Afghan government and Taliban sign a three-page document that lays out the rules and procedures for the negotiations, which are taking place in Qatar where the Taliban have long maintained a political office.
The US envoy, who brokered the ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, has said that the two sides overcame a three-month impasse and agreed on rules and procedures for the negotiations.
The development is significant as it means the warring sides are getting closer to actually starting to negotiate the issues that could end decades of fighting in Afghanistan and determine the country's post-war future.
But first they must decide on the agenda for the negotiations, which is the next step.
In a series of tweets, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said on Wednesday there was a signed document and urged both the Taliban and the government to get down to the business of negotiating a “political roadmap and a ceasefire.”
The three-page document lays out the rules and procedures for the negotiations, which are taking place in Qatar where the Taliban have long maintained a political office.
Afghans “now expect rapid progress on a political roadmap and a ceasefire. We understand their desire and we support them,” Khalilzad tweeted.
A ceasefire, rights of women and minorities, and constitutional amendments are expected to top the agenda.
But the list is likely to be long and contentious, with issues such as safety guarantees for thousands of Taliban fighters who disarm, as well as for disbanding the heavily armed militias loyal to Kabul warlords, many of them allied either with the government or opposition politicians.
Pompeo welcomes progress
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who on Feb. 29 signed a Taliban-US deal that paves the way for withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, welcomed the agreement.
“As negotiations on a political roadmap and permanent ceasefire begin, we will also work hard with all sides in pursuit of a serious reduction of violence,” he said.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also welcomed the breakthrough on the Afghan-Taliban talks, amid uncertainty over the alliance's future in Afghanistan and urged for rapid progress on cease-fire and establishing a political road map.
“You can discuss whether it is a big or a small step, but the important thing is that it’s the first step,” Stoltenberg said, after chairing a videoconference of NATO foreign ministers.
Khalilzad’s announcement was not unexpected – last month, the Taliban said the rules and procedures were settled and the US said last week it was all but wrapped up.
But then the Afghan government said it had concerns with the some of the words in the preamble that set off accusations that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was holding up the deal. His spokesman denied this.
There were no details about the document, but Taliban spokesman Mohammed Naeem said the two sides have appointed a committee to hammer out the agenda items.
US troops reduction
Since the Afghan-Taliban talks started in September, violence has spiked significantly. The Taliban have staged deadly attacks on Afghan forces while keeping their promise not to attack US and NATO troops.
The attacks have drawn a mighty retaliation by the Afghan air force, backed by US warplanes. International rights groups have warned both sides to avoid inflicting civilian casualties.
In Washington, US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military’s plan for reducing American troop levels in Afghanistan to 2,500 by mid-January has been approved by the acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller.
Milley declined to discuss the plan beyond saying that the smaller US force would operate from “a couple of larger bases,” along with several smaller ones, in order to continue its current missions of combatting terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and training and advising Afghan defence forces.
Milley asserted that the US has achieved “a modicum of success” in Afghanistan after more than 19 years of war, given that there has not been a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US homeland.
Noting that President Donald Trump made the decision to reduce the US force to 2,500, Milley said, “What comes after that, that will be up to a new administration; we’ll find that out on the 20th of January and beyond.”