Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban were to meet for peace talks in Doha on Saturday in a bid to end nearly two decades of war, though a quick breakthrough seems unlikely.
The US-backed negotiations come six months later than planned owing to bitter disagreements over a controversial prisoner swap agreed in February.
Talks will begin a day after the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks which led 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,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who will attend the talks’ opening.
President Donald Trump, up for re-election in November, has pushed hard to end America’s longest war and wants all foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by next year.
A comprehensive peace deal could take years, and will depend on the willingness of both sides to tailor their competing visions for the country.
The Taliban, who have refused to recognise President Ashraf Ghani’s government, will push to reshape Afghanistan into an Islamic “emirate”.
Ghani’s administration will seek to maintain the Western-backed status quo of a constitutional republic that has enshrined many rights including greater freedoms for women.
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 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.
Many Afghans fear any Taliban return to power – partial or in full – could lead to a return of Islamic sharia law.
The insurgents claimed victory in February after signing a Qatari-mediated deal with Washington that laid out a timetable for talks.
Qatar has quietly led mediation efforts which have 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.
On Friday two Afghan national flags were carried into the Doha luxury hotel that will host the talks as turbaned Taliban queued alongside media and caterers to have coronavirus tests ahead of the gathering.