ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Delegates of warring sides in Afghanistan announced Wednesday they had agreed on a framework for their peace negotiations aimed at ending the country's protracted conflict.
The United States, which brokered the peace process, welcomed the agreement as a "major milestone" in the peace negotiations involving the Taliban insurgency and representatives of the Afghan government.
"The procedure, including its preamble of the negotiation, has been finalized, and from now on, the negotiation will begin on the agenda," read a statement released by both sides.
The so-called intra-Afghan dialogue, which is being held in Doha, the capital of Qatar, started in September amid high hopes and fanfare. But disagreements over how to pursue the talks stalled them for the most part, with both sides blaming each other for the deadlock.
Taliban spokesman Naeem Wardak said the two negotiating teams also held a "plenary meeting" Wednesday where a "joint working committee" was tasked with preparing the agenda for the dialogue.
"The current negotiations of both negotiation teams show that there is willingness among Afghans to reach a sustainable peace, and both sides are committed to continue their sincere efforts to reach a sustainable peace in Afghanistan," Wardak said.
While welcoming the progress, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained in a statement that the agreement "codifies the rules and procedures" the two Afghan teams have been negotiating since the start of peace process.
The decisions outlined in the document will guide the intra-Afghan negotiations on a "political road map" and a "comprehensive cease-fire," Pompeo said.
He congratulated Taliban and Afghan government negotiators on their "perseverance and willingness" to find common ground.
"What has been achieved provides hope they will succeed in reaching a political settlement to this more than 40-year-old conflict," the chief U.S. diplomat stressed.
The intra-Afghan talks stem from the landmark agreement that Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, negotiated and signed with the Taliban in February.
The deal immediately initiated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South Asian nation to reach closer to an end to what has become the longest war in U.S. history.
The agreement calls for all U.S. and NATO troops to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, and pledges that the insurgent group will negotiate a sustainable cease-fire and a power-sharing deal with rival Afghan groups.
The Feb. 29 pact and subsequent intra-Afghan peace talks have not helped reduce battlefield violence between government forces and the Taliban. The insurgent group insists that a cease-fire be discussed at the negotiating table.
"As negotiations on a political roadmap and permanent ceasefire begin, we will work hard with all sides for serious reduction of violence and even a ceasefire during this period," Khalilzad tweeted Wednesday.
Deborah Lyons, U.N. envoy for Afghanistan, was in Doha on Wednesday and met with Taliban leaders. She hailed the progress achieved by both negotiating teams as a "positive development."
"This breakthrough should be a springboard to reach the peace wanted by all Afghans," she said on Twitter.