Dozens of powerful Afghans including bitter rivals met the Taliban leaders in Doha on Sunday, discussing a possible ceasefire and the future of women and minorities after 18 years of conflict. Stakes are high for the talks which follow a week of direct engagement between the US and the Taliban with both sides eyeing a resolution to the bloody conflict. Washington has said it wants to seal a political deal with the Taliban ahead of Afghan presidential polls due in September to allow foreign forces to begin to withdraw.
Security was tight at the luxury hotel hosting the intra-Afghan summit as around 70 delegates, who were required to surrender their phones, filed into the hall. They sat in a vast semi-circle facing a large video screen and the hosts from Qatar and Germany.
“Gathered around the table today are some of the brightest minds representing a cross-section of Afghan society,” said Markus Potzel, Germany’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as he opened the gathering.
“Each of you will have a unique opportunity and a unique responsibility to find ways of turning violent confrontation into a peaceful debate.” Taliban negotiator Abbas Stanikzai had a brief altercation with a security guard as he attempted to enter the secure conference area.
“We want to go to the dialogue but they are not letting us,” Stanikzai said to an officer who replied “we are not joking with you, stop shouting at us”. But he and the rest of the Taliban delegation, which included Suhail Shaheen, the group’s Doha office spokesman, took their seats in the expansive ballroom shortly before the talks began at 0630 GMT.
The Qatar foreign ministry special envoy on counter-terrorism Mutlaq al-Qahtani said: “We are so happy to see all our Afghan brothers and sisters meeting here in Doha.
“We want a roadmap for the future of Afghanistan,” he told reporters after the hosts left the Afghan parties with mediators to begin discussions. The so-called intra-Afghan dialogue follows six days of direct US-Taliban talks that have been put on hold for the two day Afghan conference and are set to resume Tuesday, according to both sides. Delegate Asila Wardak, a member of the High Peace Council established by former president Hamid Karzai to engage with Taliban elements, told media “everybody is emphasising on a cease fire”. Wardak added that Stanikzai spoke about the Taliban’s position on “women’s role, economic development, (and) the role of minorities”. He mentioned they “will allow women to work, to go to school and study — based on Afghan culture and Islamic values”, she said.