U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and an Afghan delegation on September 11 arrived in Qatar where negotiations between the Taliban and Afghanistan's government are scheduled to begin the next day.
Pompeo said on his way to the Qatari capital, Doha, that upcoming Afghan peace talks are likely to be “contentious,” but they are the only way forward if Afghans are to find peace after decades of conflict.
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.
“It’s taken us longer than I wish that it had to get from February 29 to here, but 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,” Pompeo said on the plane taking him to Doha.
"It’s their country to figure out how to move forward and make a better life for all Afghan people,” he said.
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 poll, Washington has ramped up pressure to start intra-Afghan negotiations.
At a news conference on September 10, 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 negotiations, Washington began withdrawing some of its 13,000 troops after the February 29 deal was signed.
Pompeo warned of spoilers to peace, citing recent targeted killings in Afghanistan and the attempted assassination earlier this week of Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh.
“It’s very clear that the violence levels have to come down to acceptable levels,” he said.
U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told journalists on September 11 that the negotiations would be a "test for both sides."
"This is a new phase in diplomacy for peace in Afghanistan. Now we are entering a process that is Afghan-owned and Afghan-led," Khalilzad said, adding that Washington will continue to monitor and engage with both sides.
The Afghan delegation includes 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.
Abdullah's appointment to head the council was part of a power-sharing deal with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, ending months of squabbling over the results of a controversial presidential poll the year before.
The Taliban negotiating team is led by Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, a hard-line cleric who spent years lying low in Pakistan’s southwestern city of Quetta, where the Afghan Taliban leadership has been based since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the extremist group from power in neighboring Afghanistan.