Intra-Afghan peace talks to begin today

On guard:Security personnel at an Afghan National Army (ANA) outpost in Kunduz Province in March after an attack by Taliban militants.AFPSTR

On guard:Security personnel at an Afghan National Army (ANA) outpost in Kunduz Province in March after an attack by Taliban militants.AFPSTR  

Much anticipated negotiations between Afghanistan’s warring parties are likely to be “contentious,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on Friday, but are the only way forward if Afghans are to find peace after decades of relentless conflict. Mr. Pompeo made his comments en route to Qatar, where intra-Afghan negotiations are to begin on Saturday, a day mostly reserved for ceremony before the hard task of hammering out a road map for a post-war Afghanistan begins.

The negotiations were laid out in a peace deal Washington brokered with the Taliban and signed in Doha on February 29 aimed at ending the war and bringing U.S. troops home ending America’s longest conflict.

“We expect Saturday morning, for the first time in almost two decades, to have the Afghans sitting at the table together prepared to have what will be contentious discussions about 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,” Mr. Pompeo said on the plane taking him to Doha.

U.S. pullout

President Donald Trump made the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan a promise before the 2016 presidential election. In the countdown to this November’s presidential polls, Washington has ramped up pressure to start intra-Afghan negotiations.

At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Trump called the talks “exciting” and said Washington expected to be down to 4,000 troops by November. Even though delays have plagued the start of talks, Washington began withdrawing some of its 13,000 troops after the February 29 deal was signed.

Withdrawal of the remaining troops does not hinge on the success of intra-Afghan negotiations but rather the commitment made by the Taliban in the deal to fight terrorists groups that could threaten the U.S. and its allies. UN envoy to Afghanistan Deborah Lyons called the talks possibly “the start of something truly momentous”. She called for a reduction of violence as Afghanistan waits to reach a permanent cease-fire.

Ready to return

Mr. Pompeo in his comments made it clear the U.S. was ready to return soldiers to Afghanistan if it saw a threat emerging and the Taliban reneged on their commitments. The White House and its peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have refused to give specifics on commitments made by the Taliban, citing security concerns. “Our commitment to reduce our forces to zero is conditioned on them executing their obligations under the agreement (which is) so very clear about their responsibilities with respect to terrorist activity taking place in Afghanistan,” Mr. Pompeo said.

But Mr. Pompeo warned of spoilers to peace. “It’s very clear that the violence levels have to come down to acceptable levels,” he said.

The Afghan delegation left the capital late on Friday afternoon for Doha and it included Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the High Council for National Reconciliation, the powerful umbrella group that will oversee the negotiation team headed by former intelligence chief Mohammed Masoom Stanikzai.

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