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Afghanistan peace talks to begin

ISLAMABAD — The long-awaited peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government’s negotiating team are to begin on Saturday in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar, the Taliban and Qatar’s foreign ministry said Thursday.

The talks — known as intra-Afghan negotiations — were laid out in a peace deal that Washington brokered with the Taliban and signed in February, also in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office. At the time, the deal was seen as Afghanistan’s best chance at ending more than four decades of relentless war.

Shortly after the announcement, President Donald Trump said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would travel to Qatar, to attend the start of the negotiations. Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, confirmed in a tweet that their delegation will be in Qatar’s capital of Doha for the talks and said the president wished the negotiating team success.

Pompeo issued a statement welcoming the start of negotiations and saying they will mark “a historic opportunity for Afghanistan to bring an end to four decades of war and bloodshed.”

“The people of Afghanistan have carried the burden of war for too long,” Pompeo said.

That deal Washington signed with the Taliban aims to end Afghanistan’s protracted war and bring American troops home while the intra-Afghan talks are to set a road map for a post-war society in Afghanistan.

The negotiations are expected to be a difficult process as the two sides struggle to end the fighting and debate ways of protecting the rights of women and minorities. The Taliban have promised women could attend school, work and participate in politics but stressed that would all be allowed in keeping with Islamic principles — without saying what that might mean.

The Taliban have also said they would not support a woman becoming president of Afghanistan and that while they would allow for women to judges, a woman could not serve as a chief justice.

Meanwhile, Kabul’s reconciliation council has an array of disparate figures, including hard-liners such as Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, a former warlord who served as the inspiration for the Philippine’s Abu Sayyaf militant group, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a one-time U.N.-listed terrorist. Both espouse deeply restrictive interpretations of Islam.

Hekmatyar in an earlier interview with The Associated Press also rejected women serving as chief justice. Afghanistan’s Parliament has so far been unable to ratify a Violence Against Women’s bill because it is feared that hard-line lawmakers would defeat any such legislation.

The government’s negotiation team includes several women who will carry a heavy burden to defend and protect rights for their gender, analysts say. The Taliban have no women on their team.

The fate of the tens of thousands of armed Taliban, as well as militias loyal to government-allied warlords, will also be on the agenda, along with constitutional changes for Afghanistan.

There’s also the issue of power sharing. While the Taliban have said they do not want to monopolize power, the suggestion of an interim administration has largely been rejected by Kabul. Deep mistrust also exists on both sides

Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the U.S.-Taliban deal signed on Feb. 29, has been in Doha for the past week, trying to push the talks forward.

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