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.
Negotiations will be arduous and messy, 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 still kills dozens of people daily and the country’s economy has been devastated, pushing millions into poverty.
Abdullah Abdullah, who was previously Afghanistan’s chief executive and 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.
A comprehensive peace deal could take years, and will depend on the willingness of both sides to tailor their competing visions for Afghanistan and the extent to which they can agree to share power.
The Taliban want to reshape Afghanistan as an Islamic “emirate”, while the adminstration 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.
Pakistan has warned the international community against the role of spoilers poised to impair the hard-earned process for peace in Afghanistan.
Addressing the opening session of the Afghan peace talks through video link, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi termed the commencement of peace talks a global recognition of Pakistan’s stance of no-military solution to Afghan dispute rather a political solution being only a way forward.
The Special Envoy to the Prime Minister on Afghanistan Muhammad Sadiq is representing Pakistan at the ceremony.
The FM said Afghans alone must be the masters of their destiny without outside influence or interference.
He said the spoilers from within and from without will pose formidable challenges and constant vigilance will be required to guard against their machinations.
He hoped that all the sides would fulfill their commitments and remain committed to achieve a positive outcome.