Afghanistan’s warring sides started negotiations for the first time, bringing together the Taliban and delegates appointed by the Afghan government Saturday for historic meetings aimed at ending decades of war that has killed tens of thousands of combatants and civilians.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the opening ceremony in Qatar, where the meetings are taking place and where the Taliban maintain a political office.
“The United States is a proponent of a sovereign, unified, and representative Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and with its neighbors,” but “you will write the next chapter in Afghan history,” Pompeo said at the opening ceremony.
Afghans will choose their political system, Pompeo said and shared that the United States found that democracy which “systems reflect the choices of the majority while protecting the human rights of everyone” works best and brought the United States “great peace and prosperity.” However “no one size fits all solution, [so] the United States doesn’t seek to impose its system on others.” Pompeo added.
Pompeo urged the Afghan parties in the negotiations to “make decisions that move away from the violence and the corruption and towards peace and development and prosperity.”
However, the decisions made by Afghans at the negotiations table “will affect both the size and scope of United States future assistance.”
It is the first time in 40 years when Afghans representing the government, civic society, political groups, as well as four very distinguished women, will sit together with the authoritative representation of the Taliban to bring the four decade long war to an end and lay the groundwork for the future of the country Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan said on Friday at a press briefing.
However, the negotiators on both sides, the government, and the Taliban will have to face challenging issues that might be difficult to resolve, Khalilzad said. The United States is prepared to assist if needed but this is “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” with no mediator or facilitator, Khalilzad explained.
There are however spoilers to the peace process, Khalilzad said, and “there are people who prefer the U.S. to remain entangled in a conflict in Afghanistan.” Those people are at war with the government and the Taliban, and one example of such a group is ISIS. Talibs are fighting ISIS, the Afghan government, and the international coalition forces, he said.
“If there is peace between the Taliban and the government, I think Afghanistan will be in a stronger position to deal with the smaller groups,” Khalilzad said. “And with the two at war, that provides an opportunity for a terrorist group such as Daesh [ISIS],” he added.
The hard negotiations will be held behind closed doors and the sides will be tackling tough issues such as 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.
Abdullah Abdullah, who heads Kabul’s High Council for National Reconciliation, said in his remarks that the sides do not need to agree on every detail, but should announce a humanitarian cease-fire.
Both sides will be “peace heroes” if negotiations bring about a lasting peace that protects Afghanistan’s independence and leads to a system based on Islamic principles that preserves the rights of all people, said Abdullaah.
“My delegation is in Doha representing a political system that is supported by millions of men and women from a diversity of cultural, social, and ethnic backgrounds in our homeland,” he said.
Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund said that Afghanistan should “have an Islamic system in which all tribes and ethnicities of the country find themselves without any discrimination and live their lives in love and brotherhood.
“Negotiations may have problems but should move forward with patience,” he said.
The intra-Afghan negotiations were laid out in a peace deal Washington signed with the Taliban on Feb. 29. which specified the conditions for the start of the intra-Afghan talks.
One of the biggest challenges to get to this phase was the release of prisoners stipulated by the agreement (pdf), Khalilzad said. After months of delay, a dispute over the Taliban’s demand for the release of 5,000 prisoners was resolved this week.
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. The United Nations has urged a reduction of violence and criticized civilian casualties on both sides.
The talks started one day after the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States that triggered its military involvement in Afghanistan.
Although the Taliban regime was quickly toppled, they regrouped and have since waged an insurgency that has sucked in Afghanistan’s neighbors and troops from dozens of countries, including NATO forces.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Within months, U.S. troops defeated the Taliban and forced the al-Qaeda terrorist group to flee to Pakistan. But the war continued as the United States sought to stabilize the country before withdrawing its forces.
The war in Afghanistan began in 1979 with the Soviet invasion starting four decades of violence and evolved into a civil war that continued after Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.