The much-awaited Afghan government-Taliban negotiations started in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday, with Afghan officials and Taliban commanders expressing optimism to end the protracted conflict.
“We will undoubtedly encounter many challenges in the talks over the coming days, weeks and months,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, as he called for the Afghan government and the Taliban 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,” he said during the opening ceremony of the intra-Afghan dialogue.
The talks were scheduled to begin in March after the US and the Taliban signed a deal that paved the way for the intra-Afghan negotiations, but complications over the release of Taliban prisoners delayed the start.
Ceasefire — a sticking point
Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s former chief executive and now the head of the peace process for Kabul, urged the Taliban to announce an immediate ceasefire. Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, however, made no comments on a potential truce in his opening remarks.
Baradar reiterated the insurgents’ demand for the imposition of Shariah, or Islamic law, which highlighted potential complications in the lengthy negotiations.
Abdullah suggested that the Taliban could offer a ceasefire in exchange for the release of its jailed fighters.
“This could be one of their ideas or one of their demands,” Abdullah told AFP news agency.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, believes that the Taliban won’t easily agree to a truce.
“The Afghan government side comes to the table seeking a ceasefire. It is a wish that has the support across the Afghan political class as well as in Washington, and one that can help build trust and strengthen peace prospects if agreed to by the Taliban,” Kugelman told DW before the start of peace talks. “The Taliban, however, will be in no hurry to agree to a ceasefire, given that it derives so much leverage from violence. The ceasefire issue is a clear disconnect that will be an early challenge in the intra-Afghan dialogue.”
Violent attacks in Afghanistan, such as the roadside bomb that exploded close to the convoy of Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh on Wednesday, could derail and sabotage the Doha negotiations.
Abdullah said Afghan negotiators planned to discuss a reduction in violence as a priority in the second meeting with Taliban representatives on Sunday.
A ‘positive’ start
Kabul negotiator Habiba Sarabi told AFP the start of talks had been “very positive.”
“Everybody including Secretary Pompeo shared their solidarity, from the Taliban side also. … We’re on the way to building the trust,” she said.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy for Afghanistan, said the timetable for foreign troops to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 remained on track, and that he wanted a comprehensive ceasefire before then.
“The hope is … there will be a reduction of violence immediately,” leading eventually to a permanent ceasefire, Khalilzad said.
He cautioned that Washington would not underwrite a future Afghan state that was not in line with “universal values” — including women’s rights. “There is no blank check,” Khalilzad said.
Read more: US-Taliban deal — a victory for Islamists?
Concerns about democracy and human rights
The Afghan civil society has urged President Ashraf Ghani’s government to not compromise on human rights in negotiations with the Taliban. Rights groups are particularly concerned about possible concessions to Islamists on curtailing women’s rights, which have seen considerable improvement since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.
In a statement, Ghani called for “a lasting and dignified peace” that preserved “the achievements of the past 19 years.”
Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide urged all sides to include “women, victims and minorities and other stakeholders” in the peace process, saying such inclusivity is the key to an enduring accord.
Three of the 21 delegates on the Kabul negotiating team are women. The Taliban, who stripped women of all basic freedoms while in power from 1996-2001, had no females on their team.
Although the Taliban have agreed to engage with the Afghan government — for now — they still do not recognize them as a legitimate regime. They also don’t believe in parliamentary democracy and want to run the country according to Shariah. Any potential deal between Kabul and the Islamists will remain a distant dream if these fundamental differences are not resolved.
“Both sides have different expectations. For the Taliban, the hope is a deal that will grant them a large degree of power within a political system that may be significantly different than the current one. For Kabul, the hope is to have a deal in which the Taliban holds only some power, within a democratic system,” Kugelman explained. “The truth of the matter is that Kabul has paid insufficient attention to the intended political endgame. There’s been so much focus on getting talks to start, that there hasn’t been enough on what’s needed to ensure they succeed and what to push for in a peace deal.”