The Afghan government and the Taliban have agreed framework rules for peace talks after more than two months of discussions, allowing negotiations on ending a nearly 20-year civil war to finally begin.
The peace process, hosted by Qatar, is playing out against a backdrop of heavy violence on the ground in Afghanistan and an accelerated withdrawal of US troops.
Critics of the talks fear that the insurgents are more interested in playing for time than ending the war, and aim to ultimately take the entire country by force once the Afghan army can no longer count on the support of the American military.
Despite losing the US presidential election, Donald Trump has ordered a drawdown of American forces in the country to around 2,500 by January, barely a quarter of levels a year ago.
Related: Trump’s Afghanistan withdrawal announcement takes US officials by surprise
The military is implementing that order, which will leave enough American soldiers to hold “a couple” of main bases and some satellite bases, said General Mark Milley, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
German foreign minister Heiko Maas warned this week that Nato must not jeopardise the peace talks by withdrawing troops from the country too early.
The three-page framework agreement for the talks was announced on Twitter by negotiators from both sides, almost simultaneously, on Wednesday.
Nader Nadery, part of the government’s delegation, described the deal to the Guardian as a “significant step forward”. The teams will now try to set an agenda for the talks. “We are starting on that part on Saturday onwards. We are looking to create a balance between the sense of urgency and avoiding rushing through.”
The peace process was officially launched in mid-September, but stalled almost immediately over efforts to fix the terms of reference. Some were technical, such as what names to use in documents for two parties who do not formally recognise each other.
But many reflected fundamental differences of principle about what kind of country Afghanistan is and what its future should look like.
One issue was which school of Islamic jurisprudence should be used for reference in case of disputes. The government insisted on a system that recognised the country’s religious and ethnic minorities, including a dwindling number of Sikhs and Hindus, and the country’s Shia population.
The Taliban wanted the withdrawal agreement it signed with the US in February to be considered the starting point for the talks. The Afghan government wanted recognition of a more democratic and domestic basis for negotiations.
Setting the agenda will also be a delicate balancing act, between Afghan government priorities, which include a broad ceasefire, and those of the Taliban. The insurgents have shown little interest in laying down arms for the talks.
There have been several brief ceasefires for religious holidays in recent years but the Taliban have resisted calls for a broader halt to fighting. Insurgent leaders are aware that their ability to cause bloodshed brought their enemies to the negotiating table.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US peace envoy for Afghanistan, a diplomat with Afghan heritage who presided over US-Taliban talks, then helped bring government and insurgents to the table, welcomed the deal as a “significant milestone”.
“This agreement demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues. We congratulate both sides on their perseverance,” he said on Twitter. “The people of Afghanistan now expect rapid progress on a political roadmap and a ceasefire. We understand their desire and we support them.”