ISLAMABAD - The Taliban appeared confident Monday it will sign a peace agreement with the United States by the end of this month in the presence of international guarantors to close the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan.
A senior leader of the insurgent group told a pro-Taliban news agency the two adversaries have mutually decided to hold the signing ceremony in Doha, the capital of Qatar, which hosted the 18-month U.S.-Taliban negotiations.
Abdul Salam Hanafi, a central member of the Taliban negotiating team and its political office in Doha, gave no date, but insurgent sources have previously said the deal would be inked on February 29.
Hanafi said representatives from all neighbors of Afghanistan, the United Nations Security Council, Islamic countries and European Union will be among those invited to witness the ceremony.
The dialogue process has been concluded, Hanafi said, and "we have already initialed the final draft of the peace agreement."
Soon after the agreement is inked, he added, Americans and the Afghan government will set free 5,000 insurgent prisoners, and the Taliban would also release around 1,000 detainees from its custody.
Washington, however, has stressed it would move forward on a peace agreement with the Taliban only if a mutually agreed 7-day reduction in violence truce is successfully implemented in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials say the short-term truce reached last week will come into force “very soon” but they have not mentioned any date, though insurgent sources claim it will take effect on February 22.
The understanding commits the warring sides to halt offensive operations for seven days. If both sides keep their commitment, they will return to the table to sign the peace agreement Taliban and U.S. negotiators have finalized in marathon meetings over the past year.
Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also told the Council of Ministers in Kabul Monday that the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement has been “finalized.” He said “the signing of the agreement is based on the reduction in violence over seven days and then it (the peace process) will continue,” apparently referring to the short-term truce.
The agreement provides a timetable for the withdrawal of American and coalition forces from Afghanistan, insurgent counterterrorism guarantees, and a process for political reconciliation between Afghan parties to the conflict.
Hanafi said no date and venue has been set for intra-Afghan negotiations on permanently ending hostilities and power-sharing in post-war Afghanistan. But those negotiations, he insisted, would begin only after the prisoner release process is completed.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a security conference in Germany last week the reduction in violence deal with the Taliban "looks very promising" but it was not without risk.
Esper said the prospective peace agreement could reduce U.S. troop levels to about 8,600 -- from around 13,000 currently in Afghanistan.
The Defense Secretary would not say whether all American forces would eventually pull out of Afghanistan and reiterated U.S. counterterrorism missions would remain in place.
U.S. officials, however, have stressed the troop withdrawal process would be linked to progress achieved in Taliban-Afghan peace negotiations.