A historic meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency to negotiate the end of two decades of war in the country began on Saturday.
After months of delays, the Afghan delegation, led by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of National Reconciliation Council, met the Taliban leadership led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in person for the first time since the extremist regime was deposed during the US invasion in 2001.
An assortment of global leaders, representing regional and global stakeholders, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, expressed optimism about the talks in their opening remarks.
“A landmark achievement of the US-Taliban agreement was setting the stage for these negotiations,” Mr Pompeo said, referring to the deal between the US administration and the Taliban made earlier this year that has facilitated the ongoing withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
“We urge you to make decisions that move away from the violence and the corruption and towards peace and development and prosperity,” he said.
Dr Abdullah reiterated similar optimism and thanked the Taliban for “responding positively” to the talks.
“I can tell you with confidence that history will remember today as the end of the war and suffering of our people. The current conflict has no winner, but there will be no loser if the crisis is resolved through submission to the will of the people,” he said. The Taliban leader responded with a short assurance that they intended to continue the talks with “full honesty to pave the ground for peace”.
However, for those following the conflict closely, much was said in the few short opening remarks that they have heard before. “These were ceremonial speeches, and we are so familiar with the tone and references they use,” said Orzala Nemat, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), who has been tracking the peace efforts for many years.
“The key is in what happens next. If all sides are genuine about bringing the conflict to an end, they need to prioritise the ceasefire,” she said.
“A lot of speeches mentioned the ceasefire but I don’t think I heard enough about the ceasefire from the Taliban delegations,” she added.
While the Taliban expressed willingness to discuss the ceasefire, there has been no concrete commitment provided by the militant group about ending the war. “The Taliban will not accept a ceasefire under the current government but will instead ask for it under a new political structure - an acting or caretaker government,” Faiz Zaland, a political analyst who is currently participating in the Doha talks as an observer, said.
“They will agree to a ceasefire in exchange for an interim government where they can see themselves as part of the future of Afghanistan. They are expecting to take concrete decisions that will go beyond a ceasefire and the end of the war,” he said.
But Ms Nemat said the call for a ceasefire had been made many times before without success. “They talked about being patient but while we appreciate being patient with talks, we cannot be patient with losses of human lives,” Ms Nemat said, adding that the ceasefire was crucial to the success of the talks.
Her views were reflected among the Afghan public, many of whom watched the ceremony with much anticipation. “I am hoping all the parties agree to a ceasefire and reach an agreement where we can live in peace. We are tired of the war and killings,” said Javid Safi, a 32-year-old NGO worker from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Mr Safi’s neighbourhood has been closely following the talks, and “is the topic of every dining table conversation”.
“Everywhere you go, this is what all Afghans are talking about. It is evident we are eager and thirsty for peace,” he said.
Both Abdullah and Baradar stressed the importance of defining the Islamic nature of Afghanistan in their remarks. While the Afghan leader maintained legitimacy of the system based on the constitution, the Taliban sought to establish a new Islamic system - a matter that is likely to create friction in the coming days.
“Afghanistan did not newly adopt Islamic government during the Taliban regime; we have been an Islamic nation for a very long period of time. What they are demanding is problematic because they have their own interpretation of Islam,” Ms Nemat pointed out.
Mr Zaland agreed that it is likely that the Taliban may oppose some “extreme freedoms which aren’t in accordance with Sharia”. However, he did not believe the issue will create a dispute.
“Concerns that the Taliban will return to the strict format of the Islamic government of 1990s are unfounded because even they admit there were mistakes in some interpretations and applications and it will not be repeated. Islamic governance will be defined by the Ulemas on both sides,” he added.
However, those like Mr Safi remain very cautious of the ideological rift within the Taliban. “From what I know and hear there are two types of Taliban, the ones that are in Qatar and another group that are fighting here. I don’t think all Taliban have changed, some are still fighting for the old Emirate,” he added.
“We want the violence to end, but not at the cost of the values of the last 20 years—human rights, education and freedoms.”