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'Truly momentous' peace talks open between the Taliban and the Afghan government

“We want a humanitarian ceasefire,” the former chief executive for Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah said.

Afghan soldiers during a military operation in Qelgho, the Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan.
Afghan soldiers during a military operation in Qelgho, the Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Updated Sep 12th 2020, 1:22 PM

HISTORIC PEACE TALKS between the Taliban and the Afghan government opened in Qatar today, marking what US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heralded as a “truly momentous” breakthrough in nearly two decades of relentless conflict. 

The talks will be arduous and complex, 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 is still killing dozens of people daily. 

Abdullah Abdullah, who 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.

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.

Abdullah Abdullah said at the opening ceremony of the talks: “We have to use this exceptional opportunity for peace.

We have to stop violence and agree on a ceasefire as soon as possible. We want a humanitarian ceasefire.

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

qatar-afghanistan-peace-talks The opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. Source: Hussein Sayed via PA Images

The talks come a day after the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks which prompted the US to invade Afghanistan and topple the Taliban regime that had been sheltering Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The two sides must flesh out “how to move their country forward to reduce violence and deliver what the Afghan people are demanding – a reconciled Afghanistan with a government that reflects a country that isn’t at war,” Pompeo said ahead of the opening ceremony.

The talks are being held in a large hotel conference room.

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.

afghanistan-kabul-negotiation-team-departure Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah talks with the press before embarking the plane for Doha. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

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Ending the war

“My beard was black when the war began, it is snow white now and we are still in war,” said Kabul resident Obaidulla (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.

Many Afghans fear any Taliban return to power – partial or in full – could lead to a return of Islamic sharia law.

Human Rights Watch called on all participants in the talks to pledge to uphold basic rights as they chart the nation’s future.

Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at the advocacy group, said that “all participants in any future Afghan government should commit to institutions and processes to uphold women’s rights and a free press, end torture in custody and ensure justice for abuses”.

The insurgents claimed victory in February after signing the Qatari-mediated deal with Washington that laid out a timetable for talks.

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.

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