Afghan government and Taliban representatives said they have reached a preliminary deal to press on with peace talks, their first written agreement in 19 years of war.
The agreement on Wednesday lays out the way forward for further discussion but is considered a breakthrough because it will allow negotiators to move on to more substantive issues, including talks on a ceasefire.
“The procedure including its preamble of the negotiation has been finalised and from now on, the negotiation will begin on the agenda,” Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan government’s negotiating team, told Reuters.
The Taliban spokesman confirmed the same on Twitter.
“A joint working committee was tasked to prepare the draft topics for the agenda (of peace talks),” a joint statement from both sides said.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said on Twitter, quoting the Afghan leader: “(The agreement) is a step forward towards beginning the negotiations on the main issues, including a comprehensive ceasefire as the key demand of the Afghan people.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated the two sides on “perseverance and willingness to find common ground”, and added that the United States would “work hard with all sides in pursuit of a serious reduction of violence and ceasefire”.
US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said that the two sides had agreed on a “three-page agreement codifing rules and procedures for their negotiations on a political road map and a comprehensive ceasefire”.
‘Springboard to peace’
The agreement comes after months of discussions in Doha, the capital of Qatar, in negotiations encouraged by the United States. In Afghanistan, the two sides are still at war, with Taliban attacks on government forces continuing unabated.
The Taliban has refused to agree to a ceasefire during the preliminary stages of talks, despite calls from Western capitals and global bodies, saying that would be taken up only when the way forward for talks was agreed upon.
United Nations envoy for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons welcomed the “positive development” on Twitter, adding that “this breakthrough should be a springboard to reach the peace wanted by all Afghans”.
Last month, an agreement reached between Taliban and government negotiators was held up at the last minute after the Taliban baulked at the document’s preamble because it mentioned the Afghan government by name.
The Taliban refused to refer to the Afghan negotiating team as representatives of the Afghan government, as they contest the legitimacy of the administration led by President Ashraf Ghani.
A European Union diplomat familiar with the process told Reuters that both sides had kept some contentious issues on the side to deal with separately.
“Both sides also know that Western powers are losing patience and aid has been conditional … so both sides know they have to move forward to show some progress,” said the diplomat, requesting anonymity.
In a statement on Wednesday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry welcomed the agreement and said it was “another significant step forward”.
“The agreement reflects a common resolve of the parties to secure a negotiated settlement. It is an important development contributing towards a successful outcome of intra-Afghan negotiations, which we all hope for,” it said.
The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by US-led forces. A US-backed government has held power in Afghanistan since then, although the Taliban have control over wide areas of the country.
Under a February deal, foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban.
US President Donald Trump has looked to hasten the withdrawal, despite criticism, saying he wanted to see all American soldiers home by Christmas to end the US’s longest war.
The Trump administration has since announced that there would be a sharp drawdown by January, but at least 2,500 troops would remain beyond then.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday warned NATO against withdrawing troops prematurely and said it should “ensure that we tie further troop reductions in Afghanistan to clear conditions”.