DOHA, Qatar – The Taliban applauded, shouted and shouted "God is great", moments after one of its leaders signed an agreement this could lead to the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan after more than 18 years of war.
On Saturday, in this tiny Gulf kingdom, senior US officials shook hands with the group that, like the Afghan government from 1996 to 2001, housed Osama bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda and architect of September 11, 2001. attacks. The U.S. has agreed to work to lift sanctions against the group, and Taliban leaders may even look forward to a possible meeting with President Donald Trump.
In short, after nearly two decades of war with the world's remaining superpower, the Taliban seem not only to have won the war, but are also on the way to losing their status as international outcasts.
"Even if we don't say that the United States was defeated in Afghanistan, it is an open secret now that it has been defeated," said Anas Haqqani, a senior member of the Haqqani network, considered the most formidable of the Taliban's fighting. forces, which was recently released from an Afghan prison in exchange for two Western teachers taken hostage by the Taliban in 2016.
In the agreement that aims to end Washington's military tangle in Afghanistan – America's longest war – the US agrees to withdraw all of its forces from the country in 14 months, although a complete withdrawal depends on the fulfillment of Taliban commitments, including the cutting any ties to terrorist groups.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on Sunday that the way ahead would be "rocky and bumpy", but said it was time to move on.
"No one has the illusion that this is straightforward," he said on CBS's "CBS the Face". "We have built an important base where we can start taking American soldiers home, reduce the risk of loss of life for any American in Afghanistan and, hopefully, set the conditions for the Afghan people to establish a peaceful solution to what they are. 40-year struggle ".
The United States has 12,000 to 13,000 troops in Afghanistan.
For the Taliban, getting the U.S. to agree to withdraw is similar to US-backed mujahedeen, or "holy fighters", expelling Soviet troops in the 1980s and earlier, and the Afghans who declared independence from Britain in 1919.
That feeling of celebration and victory spread on the open Saturday, as Taliban leaders and members held a small parade on the streets of Qatar before the signing ceremony.
The war took a huge toll on the insurgents. Brown University estimates that between 2001 and October 2018, some 40,000 opposition fighters were killed in Afghanistan. Although it does not give details on how many of these fighters were members of the Taliban, they are by far the largest insurgent group in the country.
The war also inflicted a death toll on the Afghan people. While the Taliban firmly deny that they attack civilians, according to the United Nations the group was responsible for almost half of the more than 10,000 civilians who were injured or killed in Afghanistan last year.
There were about 2,400 military deaths in the U.S. between 2001 and 2018, according to Brown University's Costs of War project.
& # 39; That was the easy part & # 39;
The Taliban say they feel victorious now, but the war is not over yet.
The group made a substantial concession by agreeing to negotiate for the first time with Afghan government officials, opposition representatives and members of civil society on March 10.
It was this commitment – along with a promise to prevent al Qaeda or other terrorists from using Afghan soil to attack the United States or its allies – that allowed an agreement between the Taliban and Washington to be brokered. And, at least for a moment, it partially lifted them from the international cold.
The Taliban are betting that Trump is eager to bring U.S. troops home and will be reluctant to back down on the planned withdrawal. When US forces leave, the Taliban will be in a powerful position at the negotiating table – or if necessary – on the battlefield.
But the Taliban's rehabilitation depends on what comes next, according to American officials. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in Kabul that if the Taliban fail to live up to their commitments, the United States "will not hesitate to annul the agreement".
For Laurel Miller, a former senior US diplomat who now joins the International Crisis Group's think tank, "that was the easy part."
The forthcoming peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghans "will have to deal with much more difficult questions about who will be able to exercise power in the country and how the government will be organized," Miller said in a statement on Saturday.
The Taliban persistently dismissed President Ashraf Ghani as an American puppet and rejected participating in the elections, and also asked Afghans to boycott votes. They created hidden authorities across the country, taking over hospitals and state schools.
And even before the start of peace negotiations within Afghanistan, there are problems to be solved.
The United States pledged in the agreement to work with both sides to secure the release of up to 5,000 prisoners held by the Afghan government and 1,000 prisoners held by the Taliban at the beginning of the negotiations.
However, the timing of the prisoner exchange can be controversial. On Monday, a Taliban spokesman said the talks would not take place unless the prisoners were released first.
After that, reports emerged that the Taliban had canceled the reduction of violence and ordered its fighters to start attacking Afghan forces.