Afghan and Taliban Representatives Meet in
By ROD NORDLAND
The New York Times
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan government officials and Taliban militants began two days of meetings on Sunday in the gulf state of Qatar, and for once neither side denied that the sessions were taking place.
Both were also quick to insist that they were not holding peace talks. A statement by the Taliban called the meetings a “research conference,” while Afghan government officials described them as “scientific discussions.”
Still, after years of efforts to get an active peace process going, hopes and expectations were relatively high for the talks, which are being hosted by the Pugwash Conferences, a Nobel Prize-winning science group dedicated to promoting peace. Many of the representatives sent by the Afghan government and the Taliban were the sort likely to participate in any formal peace talks.
“These are not peace talks. But it would be fair to say that this is the most encouraging development we’ve seen in a while,” said Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, the foreign policy committee chief at the Afghan government’s High Peace Council. “After all, peace talks between China and America started with a Ping-Pong game.”
This is not the first such Pugwash Conference to include the two sides, and there have been other similar Track Two talks, as indirect, non-negotiation meetings between the two sides have been called. But in the past, such talks were held under a cloak of secrecy, and actual peace discussions between representatives of the government and the Taliban were routinely denied when news of them became public.
So it came as a surprise when the Taliban issued a news release about the current talks, being held at a beach resort near Doha, the capital of Qatar, confirming not only that they were taking place but also who was attending. The parties convened there Saturday and began talks Sunday, with a joint final statement expected to be issued after another day of talks on Monday.
The Taliban said that the eight members of their delegation were all attending in their personal capacities, and that the meetings “should not be misconstrued as peace or negotiation talks.”
However, the Taliban delegation includes some significant figures, like Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a former top Taliban official and a fluent English speaker who often met with foreign visitors during the Taliban rule, and Sohail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban’s Qatar office, one of the Taliban leaders whose name was removed in 2010 from a United Nations sanctions list as an early step toward confidence-building in the peace process.
Mr. Stanikzai was head of the Taliban delegation, the militants said, while stressing that all eight men were there privately and individually. Most of the other Taliban representatives are still on the United Nations sanctions list, including Mr. Stanikzai.
The location of the talks was also significant, as the Qataris have expressed an interest in acting as intermediaries in Afghan peace talks and in 2013 hosted an aborted effort by the Taliban to open an office in Qatar as a place to hold talks.
The Afghan government side included a diverse array of representatives, among them former members of the Taliban who have reconciled with the government; Tajik, Pashtun and Uzbek leaders; and President Ashraf Ghani’s uncle, Abdul Qayoum Kochai, according to Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen. Mr. Mutmaeen is an Afghan writer and journalist who previously served as an official in the Taliban government but now lives in Kabul openly. He is known to have good contacts among Taliban officials in Qatar and elsewhere.
Mr. Mutmaeen said that the Taliban had agreed on the list of those attending the Pugwash Conference, but overruled some, such as the High Peace Council’s secretary general, Masoom Stanikzai, if they seemed too obviously representative of the government. It also insisted that members of the government delegation come as individuals in personal capacities.
Mr. Mutmaeen said that at least two and possibly three women were among the government delegation. Afghan women’s groups have long complained that they had been bypassed in previous attempts to open talks with the Taliban, and noted that they would have the most to lose if repressive Taliban-era restrictions on women’s public roles were to return.
The Taliban’s news release added that “a statement for participation in the conference has also been prepared that will be shared with our respected readers at an appropriate time.”
Mr. Mutmaeen said that the Taliban statement was issued to allay concerns among Taliban fighters and commanders in the field about whether formal peace talks had actually begun, which might make it harder to keep them engaged in warfare.
Pakistan has long been seen as an important potential broker of any peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, given that many insurgent leaders have found continued shelter there. But the Qatari conference represented an effort by the Taliban to strike out independently of the Pakistanis, Mr. Mutmaeen said. “The important point is that there are no Chinese, no Saudis or no one from Pakistan, only from Europe and the United Nations” other than the Afghans, he said. “This is a good development.”
“This is an opportunity,” Mr. Qasimyar said. “They get together, they may have a chance to have tea or dinner or lunch at the same table, and that’s all right.”
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