The United States has signed a landmark peace agreement with Taliban militants aimed at bringing an end to 18 years of bloodshed in Afghanistan and allowing US troops to return home from America's longest war.
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar signed the deal in a hotel in Dohar, Qatar on Saturday, in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The agreement lays out a path and timetable for a full troop withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan within 14 months, beginning with a drawdown to 8,600 troops "within months".
The deal stipulates that the Taliban pledge to begin talks with the Afghan government and not to protect terrorist groups intent on attacking the West.
Should the Taliban renege on their security guarantees and commitment to hold such talks, the United States "will not hesitate to nullify" the deal, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Saturday.
A costly war in dollars and human life
President George W. Bush ordered the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, plotted out by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network and which resulted in the deaths of almost 3,000 people.
Bin Laden had been harboured by the Taliban and it took only 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 to establish a stable, functioning state in one of the world's least developed countries.
The Taliban regrouped, and currently hold sway over half the country.
The US spent more than $750 billion on the war in Afghanistan. It also claimed tens of thousands of lives on all sides.
The promise to take US out of 'endless wars'
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.
U.S. troops are to be withdrawn to 8,600 from about 13,000 in the weeks following Saturday's signing. Further drawdowns are to depend on the Taliban meeting certain counter-terrorism conditions, compliance that will be assessed by the United States.
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 wary of trusting the Taliban to fulfill their obligations.
Afghanistan's future in the balance
The prospects for Afghanistan's future remain 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 the Afghan government has yet to confirm it will do that. There are also questions about whether Taliban fighters loyal to various warlords will be willing to disarm.
Another area of uncertainty is 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 form 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.