Doha (AFP) -
Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government opened in Qatar on Saturday, marking what US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heralded as a 'truly momentous' occasion in nearly two decades of gruelling conflict.
The US-backed talks will be arduous and complex, delegates acknowledged at an opening ceremony in Doha, and are starting even as violence continues to grip Afghanistan.
'We will undoubtedly encounter many challenges in the talks over the coming days, weeks and months,' Pompeo said as he called for the warring sides to 'seize this opportunity' to secure peace.
'Remember you are acting not only for this generation of Afghans but for future generations as well, your children and your grandchildren.'
Highlighting the war's brutal toll, Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's former chief executive who is heading the peace process for Kabul, said 12,000 civilians have been killed and another 15,000 wounded since the US signed a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban on February 29.
Abdullah called for an immediate, humanitarian ceasefire -- but his plea went unanswered by Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who made no mention of a truce in his opening remarks.
The Taliban have long worried that reducing violence could lessen their leverage at the negotiating table.
Instead, Baradar repeated the insurgents' message that Afghanistan must be run according to Islamic law.
The Taliban want to reshape Afghanistan into an Islamic 'emirate', while the adminstration of President Ashraf Ghani will seek to maintain the Western-backed status quo of a constitutional republic that has enshrined many rights, including greater freedoms for women.
'We want Afghanistan to have an Islamic system in which people from all walks of life see themselves without discrimination and live in brotherhood with each other,' Baradar said.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide urged all sides to include 'women, victims and minorities and other stakeholders' in the process, saying such inclusivity is the key to an enduring accord.
Four of the 21 people on the Kabul negotiating team are women. The Taliban's delegation of the same size has none.
In the Afghan capital, residents were glued to their televisions watching the opening ceremony unfold.
'I want the peace negotiating team to consider the will of the people of Afghanistan,' said Kabul resident Sayed Jamil Ibrahimi.
- Competing visions -
The US-backed negotiations come six months later than planned owing to bitter disagreements over a controversial prisoner swap agreed in February.
President Donald Trump, up for re-election in November, has pushed hard to end the United States' longest war and wants all foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by next year.
But a comprehensive peace deal could take years, and will depend on the willingness of both sides to tailor their competing visions for the country.
'My beard was black when the war began, it is snow white now and we are still in war,' said Kabul resident Obaidullah, 50.
'I don't believe the war will end that soon. I am sceptical about the talks because both sides want their full agenda and their system enforced,' added the retired civil servant.
The talks are being held in a hotel conference room in Doha, where chairs were dotted at socially distanced intervals facing a banner emblazoned with the words 'Afghan Peace Negotiations' in four languages.
Delegates began to arrive from dawn at the luxury venue, which hosted the signing of the US-Taliban deal in February that paved the way for the talks.
The Taliban claimed 'victory' following the deal and see their bargaining position as stronger now than at any time in the last two decades.
A who's who of international stakeholders in the Afghanistan conflict spoke at the opening ceremony, including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had been scheduled to speak but did not.
Human Rights Watch called on participants to pledge to uphold basic rights as they chart the nation's future.
Qatar has quietly guided the process which has been complicated by violence in Afghanistan and the coronavirus crisis, with Doha's chief negotiator Mutlaq al-Qahtani stressing on Thursday 'the power of diplomacy'.
Doha invited the Taliban to open a political office in 2013 and helped broker February's troop withdrawal deal between Washington and the Taliban.
The arrangement has led to tense moments like when the Taliban raised their flag above the office, sparking fury in Kabul.
Since the US-Taliban agreement in February, the insurgents have continued to launch daily attacks against Afghan security forces.