US prepares to sign withdrawal deal with Taliban on February 29

  • 21 Feb 2020

If a partial truce slated for Saturday kicks in, it will mark a historic step in more than 18 years of gruelling conflict in Afghanistan and pave the way for a deal that could ultimately end the war.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives to have lunch with members of the US military at the Prince Sultan air base in al Kharj in central Saudi Arabia. February 20, 2020. ( Andrew Caballero Reynolds / AP )

The US is prepared to sign a deal with the Taliban on February 29, building on an agreement on reducing violence across Afghanistan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday.

A week-long "reduction in violence" between the Taliban, the US and Afghan security forces will commence shortly, an official said Friday ahead of the possible signing of a deal between Washington and the insurgents.

If the partial truce goes ahead, it would mark a historic step in more than 18 years of gruelling conflict in Afghanistan and would pave the way for a deal that could, ultimately, see the war end.

"The reduction in violence will start from 22 February and will last for one week," said Javed Faisal, Afghanistan's National Security Council spokesman.

US Forces-Afghanistan declined to comment.

One Taliban source in Pakistan confirmed that the partial truce would commence Saturday.

The US has been in talks with the Taliban for more than a year to secure a deal in which it would pull out thousands of troops in return for Taliban security guarantees and commitments.

A reduction in violence would show the Taliban can control their forces and demonstrate good faith ahead of any signing, which would see the Pentagon withdraw about half of the 12,000-13,000 troops currently in Afghanistan.

Afghan officials have said the US-Taliban deal could be finalised February 29 in Doha, assuming the reduction in violence proceeds to plan.

The Taliban source in Pakistan said, "Both sides have agreed to sign the agreement on February 29", adding that talks between the Taliban and the government, needed to cement a broader peace deal, are slated to start March 10.

 'It's happening' 

A second Taliban official in Pakistan told the reduction in violence might not start until Sunday.

Whether it is "Saturday or Sunday does not matter. The Taliban leadership council h as basically given a green light to start the reduction in violence and sign the deal", the official said, adding, "it's happening".

In Afghanistan's southern province of Kandahar, which is seen as the Taliban's heartland, one insurgent told that he had received orders to stand down.

"We have got the orders from our leadership that reduction in violence period will start from Saturday, and we have been ordered to be ready for it," the source said.

However, another Taliban commander Hafiz Saeed Hedayat, who was also based in Kandahar, said he had only been ordered to refrain from attacking major cities and highways.

"This means maybe the violence will continue in the districts," said Hedayat.

However, journalist and expert Rahimullah Yusufzai said the move signalled a wider change in thinking for both the Taliban and the US after years of fighting.

"Both sides have shown their commitment to sign the peace deal, and it's a big development – a significant one."

The US and the Taliban have been tantalisingly close to a deal before, only to see President Donald Trump nix it in September at the 11th hour amid continued insurgent violence.

Any truce comes fraught with danger, and analysts warn the attempt to stem Afghanistan's bloodshed is laced with complications and could fail at any time.

Or, worse still, they say warring parties could exploit a lull to reconfigure their forces and secure a battlefield advantage.

On Thursday, the deputy leader of the Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani, said the insurgents are "fully committed" to a deal with Washington.

Haqqani is also head of the Haqqani network, a US-designated terror group that is one of the most dangerous factions fighting Afghan and US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.