DOHA, Qatar — The Taliban and the Afghan government began historic peace talks in Qatar on Saturday, aimed at shaping a power-sharing government that would end decades of war that have consumed Afghanistan and left millions dead and displaced.
If realized, a peace deal would be the first time in generations that a new form of Afghan government was not being established at the point of a gun: The current model was ushered in by the American invasion that toppled the Taliban’s harsh Islamic regime in 2001, and each previous one back to the 1979 Soviet invasion was set off by coup, collapse or conquest.
But as the Qatar talks begin, against the backdrop of an American troop pullout and grievous violence against Afghan officials and civilians, some critics of the process argued that the Taliban insurgency was still, in fact, holding a gun to the government’s head.
The peace talks opened on Saturday morning in Doha, the Qatari capital, with formal ceremonies held under tight security and strict coronavirus restrictions. The negotiations will be complicated at every turn by the threat of continued insurgent assaults, by decades of losses and grievances, and by foreign powers pulling Afghan factions in opposing directions.
Still, the fact that delegations from the two sides are finally coming to the table, after repeated delays, offers the nation a rare opportunity in its recent history: finding a formula of lasting coexistence before the withdrawal of another foreign military creates a vacuum, potentially repeating the country’s cycle of misfortune.
Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation and the leader of the delegation from Kabul, said at the opening ceremony that his side was proposing a “humanitarian cease-fire” while the talks proceed.
“We have come here with the good will and good intention to stop the 40 years of bloodshed and achieve a countrywide and lasting peace,” Mr. Abdullah said. “The current conflict has no winner through war and military means, but there will be no loser if this crisis is resolved through submission to the will of the people.”
The Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said the insurgents would participate in the talks “with full sincerity,” and he urged both sides to exercise calm and patience.
The direct negotiations became possible after the United States signed a deal with the Taliban in February that began a phased withdrawal of its remaining troops in Afghanistan over 14 months and pressured the Afghan government to free 5,000 of the Taliban’s prisoners.
“I hope this is the beginning of a big transformation for Afghanistan,” Mr. Abdullah said as he boarded a flight for Doha on Friday. “But it depends on how the two sides use this opportunity.”
Because the Taliban had long insisted on not holding direct, exclusive talks with the Afghan government, which they consider illegitimate, Mr. Abdullah’s delegation includes not just government officials but opposition politicians and other figures outside the administration.
Members of his team said their priority was to get to a lasting cease-fire — a “silencing of the guns,” as one delegate, Nader Nadery, put it. The violence, whose total daily death toll on all sides often surpasses 50 lives, is exacting an enormous cost on a nation of just over 30 million.
The war is also devastating the Afghan economy, with about 90 percent of the population living below a poverty line of $2 a day, President Ashraf Ghani recently said — all while billions of dollars a year in foreign aid, mostly from the United States, holds the national budget together.
The Taliban have been so single-handedly focused on securing the withdrawal of U.S. troops that they have provided little clarity on how they envision the country’s political future — beyond broad statements about establishing an “Islamic government.” When in power in the 1990s, they curtailed civil liberties and deprived women and minorities of basic rights.
While many in the Taliban indicate that they have learned from the experience of struggling to govern in the 1990s, others fear that the intervening decades of fighting may have propped up an even more hard-line generation of insurgents, limiting their negotiators’ ability to compromise.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, in an interview on the eve of the negotiations, said he was hopeful the Afghan sides would recognize “the burden, the pressure from the people” to reach a framework swiftly, and then figure out the details of its implementation, which would probably require a considerable amount of time.
“But I am realistic — I have dealt with the various sides,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “I think that a comprehensive, permanent cease-fire is likely to require a package. But why not have a significant reduction of violence, a cease-fire that is not permanent?
“Of course, we would be very happy if there is immediate permanent cease-fire,” he said, “but the record of such negotiations where violence is the main instrument of one of the parties shows that, I think, giving it up permanently will be difficult.”
After 17 years of fighting, the United States in late 2018 gave in to a stubborn Taliban demand to break the stalemate: talks with the Americans that excluded the Afghan government, which the insurgents insist is a puppet administration.
Mr. Khalilzad, working under pressure from President Trump to reach a deal that would get American troops out, reached an agreement with the insurgents that was criticized by many Afghan officials as having been rushed and giving the Taliban too much without assurances in return.
The troop withdrawal began on the Taliban’s promise that they would negotiate with the Afghan government and not let terrorist groups use Afghan territory as a haven and staging ground for international attacks. But in the months since, some international observers have questioned the Taliban’s commitment to that vow to abandon their allies in Al Qaeda and other such groups.
The government side’s 20-member team includes only three women — not five, as earlier believed — underscoring how Afghan women have struggled for equality since the Taliban were driven from power, despite various promises that often proved hollow.
Their careers reflect the hard-fought gains that women have made in Afghanistan’s patriarchal culture — gains that they must now convince the Taliban to accept in a future system. One delegate, Habiba Sarabi, was the first female governor of an Afghan province. Another, Fawzia Koofi, a single mother, fought her way to the deputy speakership of Afghanistan’s Parliament; the third, Sharifa Zurmati, was a journalist before switching to politics and entering Parliament.
The Taliban team includes some of the delegates who negotiated the deal with the United States. But they have brought in a new chief negotiator: Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani, an influential religious scholar who has led the Taliban’s network of Islamic courts in recent years.
Guests arrived in Doha for the opening ceremony on Friday, Sept. 11 — 19 years to the day after the Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States that led to the invasion of Afghanistan, a stark reminder that most of the American hopes for a safe and stable Afghan democracy remain unfulfilled, and perhaps untenable any time soon.
Still, Mr. Khalilzad — who was an adviser to the American government during the Cold War, as the United States was funding insurgents to push Soviet troops out of Afghanistan — said there was still an opportunity for the country to reach some sort of equilibrium.
“The Afghan tragedy has been not being able to get to an agreement on a formula and then stick to it,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “There was a great victory after the Soviet departure, the Afghans had this great victory. The rest of the world benefited from it a lot: we became the only superpower, Eastern Europe got liberated, Central Asia got freed. But Afghanistan continued this disintegration. The Afghans — they won, but they lost.
“But now they have another chance to get to a formula — where imposing one group’s will on the rest with the force of arms has not been a successful formula. The historic record is not encouraging, but the lessons could be instructive for them.”