Mideast leaders arrive in Qatar to sign U.S.-Afghanistan peace deal

Foreign leaders arrived in Qatar Friday to prepare for a peace agreement that will end nearly two decades of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

Afghan soldiers man a checkpoint in Helmand, Afghanistan, on February 22 at the start of a seven-day “reduction in violence” agreement between the United States and the Taliban. Photo by Watan Yar

Foreign ministers of seven nations and representatives from 50 others are expected to attend the signing ceremony in Doha on Saturday. The ratification of the deal is dependent on a successful conclusion of a weeklong partial truce this week.

Saturday’s signing is scheduled to occur at the Taliban’s Doha headquarters. The dignitaries began arriving Friday. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will visit Kabul Saturday to announce a joint peace declaration with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“Tomorrow is a big day for Afghanistan and for Afghans. It’s a great opportunity,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmoud Qureshi said. “Afghanistan is moving towards peace and reconciliation. So, tomorrow can set the tone for an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue.”

U.S. President Donald Trump announced Friday that he’s sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Doha to observe the signing ceremony.

“These commitments represent an important step to a lasting peace in a new Afghanistan, free from al-Qaida, [the Islamic State], and any other terrorist group that would seek to bring us harm. Ultimately it will be up to the people of Afghanistan to work out their future,” Trump said. “We, therefore, urge the Afghan people to seize this opportunity for peace and a new future for their country.”

U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since late 2001 after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., and Trump for months has indicated a desire to withdraw American troops.

“We want very much to be optimistic first, and, secondly, of course we welcome the peace process,” added Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov. “Uzbekistan is immediate neighbor of Afghanistan and over the past many centuries, we had very close humanitarian culture, economic ties with Afghan people.”

The peace deal is seen by the United States as a precursor to the more challenging prospect of direct talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government, which was not involved in the truce negotiations.

Under terms of the deal, the U.S. military will begin a phased withdrawal and the Taliban will start negotiating with the Afghan government, which has always refused to recognize a permanent cease-fire or a power-sharing structure. The format and details of the future talks have not been finalized, but analysts say they could be complicated by division between Ghani and Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah over certain issues.

ByDon Jacobson