The first-ever talks between the sides follow months of delays and U.S. pressure on both. They’re a key condition of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, which calls for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops. President Trump, who campaigned on ending the war in Afghanistan, is eager to see progress ahead of elections in November.
Who is participating in the talks?
One of the most discussed concerns going into the negotiations is the relative lack of unity within the team representing the government, civil society and religious institutions outside of Taliban control.
The team, led by former intelligence chief Masoom Stanikzai, is made up of a diverse group of people who have only recently begun working together. Some are government officials; others are members of rival political parties and religious representatives, and most are civil society members. The team includes four women, among them Fawzia Koofi, who survived an assassination attempt last month.
Most of the members of the Taliban team have worked together for more than a year negotiating with the United States. The team is under the new leadership of the movement’s chief justice, Abdul Hakim, but there’s no apparent political or religious diversity in its membership. This relative unity and greater experience is expected to give the Taliban negotiators an advantage.
How have the initial meetings gone?
Officials from both sides described the first meeting Saturday as cordial. But they were dealing with logistics, not the substance of what it will take to bring peace to Afghanistan. The same went for a follow-up meeting on Sunday.
The sides have agreed on the makeup of smaller teams, which are expected to meet more frequently, and how they will communicate with one another.
“I’ve heard positive things about the [first] meeting between the two sides,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, told reporters Saturday. He pointed to a number of views the two sides already share: The importance of sovereignty, independence and the desire to live in an Islamic country.
Both sides have requested to meet without the presence of officials from the United States or any other country. Khalilzad said that he supported that decision but that the United States would remain “ready to help and prepared to help if help is needed.”
Which issues will be most difficult to resolve?
Women’s rights, civil liberties, democracy and the makeup of the country’s security forces are expected to be significant sticking points.
The sides have dramatically different visions of a postwar Afghanistan. The Taliban opposes elections; it seeks a country governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The government and civil society groups want to preserve the country’s democracy, human rights and civil liberties.
Taliban leaders have said they support interpretations of human rights and women’s rights that don’t conflict with Islamic law, but that leaves much room for interpretation. Days before talks began, the Taliban appointed Hakim, known for his deep knowledge of Islamic law and jurisprudence.
Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s top political figure, nodded to equal rights during his opening remarks Saturday, saying the group wants an Afghanistan “where everyone lives in peace and harmony and no one feels discrimination.”
Both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, have cautioned that Afghans living under government control will probably have to make sacrifices as peace talks progress.
But Abdullah told The Washington Post: “For me, one person, one vote — I don’t call anything a red line — but that’s critical . . . and compromises on these things will not get us to peace.”
What’s the state of the armed conflict?
Initially, Afghan officials demanded a cease-fire before they would begin talks with the Taliban. But the U.S.-Taliban peace deal did not require a reduction in violence. In heavily contested areas, attacks have increased in recent months and continued even as the sides met in Doha.
Dozens of Taliban fighters were killed by Afghan security forces in Kandahar, Nangahar, Zabul and Baghlan provinces Friday night just hours before the talks began, according to the Defense Ministry, and the violence continued after peace talks launched. Five police officers were killed and four wounded Saturday night in Kunduz city, according to officials. Five police officers were killed and seven pro-government forces wounded in Kapisa province.
What happens next?
The negotiations are expected to become more complex. The teams need to agree on the issues they will discuss and in what order. And judging from Taliban and government statements, the sides already have dramatically different expectations.
The Afghan government has prioritized a cease-fire, but the Taliban says it will agree to one only after a political settlement has been reached — meaning at the end of the negotiations. One compromise could be a period of reduced violence. Another could be a humanitarian cease-fire to allow the safe delivery of essential goods and services.
The work ahead is considerable. U.S.-Taliban talks collapsed several times before they eventually succeeded. And these talks, between longtime enemies trying to agree on how they will live together, are more complicated.
Sharif Hassan in Kabul and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.