Abdullah Abdullah (C), Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, speaks with members of delegations at the end of the session during the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha on September 12, 2020. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)
Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government opened in Qatar on Saturday, marking what US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heralded as a “truly momentous” breakthrough in nearly two decades of relentless conflict.
The talks will be arduous and complex, delegates acknowledged at an opening ceremony in Doha, and are starting even as deadly violence continues to grip Afghanistan.
“We will undoubtedly encounter many challenges in the talks over the coming days, weeks and months,” Pompeo said as he called for the warring sides to “seize this opportunity” to secure peace.
“Remember you are acting not only for this generation of Afghans but for future generations as well, your children and your grandchildren.”
Nineteen years since the US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan’s war is still killing dozens of people daily.
Abdullah Abdullah, who is heading the peace process for Kabul, said 12,000 civilians have been killed and another 15,000 wounded just since the US signed a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban on February 29.
Abdullah called for an immediate, humanitarian ceasefire — but his plea went unanswered by Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who made no mention of a truce in his opening remarks.
The Taliban have long worried that reducing violence could lessen their leverage.
Instead, Baradar repeated the insurgents’ message that Afghanistan should be run according to Islamic law, highlighting what likely will be the main sticking point in negotiations.
The Taliban want to reshape Afghanistan as an Islamic “emirate”, while the administration of President Ashraf Ghani wants to maintain the Western-backed status quo of a constitutional republic that has enshrined many rights, including greater freedoms for women.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide urged all sides to include “women, victims and minorities and other stakeholders” in the process, saying such inclusivity is the key to an enduring accord.
Four of the 21 people on the Kabul negotiating team are women. The Taliban’s delegation of the same size has none.
Habiba Sarabi, one of the women negotiators, told AFP the talks’ opening had been “very positive”.
“Everybody including Secretary Pompeo shared their solidarity, from the Taliban side also. They were in a better position compared to the last meetings. We’re on the way to building the trust,” she said.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy who led talks with the Taliban, said the timetable for foreign troops to quit Afghanistan by May remained on track, and that he wanted a comprehensive ceasefire before then.
President Donald Trump, up for re-election in November, has pushed hard to end the United States’ longest war.
Khalilzad cautioned that Washington would not underwrite a future Afghan state that was not in line with “universal values”, including women’s rights.
“There is no blank cheque,” Khalilzad said.
In the Afghan capital, residents were glued to their televisions as the opening ceremony unfolded.
The US-backed negotiations come six months later than planned owing to disagreements over a controversial prisoner swap agreed in February.
A comprehensive peace deal could take years, and will depend on the willingness of both sides to tailor their competing visions.
“My beard was black when the war began, it is snow white now and we are still in war,” said Kabul resident Obaidullah, 50, a retired civil servant.
“I don’t believe the war will end that soon. I am sceptical about the talks because both sides want their full agenda and their system enforced.”
The talks are being held in a luxury hotel in Doha, where chairs were dotted at socially distanced intervals facing a banner emblazoned with the words “Afghan Peace Negotiations” in four languages.
Doha also hosted the signing of the US-Taliban deal in February that paved the way for peace talks.
The Taliban claimed “victory” after the deal and see their bargaining position as stronger now than at any time in the last two decades.
A who’s who of international stakeholders in the Afghanistan conflict spoke at the opening ceremony, including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had been scheduled to speak but did not.
Qatar has quietly guided the process which has been complicated by violence in Afghanistan and the coronavirus crisis, with Doha’s chief mediator Mutlaq al-Qahtani stressing “the power of diplomacy”.
“We’re advising the Taliban to preserve, to protect women’s rights,” Mutlaq said.
Doha invited the Taliban to open a political office in 2013 and helped broker February’s US-Taliban deal.
Since that agreement, the insurgents have continued to launch daily attacks.
The Afghan defence ministry told AFP clashes had been reported in more than 20 provinces in the past 24 hours.