The Trump administration is poised to sign a landmark peace accord Saturday morning with the Taliban terrorist organization more than 18 years after the United States first entered Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.
In a move that U.S. officials say could end the nation's longest war in history, the Trump administration announced it has reached a truce that will massively scale down the American military presence with the expectation of an eventual full withdrawal.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Doha, Qatar, this weekend to participate in a public peace deal signing with members of the Taliban and the Afghan government, which is still suffering from massive corruption and allegations the country's most recent elections were rigged.
At the same time, Defense Secretary Mark Esper will be in the Afghan capital of Kabul for a separate ceremony marking the international community's endorsement of the peace deal, according to U.S. officials.
Rumors of the long-percolating deal have been circulating in Washington, D.C., for weeks, prompting a group of Republican members of Congress to petition the Trump administration against going through with the agreement. They and other critics say the Taliban cannot be trusted to implement peace and that the moment U.S. forces vacate the country, terror forces will again rise to power.
The Trump administration had declared peace talks with the Taliban dead in September after abruptly canceling a meeting at Camp David between the United States and the Taliban. However, channels between the two sides remained open, leading to Saturday's announcement.
The Trump administration is now committed to giving the deal a shot. The United States intends to scale down its troop presence from some 14,000 troops to around 8,600 by the end of the year—a number administration officials insist is enough to do the job of keeping the fragile peace deal alive.
With this eventual withdrawal of U.S. military personnel, President Trump will be making good on one of his benchmark campaign promises—removing the United States from so-called endless wars.
"This country is not in the best shape for 40 years; they've been suffering from conflict. If we ripped everybody out overnight it would, almost in a certain sense, threaten everything we've done," said one senior Trump administration official intimately familiar with the peace deal.
The administration, which has been divided over the peace accord, remains clear-eyed about who they are dealing with, officials maintained.
In fact, talks with the Taliban have been taking place daily for months now. This is how the United States was able to ink the first part of the peace accord—a "reduction in violence" agreement that has seen the two sides lay down arms this past week.
If the peace holds, the United States hopes to bring the Afghan parties together for the final stage of peace talks in March.
Throughout the process, support from the international community has been crucial, including from typical foes such as China and Russia, officials said.
"There's been broad support for what we're trying to do," according to the senior administration official, who briefed reporters on background. "Everybody has the same goals. No one wants to see the return of the Islamic Emirate."
Officials further acknowledged that there is no military path to victory in Afghanistan.
"The 30,000-foot conclusion by all parties is that a military solution is not possible without endless amounts of resources," the official said. "Everybody decided the best way forward was a political settlement, rather than a military solution. The Taliban has not been defeated. They represent a portion of Afghan society" that must be included in discussions.
U.S. officials also pushed back against criticism that the signing ceremonies represent a photo opportunity and little more.
"This is not just optics in any way," the official said. "This is historic. We have worked out a deal with them where they make commitments to us on counterterror that matter to us."
This includes cracking down on the remnants of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and giving up the near-constant barrage of terror attacks.
"We made commitments to them. If they fulfill their commitments, we're prepared to proceed with pulling out our troops. We never wanted a permanent" presence in Afghanistan, the official said. "It's just the beginning. It's a whole new stage of challenges we're launching here."
However, Afghanistan "is not going to become Switzerland overnight," the official conceded.