Qatar's ruler helped launch the second day of long-awaited Afghan peace talks in Doha on September 13 between representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban militants, but reports of ongoing clashes back in Afghanistan were a reminder of obstacles ahead.
The first day included a formal ceremony and efforts to agree on a framework and other broad aspects of the first direct negotiations between the two sides since a breakthrough agreement between the United States and the hard-line Taliban in February.
But the Afghan Defense Ministry said that, even hours after the official start of talks, Taliban and central government forces were still fighting in many places in Afghanistan.
"With the start of intra-Afghan talks, we were expecting the Taliban to reduce the number of their attacks, but unfortunately their attacks are still going in high numbers," Reuters quoted Fawad Aman, a ministry spokesman, as saying.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who is hosting the negotiations in Doha, met with both sides on September 13 and wished them success, according to Qatari state media.
The peace talks could quickly turn to a discussion of a lasting cease-fire.
Abdullah Abdullah, the country's former chief executive officer who is heading an Afghan negotiating team that includes members of the opposition and individuals outside the government, told AFP that the Taliban could offer a truce in exchange for the release of more of their jailed fighters.
"This could be one of their ideas or one of their demands," Abdullah, who is also chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, said.
'A Momentous Occasion'
At a ceremony opening the talks a day earlier, the Afghan government and allies, including the United States, called for a cease-fire. But the Taliban did not mention a truce as they came to the negotiating table..
Abdullah said during the opening ceremony that history will remember the start of the talks "as the end of the war and suffering of our people."
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the start of the talks was a "momentous occasion," telling participants that they carry "a great responsibility" and an opportunity to overcome divisions.
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."
"Negotiations may have problems but should move forward with patience," he said.
Washington helped broker the on-and-off peace talks in Qatar, where the Taliban has a representative office.
Analysts said that, although getting both sides to the negotiating table was a major achievement, this does not mean the path to peace will be easy, especially with violence increasing around the country.
"Nothing should prevent a cease-fire being accepted and implemented by both parties," Josep Borrell, the high representative for foreign affairs of the European Union, told the Doha meeting via video link.
Negotiations will be arduous, delegates warned, and are starting even as deadly violence continues to grip Afghanistan.
"We will undoubtedly encounter many challenges in the talks over the coming days, weeks and months," Pompeo said as he called for the warring sides to "seize this opportunity" to secure peace.
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.
Trump has said Washington expected the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to be down to 4,000 troops by November.
Nearly two decades since the US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, the war still kills dozens of people daily and the country's economy has been shattered.
The talks are expected to tackle thorny issues, including a permanent cease-fire, the rights of women and minorities, and the disarming of tens of thousands of Taliban fighters and militias loyal to warlords, some of them aligned with the government.
Constitutional changes, power sharing, and even the name of the country and the flag are expected to be on the agenda as well.
Many people in Afghanistan fear a return of the Taliban as part of a governing arrangement. The extremist group was accused of human rights violations and abuse of women during its years of rule, which ended when U.S. forces invaded and drove the militants from power in 2001.
The Taliban controlled Afghanistan at the time and harbored Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.