AAFTER SIX months of intransigence and delay, the Taliban and Afghan government leaders finally gathered on September 12 in Qatar’s capital Doha to seek agreement on how to run their country. An agreement in February between America and the Taliban mainly concerned the promised withdrawal of American troops by next May, on condition that the Taliban guarantee not to harbor terrorists like al-Qaeda.
The Afghan government was not part of this agreement. The talks that have just started will focus on the shape of the country once the Americans leave. Grievances and bloodshed have escalated in the four decades since a coup overthrew the monarchy in 1978. Millions of people have been displaced and hundreds of thousands killed. The interference of foreign powers made matters much worse. “The current conflict does not have a winner by war and by military means,” said Abdullah Abdullah (photo), the leader, in fact, of the government’s negotiating team. “But there will be no loser if this crisis is resolved politically and peacefully by submission to the will of the people.”
Both sides were on their best demeanor as talks opened in a lavish hotel ballroom. Opponents greeted each other like old friends. General Austin Miller, commanding officer of NATO forces in Afghanistan and a past target of Taliban assassins, exchanged pleasantries with enemies. Some have seen allusions to a less fractured country, such as Masoom Stanekzai, the head of the government team, and Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai, the deputy chief negotiator of the Taliban, from the same tribe and the same province.
The sessions started off slowly, establishing ground rules and an agenda. Both sides called for patience and warned of spoilers trying to sabotage the talks. The government’s priority is a ceasefire. Dozens of civilians are killed and injured every week. The hope that the violence would end after the deal between the United States and the Taliban was muted this summer. A study by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research group, found that both sides have become more withdrawn in proclaiming offensives; more and more attacks are occurring without claiming responsibility. The massacre, however, has hardly abated. Violence is the Taliban’s main bargaining chip, so they will be reluctant to give it up. They know that force of arms is what won them a seat at the negotiating table.
At some point, the thorniest issues must be addressed. How is the country to be governed? How to distribute the power? What rights will be enshrined in a constitution? These problems can take months or even years to resolve. The Taliban have given few details on what they want. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, their deputy leader, simply said during the opening ceremony that his side wanted “a free, independent, united and developed country … with an Islamic system in which all tribes and ethnicities come together. without any discrimination and live their lives in love and brotherhood. “
Pressed on women’s rights, the Taliban previously said only that they would be protected by Islam. Such vagueness has not reassured many Afghan women. After all, the Taliban claimed to protect them in the 1990s while banning them from working or going to school. Now they must clarify how far they have moved away from their fundamentalism. Divisions can emerge between moderate factions and doctrinal pillars who want to restore their former “emirate”. The Afghan government also did not provide many details. Ashraf Ghani, the president, simply called for “a sovereign, democratic and united republic”.
The talks are taking place behind closed doors, without foreign officials. America, as the primary donor to the Afghan government, still holds a prominent place, but its influence is shrinking and changing. Delays in getting talks started and intelligence that the Taliban is still friends with Al Qaeda could have given President Donald Trump an excuse to slow down his troop withdrawal. But that number has risen from 13,000 in February to 8,600 in June – and is expected to drop to 4,500 before the US presidential election in November, leaving Mr. Trump to tell voters he has kept his promise to end the war. His opponent, Joe Biden, does not like the Afghan American adventure either. the GIs are clearly about to come out – but it’s unclear what they’re leaving behind. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Clear Throat”