step forward towards beginning the negotiations on the main issues, including a comprehensive ceasefire as the key demand of the Afghan people," Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said on Twitter, quoting the Afghan leader.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated the two sides on "perseverance and willingness to find common ground", and added that the United States would "work hard with all sides in pursuit of a serious reduction of violence and ceasefire".

U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said on Twitter that the two sides had agreed on a "three-page agreement codifing rules and procedures for their negotiations on a political roadmap and a comprehensive ceasefire".

"This agreement demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues," Khalilzad said.

Key players including Qatar, who is hosting the talks, and neighbouring Pakistan, whose government and military have helped put pressure on the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table, also welcomed the agreement which Doha called a "milestone".

The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. A U.S.-backed government has held power in Afghanistan since then, although the Taliban have control over wide areas of the country.

TRUMP WANTS OUT

Under a February deal, foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counter-terrorism guarantees from the Taliban.

U.S. President Donald Trump has looked to hasten the withdrawal, despite criticism, saying he wanted to see all American soldiers home by Christmas to end America's longest war.

The Trump administration has since announced that there would be a sharp drawdown by January, but at least 2,500 troops would remain beyond then.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday warned NATO against withdrawing troops prematurely and said it should "ensure that we tie further troop reductions in Afghanistan to clear conditions".

"The biggest obstacle remaining is the current unacceptable level of violence: this must stop," the UK's mission in Kabul said on Twitter after the agreement.

The agreement was held up last month after the insurgents balked at the document because it mentioned the Afghan government by name.

A European Union diplomat familiar with the process said both sides had kept some contentious issues aside to deal with separately.

"Both sides also know that Western powers are losing patience and aid has been conditional... so both sides know they have to move forward to show some progress,” said the diplomat, requesting anonymity.

Last week, roughly $12 billion in aid was pledged by international capitals and institutions over four years for Afghanistan, but linked to annual reviews on progress in key areas such as the peace talks.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul, and Rupam Jain in Mumbai; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington D.C. and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Writing by Gibran Peshimam and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)