The Doha peace agreement, struck between the US and the Taliban, has been the subject of fiery debate in recent days – with American president Joe Biden now contentiously claiming that the accord bound him to the military withdrawal which enabled the militants’ sweep to power.
So what exactly was agreed in the Qatari capital 18 months ago, and what role does the deal – at the time hailed in Washington as “historic” – play in the chaos now currently unfolding?
Following 17 years of bloody warfare and various failed attempts at diplomacy, the talks that would eventually birth a deal between the US and Taliban began in November 2018, at the instigation of then-president Donald Trump, who had campaigned on a pledge to finish “endless wars”.
After nine rounds of negotiations, a deal was eventually signed in February 2020 by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as a witness.
The basic aspects of the deal itself were relatively simple.
For its part, the Taliban agreed that Afghanistan would not be used by any of its members, other individuals, or terrorist groups – notably Al-Qaeda, whose 9/11 attack led to the American invasion in 2001 – to threaten US national security or that of its allies.
The insurgents also agreed to take part in peace talks with the Nato-backed Afghan government – a prospect the Taliban had previously dismissed.
In return, the US pledged to reduce its number of troops in Afghanistan from roughly 12,000 to 8,600 within 135 days, followed by a full Nato withdrawal by May 2021 if the Taliban met its own commitments.
A ceasefire between the two sides was also agreed under the deal, in addition to the swap of 1,000 Afghan security force prisoners and 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Among them was Taliban co-founder and political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who helped lead intra-Afghan talks in Doha and is now a frontrunner to become the country’s next president.
Save for Mr Biden’s decision after entering the White House to delay the end date of the US withdrawal until 11 September, Washington remained on course to honour its part of the deal.
While the Taliban – who, at the time of signing, held sway over half of the country – continued to carry out suicide bombings and assassinations against Afghan security forces and civilians, its fighters largely did not attack American soldiers as they withdrew.
They also appeared to be engaging in peace talks with the national government, which began that September.
As it turned out, the talks appear to have merely provided the Taliban with time and cover to plan the unexpectedly rapid takeover that saw them sweep into Kabul unopposed on Sunday, even before the Nato withdrawal was complete.
With the Taliban now in control across the country and figures with links to the former government touting the possible emergence of an unlikely resistance in the Panjshir Valley, it remains to be seen what shape any future diplomacy between the Taliban and former government could now take.
However, elements of the recent Doha talks – which latterly sought a power-sharing deal and emphasised the importance of upholding women’s rights – appear to have filtered through into the Taliban’s charm offensive in the days since taking Kabul, as it seeks to convince citizens and the international community that it has moved beyond some of the most brutal and oppressive elements of their rule two decades ago.
In a landmark press conference on Tuesday, the militant group’s leaders insisted that women in Afghanistan will retain their rights to work and education under an “inclusive, Islamic government”, while referencing an “amnesty”, apparently for former political and military enemies.
But, speaking on Thursday, Mr Biden said it remained unclear whether the Taliban would ultimately seek international recognition as a legitimate government and suggested they may remain more committed to their fundamentalist beliefs.
Meanwhile, the US president faces his own questions at home, and has sought to use Mr Trump’s deal to deflect blame for the fallout from the withdrawal.
In a televised White House address on Monday, Mr Biden referenced the deal he had “inherited”, saying: “The choice I had to make, as your president, was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.”
However, Mr Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, retorted that the agreement had been for “a conditions-based withdrawal” that allowed the US to take action if the Taliban reneged on the deal.
Mr Biden has now been forced to send close to 5,000 troops back in to help evacuate US troops and their allies – more than double the number that remained there to defend the country from the Taliban at the time he inherited the peace deal.
Mr Biden – along with other Nato leaders – remains resolute that the Afghans must “fight for themselves”, as various attempts by desperate residents either to flee the country or oppose the Taliban descend into violence.
Meanwhile, in Washington, a Republican National Committee website celebrating the “historic” Doha deal appears to have been deleted.
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