Historic peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government kicked off Saturday in Qatar in hopes of crafting a unity government in Afghanistan and ending years of war that have killed or displaced millions.
A peace deal, if achieved, would mark the first time in decades that a government would be formed via diplomatic means rather than internal coups or foreign military interventions.
Securing an agreement is also a signature foreign policy priority for the Trump administration, with the president campaigning on withdrawing the U.S. from “endless wars.”
However, the peace process is laden with political and military tripwires, with stubborn disagreements between the Taliban and Afghan government over a prisoner swap and the ongoing safety threat posed by the armed insurgent group.
The meeting Saturday morning in Doha, Qatar’s capital, comes after several delays and months of coaxing from Washington. The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban in February to start a gradual troop withdrawal in Afghanistan and pressed Kabul to hand over 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
In return, Washington is seeking assurances that a unity government will not allow the country to become a launching pad for terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda used Afghanistan as a key base prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which sparked the U.S. invasion in the country.
“Today is truly a momentous occasion. Afghans have at long last chosen to sit together and chart a new course for your country. This is a moment that we must dare to hope. As we look toward the light, we recall the darkness of four decades of war and the lost lives and opportunities, but it is remarkable and a testament to the human spirit that the pain and patterns of destruction are no match for the enduring hopes for peace held by all Afghan people and their many friends,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Doha on Saturday.
“We welcome the Taliban commitment not to host international terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, nor to allow them to use Afghan territory to train, recruit or to fundraise. We welcome the same commitments by the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that they should never permit their nation to serve as a base for international terrorists to threaten other countries,” he added. “The entire world wants you to succeed and is counting on you succeeding.”
Despite Pompeo’s remarks praising the talks, the Taliban and Kabul government enter negotiations steeped in years-long skepticism of the other side, with the armed group insisting that the Afghan delegation also includes opposition politicians and figures outside the government and Kabul warning that the military threat from the Taliban is far from gone. A deal also faces cynicism from lawmakers in Washington who do not trust the Taliban to keep its word.
Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s Afghanistan peace envoy, said he was hoping for a peaceful resolution to America’s longest war but recognizes a pact may have to be implemented incrementally.
“I am realistic — I have dealt with the various sides,” Khalilzad told The New York Times in an interview. “I think that a comprehensive, permanent cease-fire is likely to require a package. But why not have a significant reduction of violence, a cease-fire that is not permanent?”
“Of course, we would be very happy if there is immediate permanent cease-fire,” he added. “But the record of such negotiations where violence is the main instrument of one of the parties shows that, I think, giving it up permanently will be difficult.”