* Afghan peace talks launched with the Doha ceremony
* The cease-fire requested as a priority
* Foreign powers focus on protecting women’s rights (adds US special envoy comments)
DOHA, September 12 (Reuters) – Representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents gathered on Saturday for historic peace talks aimed at ending two decades of war that has killed tens of thousands of fighters and civilians.
Ahead of face-to-face negotiations in the coming days, the warring parties were urged by various countries and groups to reach an immediate ceasefire and forge an agreement that respects women’s rights.
The government of US President Donald Trump, eager to demand an end to America’s longest conflict as it seeks re-election, has expressed its intention to use aid as leverage for a deal.
The opening ceremony took place a day after the 19th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States that triggered its military involvement in Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged warring parties to seize the opportunity to reach a comprehensive peace deal, while acknowledging that many challenges lie ahead.
“The choice of your political system is yours,” he said at the opening ceremony in Doha, the Qatari capital. “We firmly believe that protecting the rights of all Afghans is the best way for you to break the cycle of violence.”
The head of the Afghan Peace Council, Abdullah Abdullah, said that even if the two sides could not agree on all points, they would have to compromise.
“My delegation is in Doha to represent a political system that is supported by millions of men and women of diverse cultural, social and ethnic backgrounds in our homeland,” he said.
Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund said Afghanistan should “have an Islamic system in which all tribes and ethnicities in the country come together without discrimination and live their lives in love and brotherhood.”
Pompeo warned that the size and scope of future US financial assistance to the country, which relies heavily on international funding, would depend on their “choices and conduct.”
US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters that preventing terrorism was the main condition, but protecting the rights of minorities and women would also influence all future decisions on funding allocated by Congress. . “There is no blank check.”
Officials, diplomats and analysts say that while bringing the two sides to the negotiating table has been a major achievement, it does not mean that the road to peace will be easy, especially with increasing violence in the country. the country.
The two sides sat down after the opening ceremony to discuss how the talks will unfold, officials said.
How to include the Taliban, who rejected the legitimacy of the West-backed Afghan government, in any government arrangement and how to protect the rights of women and minorities who suffered under the Taliban are also great challenges.
“The Afghan people must be at the heart of this peace process … which leaves no one behind, including women,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.
Pompeo noted the four women negotiators in the Afghan delegation, saying they exemplified the gains in Afghanistan from women’s participation in public life. He urged that the social advances of the country be protected.
Watching television in Kabul, the Afghan capital, teacher Pariwash Farkish said that although she had witnessed violent explosions and that the peace talks were very important to her, she had concerns.
“As I watched the ceremony today, I saw that there was no woman among the Taliban, and that worried me,” she said.
Then-President George W. Bush sent US forces to Afghanistan a month after the 9/11 attacks to hunt down their brain, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi sanctuary donated by the country’s Taliban Islamist leaders.
Although the Taliban regime was quickly toppled, they regrouped and have since led an insurgency that has sucked out Afghanistan’s neighbors and troops from dozens of countries, including NATO forces.
Negotiations to negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement were part of a troop withdrawal pact signed between the United States and the Taliban in February. After months of delay, a dispute over the Taliban’s demand to release 5,000 prisoners was resolved this week.
Ahead of the November US presidential election, where he lags behind in polls, Trump is looking to show progress on his pledge to end US involvement and withdraw most foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan.