Nineteen years after the September 11 terror attacks in the United States led to a bloody conflict that ravaged Afghanistan and killed tens of thousands of people, talks designed to bring peace to the country are getting under way.
Afghan government officials, Taliban extremists, and U.S. officials are in the Qatari capital, Doha, for the negotiations that opened on September 12 with an inauguration ceremony.
The long-warring parties "must make the decisive decision in line with the current challenges and rise above all form of division... by reaching an agreement on the basis of no victor and no vanquished," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said.
"I can tell you with confidence that the history of our country will remember today as the end of the war and suffering of our people," said Abdullah Abdullah, an Afghan former minister who is heading Kabul's negotiating team.
"My delegation are in Doha representing a political system that is supported by millions of men and women from a diversity of cultural, social, and ethnic backgrounds in our homeland," he added.
Speaking at the ceremony, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the start of the talks was a "momentous occasion."
“Each of you carry a great responsibility,” Pompeo told the participants. “You have an opportunity to overcome your divisions."
Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund said that Afghanistan should "have an Islamic system in which all tribes and ethnicities of the country find themselves without any discrimination and live their lives in love and brotherhood.
"Negotiations may have problems but should move forward with patience," he said.
Washington helped broker the on-and-off peace talks in Qatar, where the Taliban has a representative office.
Analysts said that, although getting both sides to the negotiating table was a major achievement, this does not mean the path to peace will be easy, especially with violence increasing around the country.
"Nothing should prevent a cease-fire being accepted and implemented by both parties," Josep Borrell, the high representative for foreign affairs of the European Union, told the Doha meeting via video link
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 start intra-Afghan negotiations.
At a news conference on September 10, 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 negotiations, Washington began withdrawing some of its 13,000 troops after the February 29 deal was signed.
Talks in Doha are expected to tackle tough issues, including a permanent cease-fire, the rights of women and minorities, and the disarming of tens of thousands of Taliban fighters and militias loyal to warlords, some of them aligned with the government.
Constitutional changes, power sharing, and even the name of the country and the flag are expected to be on the agenda as well.
Among the government-appointed negotiators are four women, who vowed to preserve women's rights in any power-sharing deal with the hard-line Taliban. This includes the right to work, education, and participation in political life, which were all denied denied to women when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years.
No women are on the Taliban's negotiation team led by Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, a hardline cleric who spent years lying low in Pakistan’s southwestern city of Quetta, where the Afghan Taliban leadership has been based since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the extremist group from power in Afghanistan.
The Taliban has said it accepted a woman's right to work, go to school and participate in politics but would not accept a woman president or chief justice.
Deeply conservative members of the government-named High Council for National Reconciliation, which is overseeing the talks, also hold that women can not serve in either post.
In his remarks at the September 12 ceremony in Doha, Pompeo encouraged the negotiators to respect Afghanistan’s rich diversity, including women and ethnic and religious minorities. He said that, while it was up to the Afghans to decide waht kind of political system they wanted, the United States had found that democracy and rotation of political power works best.
“I can only urge these actions. You will write the next chapter of Afghan history,” he said.
Many people in Afghanistan fear a return of the Taliban as part of a governing arrangement. The extremist group was accused of human rights violations and abuse of women during its years of rule, which ended when U.S. forces invaded and drove the extremists from power in 2001.
The Taliban controlled Afghanistan at the time and harbored Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks.
Since being driven from power, the extremists have regrouped and have been waging an insurgency. They now control large swaths of territory.
The American-led led coalition now mainly trains and advises Afghan troops and conducts counterterrorism actions.
The deal foresees the gradual withdrawal of all international forces in exchange for the Taliban's renunciation of terrorism.
More than 2,300 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.