Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed Friday in Qatar ahead of the start of landmark peace talks between the Taliban and a delegation representing the Afghan government.
“It’s taken us longer than I wish that it had,” Pompeo told reporters shortly after taking off from the U.S. on Thursday. “But we expect Saturday morning for the first time in almost two decades to have the Afghans sitting at the table together prepared to have what will be contentious discussions about how to move their country forward.”
Pompeo landed on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, which killed nearly 3,000 people and led the United States to invade Afghanistan a month later. The U.S. toppled the Taliban after it refused to give up Osama bin Laden, the architect of the attacks.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
Since then the Taliban has waged a nearly two-decade insurgency against U.S.-backed Afghan governments and American-led forces. But they now have said they are willing to speak to an Afghan-delegation that includes members of the Kabul government — an authority they have persistently refused to recognize as legitimate.
It still remains unclear whether the Taliban have accepted that they will be engaging directly with the Afghan government or whether they continue to view the delegation as representative of broader Afghan society. Nevertheless, it is the closest the two sides have come to negotiating a peace since the 2001 invasion.
“I’m mindful of how difficult these conversations will be among the Afghans but it’s theirs for the taking,” said Pompeo, who is due to attend the opening ceremony of the peace negotiations in Qatar on Saturday.
At stake are more civilian casualties. From 2009 to last year, more than 100,000 civilians were killed or injured in Afghanistan, according to United Nations estimates.
The talks between the two sides — known as the intra-Afghan negotiations — were laid out in an agreement between the United States and the Taliban signed in February, also in Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office. The deal aimed at ending America’s longest war and bringing U.S. troops home from the war-ravaged nation.
President Donald Trump promised during his 2016 campaign to end wars like the one in Afghanistan.
If implemented, the February deal could see all U.S.-led foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan by May in exchange for Taliban security guarantees, the primary one being preventing any group or individual from using Afghan soil to attack America or its allies.
In the air Thursday, Pompeo reaffirmed that the criteria for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan were Taliban security guarantees and the safety of the United States. But he said that the talks would be factored into America’s risk assessment of conditions on the ground.