The Afghan government signed a long-awaited peace deal with one of the country's main insurgent groups in Kabul on Thursday, laying the groundwork for a ceasefire between the two sides.
High-ranking representatives from the government and the Hezb-e Islami insurgent group were present for the signing, which was broadcast on state television.
"The first step of this agreement is completed," said Afghan National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar, who called on the Afghan Taliban to follow the group's example in making peace.
The signatures of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are still required to finalize the deal, after which an immediate ceasefire can be implemented, Atmar added.
The Hezb-e Islami insurgent group opposes international military intervention in Afghanistan and has fought against international troops and Afghan government since the US-led intervention in 2001.
One of Hezb-e Islami's conditions for a peace deal was the exit of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Under the agreement signed Thursday, the group has called for a reasonable schedule for the exit of foreign troops.
"We will continue our struggle until all foreign troops are out of Afghanistan," said Mohammad Amin Karim, the insurgent group's delegation head.
Hezb-e Islami's deal with the Afghan government offers "judicial immunity" to all group members, and all Hezb-e-Islami prisoners in custody of the Afghan government are to be released within two months, according to a copy of the deal obtained by dpa.
Under the deal, the Afghan government will also send official requests to the UN Security Council and relevant agencies that "all restrictions against Hezb-e Islami be lifted."
"The United States has said that it will try to remove the group off the blacklist if they sign the peace deal," said Atmar.
In return, Hezb-e-Islami will cease supporting any group deemed terrorist by Afghanistan, dismantle all its military organizations and operate only as a political organization in the country.
Hezb-e Islami was never aligned with the Taliban but was one of the most prominent and radical of seven mujahideen factions fighting the Soviets in the 1980s with foreign assistance, favoured by US and Pakistani intelligence services.
Hekmatyar, the insurgent group's leader, is a one-time anti-Soviet guerrilla leader and former prime minister who was chiefly responsible for plunging the country into a bloody civil war after the 1992 fall of the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, Hekmatyar refused to join the new government and declared Jihad against foreign forces. The United States declared him a global terrorist and Hezb-e Islami a group of concern, although not a global terrorist organization.
With insurgency and political tensions on the rise, and the government's repeated failures to broker a deal with the Taliban, the accord reached with Hezb-e Islami could be a huge milestone for the Afghan unity government.
But Human Rights Watch has criticized the peace deal, calling it "an affront to victims of grave abuses" in a Wednesday statement.
Hekmatyar's return will "compound the culture of impunity that the Afghan government and its foreign donors have fostered by not pursuing accountability for the many victims of forces commanded by Hekmatyar and other warlords that laid waste to much of the country in the 1990s."
Hezb-e Islami conducted operations in northern and north-eastern Afghanistan, with its bases reportedly inside Pakistan. The group is believed to have ties to Al-Qaeeda, Iran and Pakistani military intelligence, among others.