ISLAMABAD - Afghanistan’s warring factions are set to begin their first direct peace talks early next week in Qatar amid U.S.-led international calls for them to seize the “historic opportunity” to end the country’s long war.
The U.S.-brokered dialogue, known as intra-Afghan negotiations, will bring to the table in Doha representatives of the Afghan state and the Taliban insurgency, which runs its political office in the capital of the Gulf nation.
The Taliban announced on Saturday the names of their 21-member negotiating team, led by Mawlavi Abdul Hakim, a hardline insurgent cleric and a close confidant of the Taliban’s reclusive chief, Hibatullah Akhundzada. Hakim has been heading the Islamist group’s own judicial system enforced in Taliban-held Afghan areas.
“We have formed a strong and inclusive team for intra-Afghan negotiations. It mostly comprises members of the Rehbari Shoura [Taliban leadership council], and the Islamic Emirate’s [Taliban] chief justice has been appointed as the team leader,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA.
Officials said the negotiating teams would try to agree on a permanent cease-fire and a political power-sharing arrangement to govern Afghanistan.
The peace process stems from a February agreement Washington sealed with the Taliban to extricate American troops from the country and close the longest U.S. war. The landmark accord was negotiated and signed in Doha on February 29.
Afghan Minister of Economy Mustafa Mastoor told an online forum Saturday evening that Kabul’s negotiating team was “fully ready” to depart to Doha “most probably tomorrow [Sunday].”
An insurgent cease-fire is a priority for Kabul, but it may not come up in the inaugural interaction with the Taliban, the minister told the forum organized by the Pakistan-based Jinnah Institute think tank.
"The first meeting definitely is to break the ice and just to meet each other and then start with the easier issues and going towards the difficult ones,” Mastoor said.
Stefano Pontecorvo, NATO’s civilian representative to Afghanistan, in his address to the forum cautioned that the dialogue would not be easy and that both sides would need to show “flexibility, good faith and determination” to end the deadly conflict.
"First and foremost, a significant reduction in violence must top the negotiation agenda to give people confidence in the process and its outcome. Popular support is essential for a durable outcome,” Pontecorvo said.
“This moment for peace is unique, and the stakes are high. The Afghan people and the world are watching. They will not forget or forgive whoever loses this occasion,” the NATO envoy warned.
Pontecorvo noted with concern that political differences among leaders in Kabul could undermine the work of the state negotiating team.
"There is no doubt whatsoever that the perceived political disunity of Afghan leadership is a concern for all of us, for NATO and for the international community, as it also impacts on the cohesiveness of the team,” he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. peace envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who signed the deal with the Taliban, was traveling to Doha to advance ongoing efforts to promote the immediate start of the negotiations.
“The Afghan people are ready for a sustainable reduction in violence and a political settlement that will end the war. Afghan leaders must seize this historic opportunity for peace. … Now is the time to start,” said a pre-visit State Department announcement.
Began after 9/11
The war in Afghanistan began with the U.S.-led military invasion of the country to punish and remove the Taliban from power days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America that al-Qaida leaders plotted from sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
Since then, more than 150,000 people, including Afghan civilians and local as well as foreign military troops, are estimated to have been killed and millions left homeless in the poverty-stricken country.
The U.S.-Taliban deal requires Washington to withdraw all American and allied troops from Afghanistan by July 2021 in return for insurgent counterterrorism assurances. The Taliban have also pledged to seek political reconciliation with other Afghan factions to end decades of hostilities in the country.
The U.S. has reduced the number of its troops in the country from around 13,000 to 8,600 since signing the deal with the Taliban. President Donald Trump said last month that the number of troops would be reduced to between “4,000 and 5,000" by the November U.S. Election Day.
The intra-Afghan talks were originally scheduled for March 10, but months of delays over a prisoner swap between the Taliban and the Kabul government, as stipulated in the deal, hampered U.S. diplomatic efforts to kick-start the dialogue.