DOHA, Qatar -- The United States signed a landmark deal with the Taliban on Saturday (February 29), laying out a timetable for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months.
The agreement is expected to lead to a dialogue between the Taliban and the Kabul government that, if successful, could ultimately see an end to the 18-year conflict.
Intra-Afghan talks are scheduled to begin March 10.
Taliban top negotiator Mullah Baradar signed the accord alongside Washington's chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, at a gilded desk in a conference room in a luxury Doha hotel.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looked on as the two inked the deal, after urging the insurgents to "keep your promises to cut ties with Al-Qaeda".
"I know there will be a temptation to declare victory, but victory for Afghans will only be achieved when they can live in peace and prosper," he said at the ceremony in Doha.
Even as close as last November, observers concluded that Taliban retained "deep ties" to al-Qaeda.
The Taliban's pledge to guarantee Afghanistan is never again used by jihadist movements such as Al-Qaeda and "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) to plot attacks abroad will be key to the deal's viability.
The Taliban's sheltering of Al-Qaeda was the main reason for the US invasion following the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
On the eve of the signing, US President Donald Trump urged the Afghan people to embrace the chance for a new future.
"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," he said.
The signing comes after a week-long, partial truce that has mostly held across Afghanistan, aimed at building confidence between the warring parties and showing the Taliban can control their forces.
The United States and its allies will withdraw all their forces from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban abide by the terms of the accord.
After an initial reduction of troops to 8,600 within 135 days of Saturday's signing, the US and its partners "will complete withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan" within 14 months.
The US and the Taliban also agreed to swap thousands of prisoners in a "confidence building measure".
"Up to 5,000 prisoners of the (Taliban)... and 1,000 prisoners of the other side (Afghan forces) will be released by March 10," the deal said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg heralded the agreement as a "first step to lasting peace".
"The way to peace is long and hard. We have to be prepared for setbacks, spoilers, there is no easy way to peace but this is an important first step," the Norwegian former prime minister told reporters in Kabul.
The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement that "the current opportunity to move towards peace should not be missed" and the bloc expected "Afghan-owned and Afghan-led negotiations to start without delay in an inclusive manner and aiming at a lasting peace".
Since the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban after the September 11, 2001 attacks, about 2,400 US soldiers have been killed, along with unknown tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians.
The deal, however, has its opponents. Observers have pointed out that the Iranian regime may seek to be a spoiler by engaging proxy groups to strike at US and Afghan interests.
ISIS, which has been effectively defeated in Afghanistan, may also attempt to soy discord in an attempt to scuttle the deal.
The Taliban said they had halted all hostilities Saturday in honour of the agreement.
"Since the deal is being signed today, and our people are happy and celebrating it, we have halted all our military operations across the country," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP.
US 'will not hesitate to nullify' agreement
The United States "will not hesitate to nullify" its historic deal with the Taliban if the insurgents renege on their security guarantees and commitment to hold talks with the Afghan government, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Saturday.
On a visit to Kabul, Esper warned that "should the Taliban fail to honour their commitments they will forfeit their chance to sit with fellow Afghans and deliberate on the future of their country."
"Moreover the United States would not hesitate to nullify the agreement," he added.