by Zia Sarhadi
That the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government and other political factions sat together for peace talks in Doha, Qatar today (September 12) is welcome news.
Much as one would like, it is unrealistic to expect quick results. This is likely to be a long and arduous process, fraught with many challenges.
The Taliban delegation is led by the movement’s chief justice Abdul Hakim, assisted by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy leader.
The Kabul regime’s delegation is headed by Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council for National Reconciliation.
He came dressed in a suit and tie, an unfortunate choice of attire since the traditional Afghan dress is shalwar-qamees (baggy trousers and tunic) that the Taliban representatives always wear.
The choice of dress itself reflects how far apart the two sides are.
In their opening statements both sides sounded reasonable and conciliatory but these can quickly degenerate into name-calling and finger-pointing.
Getting to the talks took more than six months after the US and the Taliban signed an historic agreement on February 29, 2020.
The salient features of that agreement were the US pledge to withdraw all its forces and those of its Nato allies in 14 months in return for the Taliban not attacking foreign troops and not allowing terrorist groups to use Afghan soil for attacks.
Further, that the Taliban would release 1,000 Afghan government forces it has captured in return for the Kabul regime releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
The US-backed Ashraf Ghani regime dragged its feet and it was not until the day before the talks began that the last of the Taliban prisoners was released.
The divergence in their outlooks and what each side expects can be gleaned from the fact that the Kabul regime wants a permanent ceasefire and retention of the US-bequeathed constitution.
The Taliban are unlikely to agree to a ceasefire. Their ability to fight is the most important leverage in their hands.
They have also repeatedly stressed that the current constitution imposed by the Americans is unacceptable.
After preliminary pleasantries and opening statements that also included a speech by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, talks will resume on Monday September 14.
Pompeo urged both sides to show “flexibility” and work for “peace”.
This is rich coming from the official of a country that is the biggest warmonger in the world and has the blood of millions of innocent people on its hands.
The agenda for talks is likely to include many contentious issues including such mundane points as the flag and the name of the country.
The Taliban insist on calling their country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan while the Kabul regime wants the name, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Other issues that could pose problems include the rights of women and minorities as well as disbanding the Taliban fighters.
The Taliban are unlikely to accept this last point.
They got this far through fighting while the regime is at the table because of American backing.
The question is not what the Kabul regime would offer the Taliban; it is the other way around.
How all of these conflicting demands are to be accommodated will be a giant task and require great patience.
And then there are the interests of regional countries—Iran, Pakistan, China, the Central Asian Republics but in reality, Russia.
There are also the ever-meddlesome Americans that want to show some progress to benefit Donald Trump’s presidential bid in November.
For the Americans, peace is not the real objective.
Their immediate concern is to show some progress—however tenuous—to present to the ignorant American people that Trump has achieved a breakthrough.
It is difficult not to be cynical but the plight of 25 million Afghans and another five million refugees in Pakistan and Iran hangs in the balance.
The people of Afghanistan deserve a break from 42 years of blood-letting.
True, the Taliban need to show flexibility but others must show realism.
The Kabul regime cannot cling to power when it does not have the support of the majority of the Afghan people.
Muslims worldwide will be praying for the success of these talks but it is ultimately for the Afghans to make peace.