Taliban fighters and delegates appointed by the Afghan government meet in Qatar to end decades of war that tore Afghanistan apart and dependent on foreign aid.
And when the glamor of the opening ceremony wears off, the big task remains to resolve one of the world’s deadliest conflicts.
NBC News spoke to Taliban commanders, an Afghan government negotiator, and a former senior diplomat to find out what obstacles could prevent the conflict cycle from being broken.
The two sides are currently discussing rules and procedures for talks and it remains unclear when they will move on to the broader issues in the peace talks.
Despite the cautiously positive stance of some analysts, both sides expressed conflicting visions of how Afghanistan should be governed at this early stage.
A change of power?
If the Taliban insist on the establishment of a transitional government to replace the current government in Kabul, this could cause problems.
A Taliban commander in Helmand province told NBC News that the group would press for a transitional government to replace President Ashraf Ghani’s government and refuse to cooperate with current Afghan leaders. It remains unclear whether this view reflects that of the Taliban’s political leadership, but it suggests a broader opposition to the US-backed government in Kabul.
Like other Taliban leaders quoted in this article, the commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to inform the media.
Traditionally, the Taliban have refused to recognize the government’s legitimacy, calling Ghani a puppet.
Ghani, meanwhile, has been careful not to make promises when asked if he would step aside to make way for an interim government if requested by the Taliban and Washington.
“I serve according to the will of the Afghan people, not the will of the Taliban,” he said a virtual conference in June When asked by a journalist, he added that the main problem was not the president but the republic.
He said any discussion of a transitional government was “premature,” adding that former President Najibullah, who was killed before his body was hanged near the presidential palace in Kabul, when Taliban militants swept into the capital in 1996 “Life made the” mistake of his “by announcing that he would resign.
A permanent, comprehensive truce
“From our point of view, the ceasefire is of course the most important thing,” said Fatima Gailani, a member of the Afghan peace negotiation team. “This was the request of the people in Afghanistan.”
A ceasefire, she said, would help both sides trust each other and allow the people of Afghanistan on both sides of the conflict to breathe.
However, three Taliban commanders and a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha did not speak out in favor of a ceasefire until significant progress was made in the peace talks or a peace deal was even agreed.
This shows how far the two sides could be able to agree to even a temporary halt to the fighting – and the reluctance of the Taliban to abandon their strongest bargaining chip.
“If we stop fighting, what is left to talk about,” said the member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha.
But as the conflict drags on, more civilian lives become data points in this devastating conflict. According to United Nations estimates, more than 100,000 victims were recorded in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2019.
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Johnny Walsh, a former US diplomat and senior advisor to the Afghan peace process at the State Department, said it was “somewhat plausible” that close ceasefire agreements could occur in the near future as a confidence-building measure.
But he said the Taliban viewed an indefinite and comprehensive end to the violence as one of their greatest concessions, so they would not be willing to agree to it immediately.
When asked about the Taliban’s perspective, Gailani said she expressed the hope of the Afghan negotiating team that there would be a ceasefire first.
“Now, when negotiations begin, let’s see what’s to come, or maybe a combination of both at the same time.”
A future Afghanistan
According to a Taliban commander in Ghazni province, there is a fundamental hurdle to negotiating what the country should look like: The Taliban do not support democracy.
“We would follow the emirate system,” he said, referring to a state ruled by an emir, a Muslim ruler.
“Only religious scholars would give their opinion in order to elect members for the Supreme Council. The Supreme Council would then develop strategies to govern the country according to Islamic Sharia, ”he said, referring to Islamic law derived from the Koran.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement on Tuesday that an Islamic system has its own “definition and structure,” adding that at least two members of the Kabul delegation did so because of their “lack of mastery in Islamic studies and” could not understand and acknowledge history. “He gave some more details.
According to Walsh, senior Taliban leaders have withdrawn from public calls for an emirate, saying broadly that there should be a more Islamic system. It is unclear how they define this and whether they still personally envision Afghanistan as an emirate.
Taliban figures often say that democracy is not inherently against Islam, but say they oppose the 2004 Constitution because they were excluded from its creation, which Walsh said happened in the shadow of B-52 bombers.
“They are implying that Western powers dictated this constitution,” he added.
The 2004 Constitution, which anchors the state as an Islamic republic, was ratified after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that overthrew the Taliban.
The International Crisis Group, an organization that works to prevent war, has reported that they are Taliban members split over the question of democracy.
On the other hand, Kabul is generally expected to maintain the status quo.
Ghani said at a virtual conference organized by the Atlantic Council and the United States Institute of Peace in June that the Afghan side had reached a consensus on two “basic concepts”.
“One of them is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as a sovereign, democratic and united republic,” he said. “And secondly, citizens. The rights and duties that hold us together are those of citizenship. “
Gailani said the delegates appointed by the Afghan government received a specific request from Afghan women not to compromise on their rights to education, work and political participation.
“This is a message that we must sincerely convey, and as strong as it was for us, it must be conveyed on the negotiating table,” she said.
Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, under which most women found themselves blocked from attending school, from jobs or even from leaving their homes without a male companion.
The Taliban have since announced that they will be less draconian towards women and girls than before, but have hardly offered any details.
The commander from Helmand Province said the Taliban would protect women’s rights under Islamic Sharia law. He did not elaborate on what this meant for women, but said the system of government would be “different” from that in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Saphora Smith reported from London and Mushtaq Yusufzai from Peshawar, Pakistan.