Two weeks after they tried to kill her, Fawzia Koofi sat down to talk with the Taliban.
"We have to give peace a chance and build a better future for our children,” she remembers thinking at the time, as peace talks began in Qatar in September last year.
Koofi, a former MP and deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s parliament, was one of only three women present at the negotiations in Doha. The talks had been set up by the Trump administration, and she, like others present, hoped they represented a real shot at ending a 30-year conflict.
The talks were a part of what the Trump administration hailed at the time as a historic peace deal signed with the Taliban in February 2020, in which the Sunni Islamic fundamentalists pledged to stop attacking foreign troops, help counter small pockets of al-Qaeda and ISIS militants operating in their territory, and sit down with the elected government in Kabul. In exchange, the Taliban would get a glittering prize: the review of economic sanctions on the group, and the total withdrawal of US and NATO troops by May 2021.
Fast forward to the present day and a peace process much lauded at the time by President Donald Trump is in disarray.
As Taliban and Afghan government delegates sit down in Doha again for a much-delayed second round of peace talks, a rise in violence at home has overshadowed the entire process.
The United Mission Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s latest report on civilian casualties for 2020 described the violence in the final three months of the year as an "appalling level of harm inflicted on civilians, "and a period that "marked a 45 per cent increase in civilian casualties in comparison to the same three months in 2019, especially from the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and targeted killings."
Meanwhile a change in administration in the US means there’s going to be a review of the US position on the deal signed between Trump and the Taliban.
The Taliban have kept their promises, and ended attacks on foreign troop outposts. But the violence between Afghan forces and Taliban militants has increased, and the targeted killings have taken a severe toll in the past few months, leaving Afghanistan’s future on a knife-edge.
The challenges facing Afghanistan are myriad. At the end of 2019, the US-backed Afghan government was embroiled in an election result dispute between rival candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdulla Abdullah. Despite minor improvements, the civil administration in Kabul was named among the most corrupt in the world in 2020. The national army barely has control over half of the country. And the fragile power-sharing arrangement between former warlords and a handful of self-declared technocrats needs periodical US intervention at every political deadlock.
The Trump administration made it simple for the leaders in Kabul, threatening the Afghan administration that it would cut $1 billion in aid if it didn't agree to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 government security forces, end the election result dispute, and form a delegation headed by Abdullah to join the Taliban talks in Doha.
Despite everything, Koofi is still upbeat about the latest round of talks.
"The main issue is to reach a ceasefire or a security mechanism to reduce the killing of innocent people, and unfortunately the US didn't put that condition on the Taliban when they signed the agreement with them, and the Afghan government had to do a prison exchange for an agreement, which they weren't even a signatory of,” she told VICE World News via phone after her lunch break in the Qatari capital.
"Unfortunately, the Taliban has refused to engage in reducing violence and killing civilian people every day," said Koofi. Three women journalists were gunned down in two separate gun attacks in Jalalabad on Tuesday, although the Taliban denied any involvement in the incident.
The months since September have been incredibly dangerous for government employees, civil society members and journalists. The UN report highlighted a significant surge in violence since the beginning of the peace talks in Doha, with the Taliban blamed for almost half of the violence and targeted killings. The Taliban denied the report’s findings.
The situation on the ground since has only highlighted the sloppiness of the Trump framework. "It is important to put political pressure on the Taliban to silence their guns and take practical steps toward peace," said Koofi.
Despite a decrease in casualties from international security forces from 786 in 2019 to 120 in 2020 as the Taliban held up their side of the Trump administration-brokered deal, the Afghan government is finding it hard to secure a stronger position in this round of talks.
The Taliban are pushing the argument that there wasn’t any agreement on their military activities regarding the US-backed Afghan national forces, and have rejected any additional demands from Joe Biden’s administration so far.
But Biden's election win may have turned the tables for the Taliban. The Kabul government is trying to include a "ceasefire" as a precondition for the process to succeed.
"The review of the deal by the US is necessary, and it is crucial to consider the human lives caught in the crossfire of the conflict, not just the number of troops, guns, and bullets moving around,” said Koofi.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy to Afghanistan appointed by Trump, has maintained his position. He was in Kabul on Monday to speak to Afghan leaders, rejuvenate hopes of a permanent peace made by Afghans, and signal that the US remains dedicated to the peace process.
The Afghan government also appears to still be enthusiastically on board if it can negotiate a ceasefire before moving to the details for a final peace deal.
Abdullah, the head of the Kabul delegation, wrote in a tweet: "We reiterated our call for an immediate end to violence & the acceleration of the peace talks."
In a statement issued Sunday, the Taliban said: "Despite a few shortcomings, the peace agreement moves smoothly toward a positive direction.”
The Taliban also said that they had delivered their commitments to the deal signed with Trump. "We did not allow anyone to use Afghanistan's soil to threaten the security of the US, its citizens and allies."
The main question mark is whether the Taliban will accept any new terms – especially since they will feel they are getting a hard bargain after agreeing to negotiate last time.
"We have made a lot of progress, but we need to show the practical sides of a peace deal to the people, and stability in Afghanistan would benefit everyone. We just need to learn how to live together, and not kill each other," said Koofi.
"The Taliban leaders have lived abroad enough to see how other Muslim countries has managed to live without a conflict.”
Otherwise, Afghanistan is back to square one negotiations-wise after a year of trying, with only more bloodshed to show for it.