Afghan peace talks open with calls for cease-fire, women's rights

MAKING HEADWAY: Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, Special Envoy of the Foreign Minister of Qatar are seen before talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar Sept. 12. Ibraheem al Omari/Reuters

DOHA - Afghan government representatives and Taliban insurgents gathered on Saturday for historic peace talks aimed at ending two decades of war that has killed tens of thousands of combatants and civilians.

Ahead of face-to-face negotiations in coming days, the warring sides were urged by various countries and groups to reach an immediate ceasefire and forge an agreement that upholds women’s rights.

The government of U.S. President Donald Trump, who is eager to claim an end to America’s longest conflict as he seeks re-election, expressed its intention to use aid as leverage for a deal.

The opening ceremony came one day after the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States that triggered its military involvement in Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the warring sides to seize the opportunity to strike a comprehensive peace deal, while acknowledging many challenges lay ahead.

“The choice of your political system is yours to make,” he told the opening ceremony in the Qatari capital Doha. “We believe firmly that protecting the rights of all Afghans is the best way for you to break the cycle of violence.”

The head of Afghanistan’s peace council, Abdullah Abdullah, said that even if the two sides could not agree on all points, they should compromise.

“My delegation are in Doha representing a political system that is supported by millions of men and women from a diversity of cultural, social and ethnic backgrounds in our homeland,” he said.

Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund said that Afghanistan should “have an Islamic system in which all tribes and ethnicities of the country find themselves without any discrimination and live their lives in love and brotherhood.”

Pompeo warned that the size and scope of future U.S. financial assistance to the country, which relies heavily on international funding, would depend on their “choices and conduct”.

U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters that preventing terrorism was the chief condition but that protecting minority and women’s rights would also influence any future decisions on Congress-allocated funding. “There is no blank check.”

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