ISLAMABAD: The talks between the Afghan warring factions for ending the 19-year-old conflict in Afghanistan finally got under way in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday amid calls for immediate ceasefire and preserving the gains made by Afghanistan over the past couple of decades.
The inaugural ceremony was attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, chairman of Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and senior diplomats of a number of countries, in addition to the Afghan government and Taliban delegations. Seventeen foreign ministers of different countries and heads of inter-governmental bodies virtually attended the session.
The start of the talks after protracted delays marked a major progress towards the end of conflict in Afghanistan. The talks were to originally start on March 10 following the US-Taliban agreement, but disputes over prisoners` release kept them delaying.
The release of the final batch of six `dangerous` Taliban prisoners and their transfer to Qatar paved the way for the negotiation teams to begin their talks.
Foreign Minister Al Thani opened the talks calling for `immediate and permanent ceasefire` so that a comprehensive political resolution could be achieved. He said the eventual agreement should be all-inclusive and there should be `no victor and no vanquished`.
Afghan peace council chief Abdullah said the Afghan government was joining the dialogue with `good intentions` and looking forward to `sincere negotiations` He noted that compromises would be needed for the talks to succeed, but emphasised that the country could not return to the past. `Going back to the past is no longer acceptable to the people of Afghanistan, he stressed.
The Afghan peace council chief specifically referred to the constitution, elections, freedom of speech, rights of women and minorities, rule of law and civil and political rights as the progress made over the years that would have to be preserved.
Mr Abdullah said: `We call for a humanitarian ceasefire. The declaration of a humanitarian ceasefire will enable humanitarian aid and development programmes to reach all parts of Afghanistan and benefit our people`. He said there would be no winners in the war, but there would be no losers in a political settlement.
About withdrawal of foreign forces, he underscored that it should be condition-based because consequences of the war would not only be limited to Afghanistan, but could extend to the neighboring countries and beyond.
The United States began reducing its troop levels in Afghanistan after the signing of the agreement with Taliban in Doha on Feb 29.
The US government is planning to have fewer than 4,500 troops in Afghanistan by late October down from about 13,000 at the start of the year.
Taliban Political Office Director Mullah Baradar, in his remarks, reaffirmed the insurgency`s commitment to the agreement with the US.
He said the Afghan negotiators would `strive to pave the way for a peaceful and prosperous life for the Afghans`. He assured the international community that Taliban representatives would do their utmost for a positive outcome to the talks.
He emphasised his group`s preference for an Islamic system in Afghanistan. The group had during its rein in Afghanistan imposed a hardline puritanical version of Islam.
About relations with the external world, Mullah Baradar said Taliban would want Afghanistan to have positive relations with its neighbours and the rest of the world in the future.
The opening statements by the two sides were followed by remarks by countries and international organisations that have been contributing to the efforts for peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
Mr Pompeo listed US expectations from the talks asking both the factions to make choices that take their country `away from violence and corruption and toward peace and prosperity`. He also called for preserving and building on the social, economic and political gains made by Afghanistan thus far.
`On our part, the United States is a proponent of a sovereign, unified, and democratic Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors,` he underlined.
He said choosing future political system was a decision for Afghans to make, but advised them to go for democracy as `the principle of the peaceful rotation of political power works best` and it `reflects the choices of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority` Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a video statement, said Beijing would like to see the Afghan factions reach a political settlement for ending the dispute through a process led by themselves. He urged the Afghans to reach a `broad based and inclusive framework` for peace in their country.
Mr Yi advised an `orderly and responsible withdrawal` of foreign forces from Afghanistan.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu said the start of tall(s presented a `real chance for peace in Afghanistan`. He asked the Afghans to make ceasefire a priority as `fighting and talking` cannot go together.
Mr Gavusoglu offered to host one round of the peace talks in Turkey and said`Istanbul Process`, which provides a forum for discussion between Afghanistan and its neighbours on security, political, and economic cooperation in the region, may be used for contributing to post-peace Afghanistan.
Pal(istan`s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, speaking through a video link from Pakistan,said Islamabad supported an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process for peace in Afghanistan and would back the consensus that emerged from the talks. He too called for an end to violence and ensuring that Afghan soil was not used for terrorism outside its borders.
Mr Qureshi said plans for economic engagement, reconstruction and a time-bound return of refugees should also be made.
Recalling the US turning its back on the region after Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, he cautioned the world against repeating the mistakes of the past and abandoning Afghanistan this time after a peace settlement.
UN Secretary General António Guterres, in a video statement, said Afghans must determine the `content and nature` of their discussions. He asked for `redoubling efforts` for protection of civilians and return of people displaced internally due to violence and the refugees.
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, taking part in the meeting through video link, said his trans-Atlantic military alliance was now adjusting its troop presence in Afghanistan to support the peace efforts, but remained committed to training and funding Afghan security forces for safeguarding the Afghan people.
European Union Foreign and Security Policy chief Josep Borrell said reduction in violence was `not enough`. He said `conditions have been fulfilled`, therefore nothing should stop ceasefire from being enforced.
British High Commissioner in Islamabad Christian Turner said Pakistan`s leadership had been key in getting to historic intraAfghan negotiations, adds APP. In a tweet, the British envoy thanked Prime Minister Imran Khan, Foreign Minister Qureshi and Ambassador Sadiq and recalled that Pakistan had constantly been playing a reconciliatory role for Afghan peace.
Now was the time to work together for peace and against spoilers, the high commissioner said while endorsing Foreign Minister Qureshi`s words who had cautioned against the spoilers besides advising the international community not to repeat the past mistakes.