For the first time ever, Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban are in direct negotiations, stoking hopes of real peace after 19 years of conflict.
In February, the US brokered a peace deal with the Taliban, promising to withdraw troops from Afghanistan within 14 months. In response, the Taliban agreed to both meet with the Afghan government and to prevent groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from operating in the areas under its control, along with a number of other accords.
These new talks, launched Saturday in Doha, Qatar, are about establishing a ceasefire and a power-sharing arrangement between Kabul and the Taliban – points not covered in the US deal. A deadly reminder of that came just hours before negotiations started, when the Afghan Defence Ministry reported that dozens of Taliban fighters and six police officers had been killed in the fighting.
US President Trump has promised to get America out of “endless wars” during his re-election campaign, so his administration is keen to find a resolution before the country’s polls open in November.
Launching the peace talks, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "Each of you carry a great responsibility. You have an opportunity to overcome your divisions.” He then stepped away, as both Kabul and the Taliban had asked to meet without officials from the US or any other country present.
The Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, repeated the group’s demand for an "Islamic system" in Afghanistan during his opening remarks, saying, "We want Afghanistan to be an independent, developed country, and it should have a form of the Islamic system, where all its citizens see themselves reflected."
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan, told reporters on Saturday that this was promising, as Kabul shares a desire for independence and for Afghanistan to be an Islamic country.
The first round of talks was mainly administrative; each side worked on building a roadmap that would help them deliberate the technicalities of the power-sharing deal they are set to come up with. In June of 2019, Kabul controlled just over half of the country, the Taliban controlled around 15 percent, and the remaining 119 districts remained contested.
Prior to the talks, Afghanistan was dealing with the fallout from its September, 2019 presidential election, when current President Ashraf Ghani ran against Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
While preliminary results showed Ghani had won, with 50.64 percent of the vote, Abdullah also claimed victory and spent months disputing the result.
In March, the US State Department stepped in, threatening to slash $1 billion in aid to Kabul – as well as further cuts – if the Afghans failed to reach a deal to form a new government.
Conceding, Dr Abdullah accepted an appointment as chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, a board of Afghan society figures and mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union and the Afghan war. He is now leading the peace talks with the Taliban.
The Taliban controlled the majority of Afghanistan until the US-led invasion in 2001. The group has gradually regained control of more of the country than at any point since 2001.