ISLAMABAD – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Friday the much anticipated negotiations between Afghanistan’s warring parties are likely to be “contentious” but stressed that they are the only way forward if Afghans are to find peace after decades of conflict.
Pompeo made his comments en route to Qatar in the Middle East, where the Taliban maintain a political office and where historic intra-Afghan negotiations are to begin on Saturday.
The start of the talks will be mostly ceremonious, before the negotiating teams of the Taliban and the Afghan government sit down to begin the hard task of hammering out a road map for a post-war Afghanistan.
The intra-Afghan negotiations were laid out in a peace deal the United Sates and the Taliban signed on Feb. 29 in Qatar's capital of Doha, aimed at ending the war and bringing U.S. troops home.
“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 polls, Washington has ramped up pressure to get the intra-Afghan negotiations started.
At a news conference Thursday, 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 talks, Washington began withdrawing some of its 13,000 troops after the February deal was signed.
The withdrawal of the remaining troops does not hinge on the success of intra-Afghan negotiations but rather on the commitment made by the Taliban to fight other militant groups that could threaten the U.S. and its allies.
Pompeo stressed that the U.S. was ready to return soldiers to Afghanistan if it saw a threat emerging and the Taliban reneged on their commitments. The White House and its peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have refused to give specifics on commitments made by the Taliban, citing security concerns.
“Our commitment to reduce our forces to zero is conditioned on them executing their obligations under the agreement (which is) so very clear about their responsibilities with respect to terrorist activity taking place in Afghanistan," Pompeo said.
But Pompeo warned of spoilers to peace, citing recent targeted killings in Afghanistan and an 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.
Khalilzad described the start of the talks as a “new phase in the diplomacy for peace" in Afghanistan. “This is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, there will be no mediators,” he said.
The Afghan delegation departed from Kabul, heading to Qatar later on Friday. The delegation is led by Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the High Council for National Reconciliation, a powerful umbrella group that will oversee the Kabul negotiating team, led 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 their months of squabbling over the results of controversial presidential polls the year before.
A Taliban official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the media, said the final six prisoners held by the Kabul government arrived late Thursday in Doha. The six were among 5,000 Taliban prisoner the U.S. peace deal called on the Afghan government to free before the start of negotiations. For their part, the Taliban were required to free 1,000 government and military personnel.
Prisoner releases were behind repeated delays in the start of intra-Afghan talks and the freeing of the last six prisoners clears a final hurdle.
Even as Afghans prepared for negotiations, the violence continued Friday.
At least two civilians and two soldiers were killed by a bomb hidden on a motorcycle in eastern Khost province, a Defense Ministry statement said. The bomb exploded near a wedding.
Separately, six Afghan soldiers were killed when their outpost in eastern Afghanistan was targeted, another ministry statement said.
No one took immediate responsibility for the attacks, though both Taliban and the Islamic State group's affiliate are active in eastern Afghanistan.
Although no U.S. or NATO soldiers have died since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal, relentless attacks have killed scores of Afghan soldiers and civilians.
The Taliban have also claimed that Taliban prisoners freed by the government have been attacked as they were returning home or once they were back in their homes.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report