ISLAMABAD - Representatives of Afghanistan's warring factions have gathered in Qatar for historic U.S.-brokered peace negotiations starting Saturday that aim to find a political settlement to the South Asian country's long war.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also arrived Friday in the Qatari capital, Doha, along with other foreign dignitaries to attend this weekend's special ceremony marking the commencement of what officially are known as intra-Afghan negotiations.
The dialogue will bring to the negotiating table Doha-based negotiators of the Taliban insurgency and the Afghan government-appointed delegation.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan reconciliation, told reporters on the eve of the talks that after Saturday's ceremonies, Afghans would be negotiating with each other, without a mediator or a facilitator.
"For the first time in 40 years, Afghans will sit together, the government delegation that includes people who are not part of the government, as well as four very distinguished women, civil society, political groups will be sitting with an authoritative Taliban delegation," explained Khalilzad.
The Afghan-born veteran diplomat said the two negotiating teams would discuss and "hopefully come to an agreement on a political road map to end the destructive war that Afghanistan has had."
Khalilzad negotiated and sealed a historic deal with the Taliban earlier this year to close the nearly two decades of Afghan war, America's longest, and set the stage for the intra-Afghan negotiations.
"These negotiations are an important achievement, but there are difficulties, significant challenges on the way to reaching agreement. This is a test for both sides, for the Taliban and the government. Can they reach an agreement despite differences, in terms of their visions for the future of Afghanistan? We are prepared to assist if our assistance is needed," the U.S. envoy emphasized.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement, also signed February 29 in Doha, stipulated the talks between the Afghan parties to the conflict would begin March 10. But a controversy-marred protracted prisoner swap between the Taliban and the Kabul government delayed the peace process.
The pact called for withdrawing all of the roughly 13,000 American forces and thousands of coalition forces from Afghanistan over 14 months. Washington has since reduced the number of U.S. soldiers to about 8,400.
President Donald Trump said Thursday that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan "will be down to 4,000 soldiers in a very short period of time."
In return, the insurgents halted attacks on international forces and pledged to prevent the use of Afghan soil for terrorist attacks against the U.S. The Taliban also agreed to seek a political settlement with other Afghan factions.
In his interaction with reporters Friday, Khalilzad was asked whether the Taliban were living up to their commitment of cutting ties with al-Qaida-led terrorist groups.
He said the insurgent counterterrorism assurances were especially important as the U.S. marked the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on American cities, which were orchestrated by al-Qaida leaders out of their sanctuaries in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan at the time.
"Therefore, we do not want Afghanistan ever to become a platform to threaten the homeland like the one we faced on that dastardly day," Khalilzad stressed.
Pompeo, while speaking to reporters on the way to Doha, echoed widespread skepticism and concerns that the intra-Afghan talks are likely to be "contentious."
Trump's determination to wind up what he says is America's "endless war" in Afghanistan has worried skeptics and created some confusion about what impact the outcome of the forthcoming U.S. presidential election will have on the troop withdrawal plans.
In a report released on the eve of Afghan peace talks, the International Crisis Group anticipated that negotiators, particularly the government team, would try to slow down the process, holding out hope the U.S. may reconsider its current policy course.
"Uncertainty over what Washington will do may create additional incentives for the parties to bide their time until November. The Afghan government, already seeking to stretch out the timeline, might hope for a policy shift under a new U.S. president or at least take advantage of the extra time a leadership transition might afford," the report noted.
"While the Taliban seem to prefer a quicker negotiation process, they also seem determined to avoid appearing like the more eager of the two parties; if the Afghan government continues to stall as it has over the past six months, the Taliban are unlikely to make concessions in order to push the talks forward," observed the ICG.
Meanwhile, leaders in Pakistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, hailed the commencement of the talks between the Afghan adversaries.
"Through relentless efforts, Pakistan has played a pivotal role in facilitating the Afghan peace process to this juncture. We feel deeply gratified today as we have fulfilled our part of the responsibility," an official statement quoted Prime Minister Imran Khan as saying.
Afghan and U.S. officials have long accused the Pakistani military of providing shelter to Taliban leaders and covertly helping them to direct attacks in Afghanistan.
Pakistan denies the charges, insisting several million Afghan refugees living in the country serve as hideouts for the insurgents.
Washington, however, acknowledges Islamabad's role in persuading the Taliban to engage in the peace process with the U.S. and Afghans.
"Successful culmination of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process is indispensable for Afghanistan and for regional peace, stability and prosperity. … We hope all sides will honor their respective commitments, persevere in the face of all challenges, and remain unflinchingly committed to achieving the desired outcome," Khan said.
On Friday, the head of U.S. Central Command, Marine General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, visited Pakistan, where he met with the country's military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. An army statement said the two commanders discussed, among other issues, "Pak-U.S. military cooperation, including Afghanistan peace process."
Cindy Saine contributed to this report.