The informal meeting came during a pause in the latest negotiations between U.S. and Taliban officials, which resumed Tuesday with apparently renewed momentum. In a tweet after midnight, top U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad said the meeting “gives hope for further progress” to end years of war and “terrible suffering.”
American officials have said they want a basic peace deal by Sept. 1, ahead of Afghan presidential elections scheduled for Sept. 28. But some observers have warned that the two parallel efforts could collide before then, deepening political divisions and adding to violence. Fighting between insurgent and government forces has intensified in recent months.
Participants preparing to return to Kabul praised the cordial tone of the encounter. They called it a watershed of sorts because it included Afghan officials, who were allowed to participate as private citizens. The Taliban has repeatedly derided the elected Kabul government as a U.S. puppet.
“Glad to see common understanding on difficult issues. The conference itself was a success in pursuing peace agenda,” tweeted Fawzia Koofi, a legislator and one of six women in a Kabul delegation of 50. The joint resolution said “all participants insist” on continuing the dialogue.
Nadir Naim, deputy chairman of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, said he hopes that a U.S.-Taliban deal on foreign troop withdrawals is now imminent. “A lot of the differences are being resolved, so it’s just a matter of time,” he told the Reuters news agency from the Qatari capital, Doha.
But some delegates and outside observers voiced caution. They said insurgents at the “peace conference” expressed no regret for two recent bombings that injured more than 100 Afghan children, that they did not explicitly agree to negotiate with the government, and that they did not soften their earlier insistence that the country must come under full Islamic, or sharia, law.
Among eight conditions listed in the road map for peace, the top item is “institutionalizing [the] Islamic system in the country.” This is familiar Taliban language that directly contradicts the demand of many Afghans, including most of those in Doha, to keep Afghanistan a democratic Islamic republic with a modern constitution.
One participant from the government, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment, said the comments by Taliban leaders at the meeting “proved that they have not changed.” He said it was good that they had a chance to “hear from Afghans how the country has changed” in recent years, and remarked that they seemed less “arrogant” than in the past. But he also said the Taliban leaders proudly told the visiting delegates that they had “defeated the U.S.”
It was not clear how the intra-Afghan encounter, which followed two similar conferences in Moscow, would affect the U.S.-Taliban talks that have been taking place since September in an effort to end the 18-year conflict. Khalilzad said Saturday that the latest talks had made “substantive progress” on four major issues, including a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals and a permanent cease-fire.
Several analysts said the joint resolution was a positive step because it listed specific conditions needed to achieve piece. On the other hand, they said it did not address key issues, especially how the timing of foreign troop withdrawals would relate to further talks with Afghan leaders and whether those would include authorities in Kabul.
The joint statement said the “peace process” would begin “simultaneously with the accomplishment of all the terms and conditions set forth.” Those included international monitoring, assurance of no interference by neighboring countries, establishing an “Islamic system” and securing future support from donor countries.
“Even the most hardened skeptic has to admit that this statement is encouraging, but the ‘what next’ factor is critical,” said Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “The Taliban still have their eyes on a prize — a troop withdrawal deal that the U.S. isn’t ready to concede until there’s more progress with an intra-Afghan dialogue. That has new momentum now, but the Taliban buy-in is still questionable.”
Delegates also expressed concern that the Taliban leaders were giving only lip service to issues including women’s rights and the protection of civilians. The joint agreement said all sides supported “assuring women’s rights . . . within the Islamic framework of Islamic values.” During four years in power from 1996 to 2001, extremist Taliban rulers severely repressed women’s rights to work, study and leave their homes without a male escort.
Some delegates wept during the meetings as they listened to fellow Afghans describe their suffering at Taliban hands, including losing family members to conflict and facing brutal detentions during Taliban rule.
Participants were also shaken Sunday by a deadly suicide bombing in the capital of Ghazni province that was claimed by the Taliban. The attack, which killed 12 people and wounded 180, was aimed at a compound of the national intelligence agency, but the blast injured many children at a nearby school. A similar attack in Kabul on July 1 killed six people and wounded 105, mostly children.
“It’s sad to see not a single sentence of condemnation of the attacks on children of Afghanistan in Ghazni and Kabul,” a woman named Rosa Afghan tweeted in response to Khalilzad’s upbeat tweet. “How can murders and negotiations continue side by side?”