DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Afghanistan’s warring sides started negotiations on Saturday for the first time, bringing together the Taliban and delegates appointed by the Afghan government for historic meetings aimed at ending decades of war.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the opening ceremony, which was held in Qatar where the meetings are taking place. It’s the latest in a flurry of diplomatic activity by the Trump administration ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.
The discussions are important in the search for lasting peace that will also provide an exit for U.S. and NATO troops after nearly 19 years.
Pompeo indicated the talks are expected to be contentious. He said that the outcome is entirely up to Afghans, and not the U.S.
“Each of you carry a great responsibility,” he told the participants. “You have an opportunity to overcome your divisions.”
The sides will be tackling tough issues. This includes the terms of a permanent cease-fire, the rights of women and minorities and the disarming of tens of thousands of Taliban fighters and militias loyal to warlords, some of them aligned with the government.
The Afghan sides are also expected to discuss constitutional changes and power sharing during the talks in Qatar’s capital of Doha, where Taliban insurgents maintain a political office.
Even seemingly mundane issues like the flag and the name of the country __ the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan or as the Taliban’s administration had been known, when it ruled, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan __ could find their way on to the negotiation table and roil tempers.
Among the government-appointed negotiators are four women, who vow to preserve women’s rights in any power-sharing deal with the fundamentalist Taliban. This includes the right to work, education and participation in political life __ all denied women when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years. The Taliban were ousted in 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition for harboring Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America.
There are no women on the Taliban’s negotiation team, led by their chief justice Abdul Hakim.
Abdullah Abdullah, who was named as head of the High Council for National Reconciliation that’s overseeing the talks, said in his remarks that the sides do not need to agree on every detail, but should announce a humanitarian cease-fire.
He said that if the negotiations bring about lasting peace, protect Afghanistan’s independence and lead to a system based on Islamic principles that preserves the rights of all people, “then both sides will be peace heroes.”
Taliban representative Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar said in his remarks that the talks should lead to an Islamic system where all Afghans see themselves as part of.
Pompeo warned that their decisions and conduct will affect both the size and conduct of U.S. assistance.
He encouraged the negotiators to respect Afghanistan’s rich diversity, including women and ethnic and religious minorities. He said that while the choice of Afghanistan’s political system is theirs to make, the U.S. has found that democracy and rotation of political power works best.
“I can only urge these actions. You will write the next chapter of Afghan history,” he said.
Pompeo spoke the day after the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. He said the U.S. will never forget the 9/11, and that America welcomes the Taliban commitment not to host terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, which was responsible for the carnage.
The intra-Afghan negotiations were laid out in a peace deal Washington signed with the Taliban on Feb. 29. At that time the deal was touted as Afghanistan’s best chance at peace in 40 years of war.
Abdullah noted that since that agreement was reached, 1,200 people have been killed and more than 15,000 wounded in attacks across the country.
Current talks had been originally expected to begin within weeks of the signed agreement between the Taliban and the U.S.
But delays disrupted the timeline. The Afghan government balked at releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners, which was stipulated in the deal as a sign of good faith ahead of the negotiations. The Taliban were required to release 1,000 government and military personnel in their custody.
Political turmoil in Kabul further delayed talks as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival in controversial presidential polls the year before, Abdullah Abdullah, squabbled over who won, with both declaring victory.
The Taliban refusal to reduce the violence further hindered the start of talks.
While Washington ramped up pressure to get the intra-Afghan negotiations started, the deal they signed with the Taliban to withdraw completely from Afghanistan does not hinge on the success of the talks.
Washington’s withdrawal is contingent on the Taliban honoring commitments to fight terrorist groups, in particular the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, and ensure that Afghanistan cannot again be used to attack America or its allies.
The U.S. has refused to give specific of the guarantees citing security reasons, but the withdrawal of U.S. troops has already begun. President Donald Trump has said that by November, about 4,000 soldiers will be in Afghanistan, down from 13,000 when the deal was signed in February.
“Washington’s goals are very simple: It wants intra-Afghan talks happening as soon as possible, because these give the White House political cover for an imminent withdrawal,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Washington-based Wilson Center’s Asia program.
“Trump likely wants a peace deal before the election, so that he can garner political benefits galore and pitch himself as a Nobel Peace Prize candidate. But presumably even he realizes it’s wildly unrealistic to expect a deal so soon. These types of negotiations tend to be measured in years, not weeks.”
The talks in Doha follow the Trump administration-brokered recognition of Israel by two Gulf Arab nations — Bahrain on Friday and the United Arab Emirates in August.
Gannon reported from Islamabad
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