When the Taliban met Sunday for the first time with Afghan officials, the delegates they faced formed a moving tableau of a new Afghanistan that has taken shape since the movement was toppled 18 years ago.
Bloodshed and progress in those years have gone hand in hand, and many of the representatives at the table — from each side — came with stories of personal loss and grievance. The dialogue in Qatar, which continues Monday, is the first in which Afghan government officials have participated and aims to break the ice for direct negotiations on Afghanistan’s political future after an expected US military withdrawal.
“It is important to give all sides the opportunity to see how things have changed over the past 18 years,” said Sultan Barakat, the director of the Doha institute that organised the event with a German foundation. “Eighteen years is not a short time, but war tends to trap people into imperceptions.”
Among the Afghan participants are current and former senior officials who lost family members to suicide bombings, and a media executive who saw a bus full of his employees go up in flames.
When in power, the Taliban did not allow women to work or go to school. But in the main session Sunday, at meals and during tea breaks, senior Taliban officials mingled respectfully with female delegates, like the first female governor, leading a province that had endured a gruesome Taliban massacre in 2001, and a doctor who represents the Sikh minority as a senator.
And if they happened to hear a baby crying, it was the deputy national security adviser’s 2-month-old boy. As she took her seat across from the Taliban, her husband, also a young official, came along to lull the child to sleep on the margins of the sessions.
When social media mistakenly included the baby’s name on a list of conference participants, maybe it was only fitting: Of all the attendees, his future stakes might be the highest.
News of another round of Afghan carnage — and children caught in an attack — came as the delegates filed into the ballroom in the sprawling Sheraton resort in Doha. The Taliban claimed responsibility for a huge truck bombing in Ghazni city Sunday that killed eight security officers and four civilians. About 170 others were wounded, including 50 schoolchildren, the United Nations said.
On the Taliban side of talks in Qatar, several of the delegates spent more than a decade detained at the US prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Their deputy leader in charge of the peace efforts, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who did not attend Sunday, endured nearly 10 years of Pakistani imprisonment that damaged his health.
The militants have stories of relatives and friends lost to raids and bombings by US and Afghan forces. And they believe so staunchly in their fight against what they see as a foreign occupation that even the son of their latest supreme leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, is believed to have carried out a suicide bombing.
While the Afghan side largely sees the Taliban as a proxy force under the influence of neighboring Pakistan, the Taliban see the Afghan government as a puppet of the United States.
To bridge the two visions of reality is a fundamental but immense task. And while long overdue, the peace process — considered key to the withdrawal of the remaining 14,000 US troops — suddenly seems to be moving quickly.
Most of Sunday’s sessions took place behind closed doors. But at the end of the day participants described the atmosphere as respectful, even if the exchanges at times grew tense.
Members of the Afghan delegation said they had seen more assurances from the Taliban that they would respect women’s right to work and to an education. Taliban officials engaged in discussions on issues, rather than reading from prepared statements as they did at previous conferences.
Nader Nadery, the chairman of the Afghan civil service commission, brought up the morning’s deadly attack in Ghazni. While he mentioned his own torture under the Taliban, he also acknowledged the suffering of the Taliban officials across from him during their years of detention.
“I have the courage to forgive, as I know your members have suffered, too,” Nadery said he told the gathering.
Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi, a member of the Taliban delegation, accused the Afghan side of being selective when speaking of civilian casualties. He said Afghan officials and media played down the civilian toll caused in rural areas by Afghan and American operations.
“The pain from all sides, whether it is the night raids or the bombings, that is why we are here,” Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban delegation, said in an interview. “All sides have pain. The end of that pain is in ending the occupation.”
Abdul Matin Bek, an Afghan Cabinet member attending the talks, knows that pain first hand. His father, a member of parliament, was killed in the suicide bombing of a funeral in 2011.
Bek said his travels around the country had shown that Afghans demand an end to the war. He hoped the current dialogue would lead to direct negotiations to achieve that.
“It is not easy for me to sit across from people who have killed my father,” he said. “But we have to end this.”
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