U.S. officials and Taliban negotiators are poised to meet on February 29 in Qatar to take what could be the most important step yet toward ending America's longest war -- the conflict in Afghanistan.
More than 18 years after President George W. Bush ordered the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, the stage is set for an agreement that could lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops and a peace deal between the Taliban and West-backed Kabul government.
U.S. President Donald Trump on February 28 said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was being sent to oversee the signing of deal with the Taliban.
The anticipated signing would come after a week in which both U.S.-led forces and the Taliban committed to a reduction in violence.
Under the plan being signed, the United States is to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 from about 13,000.
In return, the Taliban has pledged not to let extremists use the country as a staging ground for attacks on U.S. or coalition forces and vowed to hold talks with the government in Kabul.
The Taliban has so far refused to talk directly to the Afghan government, calling it a puppet of the West.
Talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban could still prove difficult, with many in Kabul doubting the extremists' sincerity or their ability to control all of the group's militant fighters.
A U.S.-led coalition of forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to drive the Taliban from power after the group refused to hand over Al-Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Since then, about 2,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed in fighting, along with tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers, extremist fighters, and civilians.
Trump campaigned on a pledge of pulling U.S. forces out of "endless wars." On February 28, he urged the warring sides to seize the opportunity to make peace.
'Soon, at my direction, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will witness the signing of an agreement with representatives of the Taliban, while Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will issue a joint declaration with the government of Afghanistan,' Trump said in a statement.
'If the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan live up to these commitments, we will have a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home,' Trump said.
"These commitments represent an important step to a lasting peace in a new Afghanistan, free from Al-Qaeda, [Islamic State], and any other terrorist group that would seek to bring us harm,' Trump said.
He added, however, that 'ultimately it will be up to the people of Afghanistan to work out their future.'
'We, therefore, urge the Afghan people to seize this opportunity for peace and a new future for their country,' he added.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told RFE/RL that the agreement would be signed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, leader of the political wing of the group.
A deal has been close before.
In September 2019, Trump suddenly called off a planned signing ceremony with the Taliban at Camp David, Maryland, after a series of Taliban attacks. But talks eventually resumed, led by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, in Qatar, where the Taliban has a representive office.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Afghan Service, Radio Mashaal, AFP, AP, Reuters, and dpa
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