Securing a ceasefire and safeguarding rights of women and minorities are key challenges
The Taliban and Afghan government negotiators launched historic peace talks on Saturday, aiming to end decades of war through a political settlement that would be unprecedented in the country’s recent history.
Negotiations will be long and complicated; there is a yawning gulf between the Taliban’s vision of an austerely Islamic state and the government’s commitment to the constitution that guarantees democracy and women’s rights, even if its implementation is mixed.
But in opening remarks the head of the Taliban delegation, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, promised patience, and the leader of the Kabul team, former national CEO Abdullah Abdullah, admitted “the current conflict has no winner through war”.
There were also signs of genuine goodwill from both sides. At one point members of the Taliban delegation publicly embraced the Afghan government’s chief negotiator, Masoom Stanekzai, former head of the Afghan intelligence service, which has been accused of torturing Taliban prisoners on his watch.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, told negotiators that America would not try to control the talks but he did offer an incentive for a deal. “Your choices and conduct will affect both the size and scope of future US assistance,” he said.
The presence of Fawzia Koofi, a delegate whose arm is still bandaged after she was injured in a recent assassination attempt, was a potent reminder at the negotiating table of the toll violence takes on Afghans daily.
Abdullah said 12,000 Afghans had been killed and another 15,000 injured in just over six months since the Taliban and the US signed a troop withdrawal deal in February, that paved the way for the negotiations.
He has called for an immediate ceasefire as a sign of goodwill, a demand backed by many of the foreign ministers who called in from around the world to underline international support for the peace deal. The talks were held in a heavily secured conference room in the Qatari capital Doha.
There have been several brief ceasefires for religious holidays in recent years but the Taliban have resisted calls for a broader halt to fighting. Insurgent leaders are aware that their ability to cause bloodshed brought their enemies to the negotiating table.
“The peace talks are happening with the Taliban because they caused a lot of casualties and violence, that’s a point of strength for them,” said Orzala Nemat, the director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation thinktank.
Afghan women have warned their hard won rights must not be traded away. Under Taliban rule, women were barred from education and most work outside the home. While insurgent leaders have promised to respect women’s rights under Islam, they have refused to spell out what that might mean in daily life.
“Your willingness to enter peace talks has given us hope, but your public statements and behaviour on the ground have continued to trouble us,” a group of activists wrote in an open letter to the Taliban before the talks.
“We do not view putting our skills to work to improve our country’s future towards prosperity as western. In the last two decades, we have played a vital role in rebuilding our destroyed country.”
There is no timeline on the discussions, with the Qatari hosts saying they are happy to provide support as long as negotiations are productive.
But some in the US government would like to see a preliminary deal before the presidential election in November, which would allow Donald Trump to claim success in ending America’s longest ever war, and solving one of its most intractable security and foreign policy challenges.
However, that leaves less than two months for the parties to bridge the gap between their positions, which analysts fear may not be enough.
“I’m struggling to remain optimistic although deep in my heart I don’t believe the results will be very positive,” said Nemat. “I think that under the pressure of the US, there may be some kind of results (this year), but they may be mostly for show.”
Efforts to reach a peace deal stretch back over a decade but interest shown by different parties has ebbed and flowed over the years as their military fortunes shifted. The battered remnants of the Taliban sued for a peace deal after they were toppled from power in 2001 but were rebuffed by the Americans.
Baradar, leader of the Taliban delegation, was also arrested by Pakistani authorities in 2010, reportedly for trying to open back-channel peace talks with then Afghan president Hamid Karzai. He was finally freed in 2018.
That same year Nato’s attempts to broker peace descended into farce when a “senior Taliban” they had flown to Kabul for talks turned out to be a grocer, who absconded with large amounts of cash.
When real negotiating channels opened up, talks stalled for years on the Taliban’s insistence that they would not talk to an Afghan government they denounced as a puppet regime.
Under Trump, US officials finally began bilateral talks and neared a deal, but that was derailed by the death of an American soldier. In February they finally signed a withdrawal deal and Washington acted fast on its commitment, with troop numbers expected to be down to 4,500 by November, from about 13,000 at the time.
In return for the US departure, the Taliban have agreed to sever ties with al-Qaida and join the intra-Afghan dialogue to find a political solution to the war. Critics fear they are only talking to buy time as American forces leave.
Over half a century, violence has shifted Afghanistan through many iterations of government. In the 1970s coups turned it from monarchy to presidential democracy, then into Soviet client state.
When Moscow ordered its troops home, the country slid into full blown civil war, until the Taliban consolidated power in 1996 but were toppled in turn by US backed forces after the 9/11 attacks on America.
A deal would end decades of war that have displaced millions, and killed and injured hundreds of thousands more civilians and combatants on both sides.
At their first meetings after the public opening ceremony, delegates from each side introduced themselves, and set up small “contact groups” to agree an agenda for the negotiations.
“There was so much suspicion on all sides that they were walking into a political trap with a pre-planned outcome,” said one international delegate at the ceremony. “I wonder if some of the smiles we are seeing now is that it’s dawning on them: these are real negotiations. Nobody has the answers.”