Cautious optimism as Afghan govt, Taliban begin peace talks
Afghan women negotiators face hardline militia on table
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Aghan government negotiators expressed cautious optimism for progress on thorny issues including ceasefires as peace talks with the Taliban were set to get down to business in Doha on Sunday.
A slick opening ceremony in Doha on Saturday saw the Afghan government, and allies including the US, call for a ceasefire.
But the Taliban, who have fought a guerrilla campaign against both since they were forced from power in 2001, did not mention a truce as they came to the negotiating table.
The head of the peace process for the Afghan government, Abdullah Abdullah, suggested the Taliban could offer a ceasefire in exchange for the release of more of their jailed fighters.
"This could be one of their ideas or one of their demands," Abdullah told AFP.
Speaking later to journalists, he said the talks should continue in the "spirit of moving towards peace".
"There should first be a significant reduction in violence, then humanitarian ceasefires, and then a nationwide and permanent ceasefire."
Negotiations will be arduous and messy, delegates warned, and are starting even as bloodshed continues to grip Afghanistan.
"We will undoubtedly encounter many challenges in the talks over the coming days, weeks and months," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said as he called for the warring sides to "seize this opportunity" to secure peace.
- 'We are fired up' -
Nearly two decades since the US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, the war still kills dozens of people daily and the country's economy has been shattered, pushing millions into poverty.
The Taliban have long worried that reducing conflict could lessen their leverage.
Even as technical committees from the two sides were due to meet to hammer out an agenda for the talks, violence raged on the ground.
Officials said six police were killed in a Taliban attack in Kunduz overnight, while five officers were slain in Kapisa province.
A roadside mine blast in the capital wounded two civilians, and another explosion in Kabul district resulted in no casualties.
"Causing more bloodshed (during the talks) is a miscalculation. It is impossible for one side to win the war," said Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation.
Nader Naderi, an Afghan government negotiator, said he was hopeful of an imminent meeting with the Taliban contact group.
"This will be the second working meeting between us. We are fired up and ready to go to end this fight," he told AFP.
- 'Sooner rather than later' -
During a speech at the opening event, Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar repeated the insurgents' message that Afghanistan should be run according to Islamic law, highlighting a likely sticking point.
Baradar and Abdullah both met with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani on Sunday to discuss the process, according to Tamim's office.
A comprehensive peace deal could take years, and will depend on the willingness of both sides to tailor their competing visions for Afghanistan and the extent to which they can agree to share power.
President Ashraf Ghani's government wants to maintain the Western-backed status quo of a constitutional republic that has enshrined many rights, including greater freedoms for women.
Four of the 21 people on the Kabul negotiating team are women.
The Taliban, who stripped women of all basic freedoms while in power from 1996-2001, had no female negotiators.
"The Taliban have fielded a fairly diverse team of negotiators representing both hardliners and moderates, as well as individuals with strong Islamic credentials," said Ashley Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute.
"They may not all agree and I anticipate internal differences but they are decision-makers -- which cannot be said for the Afghan government side."
In a statement, Ghani called for "a lasting and dignified peace" that preserved "the achievements of the past 19 years".
Government negotiator Habiba Sarabi said the start of talks had been "very positive".
Abdullah said the process "could be the start of history made in the coming future -- and hopefully sooner rather than later".
The US-backed negotiations come six months later than planned owing to disagreements over a controversial prisoner swap agreed in February.
Under the terms of that force withdrawal deal struck between the US and the Taliban, 5,000 Taliban prisoners have already been released in exchange for 1,000 government forces.
Meanwhile, the four Afghan women who endured the Taliban's oppressive rule and have fought for fragile gains since the militants were ousted are facing the hardline group in peace talks. Their presence at the negotiating table is significant in patriarchal Afghanistan, though they are outnumbered by the rest of the Afghan government's team of 17 men and the Taliban's male-only side.
"The Taliban have to understand that they are facing a new Afghanistan with which they have to learn to live," negotiator Fawzia Koofi told AFP ahead of the talks.
The politician and high-profile women's rights campaigner has survived two assassination attempts during her career -- the latest just last month in Kabul.
"Being in such an important role is not something which is very common in Afghanistan, so you really have to find your way among those people who do not believe in a woman's presence," Koofi said before the shooting.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, her husband was jailed and she was threatened with stoning for wearing nail polish, she said.
Religious police whipped women in the street if they wore anything other than an all-concealing burqa, and those accused of adultery were sometimes executed at sports stadiums after Friday prayers.
Today, the traditional patriarchal system remains the norm and life for most women in rural areas has improved little since the 2001 US-led invasion toppled the Taliban, who banned girls from going to school and women from working.
However, in Kabul and other Afghan cities, progress has been made.
Some women study at secondary and tertiary level and hold elected positions or run businesses, albeit in disproportionately low numbers.
Koofi is one of a few women who held unofficial talks with the Taliban in 2019 and knows the battle female negotiators are facing.
"It's not just about what you are talking," she said. "People look at what you wear, whether your scarf is of the right size or not."
- 'We always have fear' -
Washington signed a deal with the Taliban in February committing to withdraw foreign forces in return for a pledge from the insurgents to hold talks with the Afghan government, aimed at ending the war.
After long delays over a controversial prisoner swap, direct talks finally opened in the Qatari capital Doha on Saturday.
Islamic law expert and negotiator Fatima Gailani, 66, told AFP that women were apprehensive about negotiations with the Taliban.
"Every woman in Afghanistan has a fear... we always have a fear that whenever there are changes in Afghanistan and whenever there is a political change, always women are hurt," said Gailani, a spokeswoman for the mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s and former president of the Afghan Red Cross.
But she said she has the support of the men on her team, who "believe in exactly what I believe in".
First, though, the talks should focus on "common values", such as Islam, and on achieving a ceasefire in Afghanistan's conflict, which has killed tens of thousands and left millions displaced since 2001.
"I'd like very much to see an Afghanistan where you don't see yourself in danger... If we don't achieve it now it will never happen," Gailani said.
The Taliban have made only vague comments about women's rights, saying these will be protected through Islamic values.
Another negotiator, Habiba Sarabi, who was barred from working under Taliban rule and forced to flee to Pakistan so she could continue to teach, wants to ensure Afghanistan remains a republic and not a Taliban-run "emirate" where religious law trumps constitutional rights.
The 62-year-old, who on her return to Afghanistan became the country's first female provincial governor and has served as a minister twice, remains unconvinced that Taliban militants on the front line have changed, despite the group's political leaders moving to peace talks with the Afghan government.
"The fighters here in Afghanistan have the same ideology, they have the same behaviour," she said.
On Saturday she told AFP that the talks' opening had been "very positive".
The other woman on the negotiating team is Sharifa Zurmati, a former broadcaster and local politician in the eastern province of Paktia.
The team previously had a fifth female member Shahla Fareed, a lawyer and women's rights activist, but she is no longer in the delegation.