U.S. officials expressed hope for success in long-awaited peace talks between the U.S.-backed Afghan government and Taliban militants Thursday, after it was announced that the talks will begin Saturday in Doha, Qatar, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to observe the opening.
The first session will come one day after the 19-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that set in motion America’s military mission in Afghanistan.
U.S. commanders confirmed this week that President Trump will make more progress on his 2016 campaign progress to wind down U.S. military deployments abroad, with about half of the approximately 8,600 U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan leaving by late October.
But the Taliban and jihadist groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda still control large swaths of the Afghan countryside, and analysts predict power-sharing talks could be long and difficult. U.S. officials have said the American troop drawdown will proceed even if the negotiations fail to bear fruit.
The government of Qatar confirmed Thursday that Afghan officials and Taliban representatives will gather there Saturday, hoping to build on an initial peace deal the Trump administration reached with the Taliban back in February.
Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Kabul government, confirmed in a tweet that the Afghan delegation will be in Doha for the talks, The Associated Press reported.
President Trump revealed Mr. Pompeo would be in Doha at a White House press conference, telling reporters, “We’re really making tremendous progress. We’re getting along very well with the Taliban.”
Mr. Pompeo earlier in the day had characterized the talks as “a historic opportunity for Afghanistan to bring an end to four decades of war and bloodshed.”
“Only through an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led political process — one that respects the views of all Afghan communities, including women and ethnic and religious minorities — can the parties achieve a durable peace,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Recent prisoner exchanges between the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani set the stage for Saturday’s talks, although there were considerable delays in the process. The AP reported that Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation and a sometime political rival of Mr. Ghani, will attend the opening of the talks but the day-to-day negotiations will be carried out by a team headed by Mohammed Masoom Stanikzai, a former intelligence chief.
The Taliban’s 21-member negotiation team is headed by their chief justice Abdul Hakim and includes 13 members of the insurgent’s leadership council, the wire service reported.
Under the February deal, the Taliban vowed to no longer harbor any outside terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and to begin talks with Kabul in exchange for a Trump administration commitment to draw down the 13,000 American troops in Afghanistan that were there at the beginning of the year.
The Taliban, which controlled Kabul prior to the U.S.-led invasion 19 years ago, had harbored Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization as it planned and carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Mr. Pompeo on Thursday emphasized the Taliban’s commitment in February to no longer tolerate the presence of any extremist terror groups.
“The United States recalls the commitment by the Afghan government and the Taliban that terrorists can never again use Afghan soil to threaten the United States or its allies,” he said. “Now is the time for peace for Afghanistan.”
— Staff writer Dave Boyer contributed to this report.