Afghan government negotiators expressed cautious optimism for progress on thorny issues including ceasefires as peace talks with the Taliban were set to get down to business in Doha on Sunday.
A slick opening ceremony in Doha on Saturday saw the Afghan government, and allies including the US, call for a ceasefire.
But the Taliban, who have fought a guerrilla campaign against both since they were forced from power in 2001, did not mention a truce as they came to the negotiating table.
The head of the peace process for the Afghan government, Abdullah Abdullah, suggested the Taliban could offer a ceasefire in exchange for the release of more of their jailed fighters.
“This could be one of their ideas or one of their demands,” Abdullah told AFP.
Speaking later to journalists, he said the talks should continue in the “spirit of moving towards peace”.
“There should first be a significant reduction in violence, then humanitarian ceasefires, and then a nationwide and permanent ceasefire.”
Negotiations will be arduous and messy, delegates warned, and are starting even as bloodshed continues to grip Afghanistan.
“We will undoubtedly encounter many challenges in the talks over the coming days, weeks and months,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said as he called for the warring sides to “seize this opportunity” to secure peace.
‘We are fired up’
Nearly two decades since the US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, the war still kills dozens of people daily and the country’s economy has been shattered, pushing millions into poverty.
The Taliban have long worried that reducing conflict could lessen their leverage.
Even as technical committees from the two sides were due to meet to hammer out an agenda for the talks, violence raged on the ground.
Officials said six police were killed in a Taliban attack in Kunduz overnight, while five officers were slain in Kapisa province.
A roadside mine blast in the capital wounded two civilians, and another explosion in Kabul district resulted in no casualties.
“Causing more bloodshed (during the talks) is a miscalculation. It is impossible for one side to win the war,” said Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation.
Nader Naderi, an Afghan government negotiator, said he was hopeful of an imminent meeting with the Taliban contact group.
“This will be the second working meeting between us. We are fired up and ready to go to end this fight,” he told AFP.
‘Sooner rather than later’
During a speech at the opening event, Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar repeated the insurgents’ message that Afghanistan should be run according to Islamic law, highlighting a likely sticking point.
Baradar and Abdullah both met with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani on Sunday to discuss the process, according to Tamim’s office.
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.
President Ashraf Ghani’s government wants to maintain the Western-backed status quo of a constitutional republic that has enshrined many rights, including greater freedoms for women.
Four of the 21 people on the Kabul negotiating team are women.
The Taliban, who stripped women of all basic freedoms while in power from 1996-2001, had no female negotiators.
“The Taliban have fielded a fairly diverse team of negotiators representing both hardliners and moderates, as well as individuals with strong Islamic credentials,” said Ashley Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute.
“They may not all agree and I anticipate internal differences but they are decision-makers — which cannot be said for the Afghan government side.”
In a statement, Ghani called for “a lasting and dignified peace” that preserved “the achievements of the past 19 years”.
Government negotiator Habiba Sarabi said the start of talks had been “very positive”.
Abdullah said the process “could be the start of history made in the coming future — and hopefully sooner rather than later”.
The US-backed negotiations come six months later than planned owing to disagreements over a controversial prisoner swap agreed in February.
Under the terms of that force withdrawal deal struck between the US and the Taliban, 5,000 Taliban prisoners have already been released in exchange for 1,000 government forces.