U.S. Pressure Mounts as Historic Afghan Peace Talks Due to Start

Afghanistan’s government will begin peace talks with Taliban leaders on Saturday in a bid to end two-decades of war in a meeting fraught with tension over what the insurgent group will demand in return for laying down arms.

There’s concern the militants may seek to ban education for girls and women, according to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, while other policy makers are worried the Taliban may want to control defense forces.

“We will never accept” any move to abolish women’s education or wind back their hard won gains in politics or business, Karzai said in an interview at his home in Kabul. “I want my daughters to be as educated as the best in the world.”

There is immense pressure on all parties in the talks, due to begin in Doha, with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo indicating American troop levels in Afghanistan would depend on the Taliban upholding its commitments with the U.S. regardless of the outcome of negotiations.

“Our commitment to reduce our forces to zero is conditioned on them executing their obligations under the agreement,” Pompeo said in the way to Qatar, where he will oversee the talks. He declined to say whether the Trump administration would wait for an accord before withdrawing all U.S. forces.

While the developments are a ray of hope for Afghans battered by years of attacks that have killed and maimed tens of thousands of people, the two sides face an uphill task at reaching a consensus. A pact between the U.S. and the Taliban that will result in the withdrawal of majority of American troops has emboldened the insurgent group prompting it to raise the stakes.

“For the Taliban, the peace process is to show the world that they were victorious in war,” said Orzala Ashraf Nemat, director of Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based think tank. “I am not optimistic because the Taliban may take over power, and the group’s stance regarding women rights and its governance has not changed.”

The insurgents banned girls education, barred women from public jobs and even punished people for watching television when they ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, citing their interpretation of Islamic rules. Under Karzai’s 14-year leadership, millions of Afghan girls went back to school and many others have held political jobs.

The talks between President Ashraf Ghani’s administration and the Taliban follow the February U.S.-Taliban accord. The U.S. agreed to withdraw its troops within 14 months, while the militant group pledged to stop attacking American forces and prevent the nation from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

The Taliban rebuffed calls to stop raiding Afghan troops under the pact. The insurgents only acquiesced to talks with Afghan officials after Ghani released all 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

“The atmosphere for intra-Afghan negotiations is tense and, with the U.S. seemingly determined to downgrade its involvement in Afghanistan, an already fragile process is fraught with high stakes,” according to areport by theInternational Crisis Group last month. “Many in the Afghan government and civil society worry that talks may presage the unraveling of legal, social and economic achievements made since 2001.”

The Taliban wants to bring back its rule of strict Islamic theocracy, while Ghani is pushing to share the power with the group under a democratic system. Former President Karzai urged both sides to end fighting and work for a power-sharing agreement.

“I have called the Taliban brothers repeatedly for the last 12 and 13 years and I was criticized for this because there was so much violence,” Karzai said. “The fact is the Taliban belong to this country as we belong to this country and we want brothers to end fighting.”

The Afghan war, one of the deadliest in the world, has resulted in the deaths of 17,461 people, with 32,337 wounded since 2009, when theUnited Nations began recording the violence. Most casualties are attributed to the Taliban’s ground engagements and suicide attacks, followed by U.S. and Afghan government aerial bombings, the report said.

The fighting has also killed about 2,500 U.S. soldiers and more than 1,000 forces fromNATO, according toicasualties.org which tracks their casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. The death toll for Afghan forces is higher, with Ghani saying last year more than 45,000 soldiers were killed just in the four years since he took office. The two-decade war also cost the U.S. more than $900 billion.

Ghani is pushing to reach a consensus with the Taliban on a short-term or lasting ceasefire before they discuss other issues, said Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban leader who’s now living in Kabul. The Taliban sees violence as aleverage to strengthen its negotiation position.

“The worse-case scenario is that a part of the government will be led by a group who’s widely known for its brutality and the people will pay a great price for the sake of peace,” said Yasar Ahmadzai, the founder of Afghanistan’s Institute of Peace, an independent think-tank. “If the two sides fail to work together, that will then lead us to another civil war.”

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