'Truly momentous' talks open between Taliban, Afghan govt

Qureshi says Pakistan fulfilled its part of the responsibility

By: News Desk      Published: 10:32 AM, 12 Sep, 2020
'Truly momentous' talks open between Taliban, Afghan govt

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" occasion in nearly two decades of gruelling conflict. 

The US-backed talks will be arduous and complex, delegates acknowledged at an opening ceremony in Doha, and are starting even as 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." 

Highlighting the war's brutal toll, Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's former chief executive who is heading the peace process for Kabul, said 12,000 civilians have been killed and another 15,000 wounded 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.

Pakistan jubilant

Addressing virtually the opening ceremony of the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha on Saturday, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said the commencement of the intra-Afghan negotiations is the fruit of Pakistan and Afghanistan's combined efforts.

The foreign minister said Pakistan has long maintained that there was no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, adding that a political solution was the only way forward. "We are gratified that our perspective is now widely shared across the international community. We are also gratified that we have fulfilled our part of the responsibility," Qureshi said.

He maintained that Afghan leaders should seize this historic opportunity and work together constructively to secure an inclusive, broad-based and comprehensive political settlement, adding that there may be many factors that will pose challenges against peace between the Taliban and Afghanistan government.

Qureshi reaffirmed Pakistan's support with the Afghans as they continue to lead the way for peace, security and development.

"Pakistan will always support a peaceful, stable, united, democratic, prosperous and sovereign Afghanistan, at peace with itself and its neighbours."

Qureshi urged the international community to support the Afghan-led peace process. He said the world should ensure that Afghanistan never experiences the violent days of the past.

He called on the international community to deepen economic engagement with Afghanistan for its reconstruction and economic development, ensuring a well-resourced, time-bound return of Afghan refugees.

The Taliban have long worried that reducing violence could lessen their leverage at the negotiating table. 

Instead, Baradar repeated the insurgents' message that Afghanistan must be run according to Islamic law. 

The Taliban want to reshape Afghanistan into an Islamic "emirate", while the adminstration of President Ashraf Ghani will seek to maintain the Western-backed status quo of a constitutional republic that has enshrined many rights, including greater freedoms for women.

"We want Afghanistan to have an Islamic system in which people from all walks of life see themselves without discrimination and live in brotherhood with each other," Baradar said. 

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.

In the Afghan capital, residents were glued to their televisions watching the opening ceremony unfold. 

"I want the peace negotiating team to consider the will of the people of Afghanistan," said Kabul resident Sayed Jamil Ibrahimi.

- Competing visions -

The US-backed negotiations come six months later than planned owing to bitter disagreements over a controversial prisoner swap agreed in February.

President Donald Trump, up for re-election in November, has pushed hard to end the United States' longest war and wants all foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by next year.

But a comprehensive peace deal could take years, and will depend on the willingness of both sides to tailor their competing visions for the country.

"My beard was black when the war began, it is snow white now and we are still in war," said Kabul resident Obaidullah, 50.

"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," added the retired civil servant.

The talks are being held in a hotel conference room in Doha, where chairs were dotted at socially distanced intervals facing a banner emblazoned with the words "Afghan Peace Negotiations" in four languages.

Delegates began to arrive from dawn at the luxury venue, which hosted the signing of the US-Taliban deal in February that paved the way for the talks.

The Taliban claimed "victory" following 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.

Human Rights Watch called on participants to pledge to uphold basic rights as they chart the nation's future.

Qatar has quietly guided the process which has been complicated by violence in Afghanistan and the coronavirus crisis, with Doha's chief negotiator Mutlaq al-Qahtani stressing on Thursday "the power of diplomacy".

Doha invited the Taliban to open a political office in 2013 and helped broker February's troop withdrawal deal between Washington and the Taliban.

The arrangement has led to tense moments like when the Taliban raised their flag above the office, sparking fury in Kabul.

Since the US-Taliban agreement in February, the insurgents have continued to launch daily attacks against Afghan security forces.

NATO hails Afghan talks as 'historic opportunity'

NATO hailed the start of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government on Saturday as an "historic opportunity", while warning that violence in the country remained "unacceptably high." 

"This is an historic opportunity. #NATO stands with #Afghanistan to preserve the gains made & to ensure the country never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.

In a longer statement from the Western military alliance, it said that the peace talks underway in Qatar were "an important step toward bringing lasting peace and stability to Afghanistan after decades of conflict."

NATO took part in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and then led the UN-mandated force to stabilise the country which at its height numbered 130,000 troops. 

The Brussels-based organisation urged the government and the Taliban to "seize this opportunity for peace" at the start of talks which are expected to be rocky.

Abdullah Abdullah, who is leading the government's negotiating team, called for an immediate, humanitarian ceasefire on Saturday -- but his plea went unanswered by Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

NATO said that "current violence levels – driven by Taliban attacks against Afghan National Defense and Security Forces – remain unacceptably high and undermine confidence in the peace process. 

"We call on the Taliban to take decisive steps toward ending violence," it added.