Historic talks to end Afghanistan’s long-running conflict kick off in Doha with opening remarks from both sides.
Doha, Qatar – “We’re stuck”, that is how one delegate described the much-acclaimed intra-Afghan peace negotiations that kicked off in the Qatari capital, Doha, on September 12.
After initial direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government-led delegation in Doha, the obstacle course keeps getting more complicated.
A contact group comprising of Taliban and Afghan government delegates was established to set the terms and conditions before the formal talks begin with the participation of a wider group. It was an attempt to pave the way for setting the agenda of the talks aimed at reaching a lasting peace in the war-torn country.
The so-called intra-Afghan talks were envisioned in an agreement between the Taliban and the United States signed in February. The Trump administration wants rival Afghan sides to strike peace deal as it wants to pull out American troops from the country after nearly 20 years – its longest overseas war.
The Afghan government contact group is represented by Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, Nader Nadery, Zarar Ahmad Muqbil Osmani, Fawzia Koofi, Mohammad Natiqi and Khalid Noor. The Taliban has nominated Maulvi Abdul Kabir, Abbas Stanekzai, Noorullah Noori, Shaikh Delawar and Shaikh Qasim as its representatives.
Al Jazeera has seen the fourth and current version of the draft agenda of the terms and conditions discussed in the initial meetings of the contact groups. The first 20 points were prepared in Kabul before the team arrived in Doha.
Although most points are technical, differences have emerged over Islamic laws, issues related to other sects and minority groups and the language being used in the draft.
All parties spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity because of the fragile state of the process and some were not authorised to talk to the media.
It was emphasised that “Hanafi” school of jurisprudence followed by the majority of Afghanistan’s Sunni Muslims should serve as a guide to all aspects of the terms and conditions.
After initial pushback against the inclusion of jurisprudence into the document, which also talks about lunch breaks and technical details, both sides finally agreed to make it the overarching guideline.
With Sunni-Hanafi scholars from rival sides dominating the delegation, it gets complicated when dispute resolution is tied to one school of thought as there is no representation for others such as the Jaafria school of jurisprudence.
Afghanistan is home to minority groups of other schools of Islamic jurisprudence, including Shia Muslims.
The country of 30 million is also home to a dwindling number of Hindu and Sikh minorities, who fear being marginalised if the majority’s religious interpretation is set as the only guiding principle to resolve disputes.
The current draft calls for allowing other Islamic schools of thought to be applied to their respective followers. But issues related to non-Muslim minorities will be resolved in accordance with their religious laws – provided it is within the “laws of sharia”, ie it does not contravene with basic Islamic tenets.
Small changes such as converting “Quran and Sunnah” to “sharia” took a lot of back and forth between the two sides.
The terminology has also been sticking points as members weigh each word of the fourth draft. One side had to give up on the phrase “social justice” in favour of “Islamic justice”. While another side had to give up insistence on describing the turmoil in Afghanistan as “jihad” to “conflict” – a more agreeable term for both parties.
There have also been differences of opinion on whether “Doha agreement” can be included as part of the text in the terms and conditions.
It opened a pandora’s box because the February deal was only between the US government and the Taliban. The Afghan government was not a party to it.
The West-backed Afghan government would like to mention the loya jirga – a traditional Afghan council of tribal elders – and their agreement with the US that was signed in Kabul following the Doha deal.
Some Afghan government officials, including the first Vice President Amrullah Saleh, have made fiery statements against the Taliban, which has also hit back.
But during the Doha talks, efforts have been made to keep the talks cordial.
Some uncomfortable sentences have been exchanged where delegates said “people had to be put into their places” but by and large the tone has remained calm.
So far there have been no heated arguments or name-calling despite some emotionally charged moments in the few meetings between the contact group. Efforts have been made to break the ice and crack jokes so hawks on either side do not take control of the meetings.
Afghanistan’s international partners do not believe that this is the time for them to help move things forward.
“They seem to be inching forward,” said one diplomat.
“The window will not be closed from our side, we will continue to find creative ways of engagement,” an Afghan government delegate told Al Jazeera, insisting that there is real hope of resuming the talks and moving towards a meaningful dialogue.
Meanwhile, the Taliban says it is committed to the peace agreement and is making progress. The group has been fighting the Afghan forces since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.
While the talks continue in Doha, Afghan security officials say dozens of government soldiers have been killed across Afghanistan within the past 48 hours.
The Interior Ministry accused the Taliban of carrying out attacks in 24 provinces, including Uruzgan, Kandahar, Wardak, Takhar and Baghlan.
But Taliban leaders have told Al Jazeera that these attacks have been against the newly set up security posts and accused the Afghan government of trying to expand its territory by sending additional troops.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad faced a tough grilling at his testimony before a house representative hearing on Tuesday.
Congressman Tom Malinowski asked the US special envoy: “We’re all for peace and I understand people want to leave but I think what you’re selling us is not peace. It is a fairy tale to make us feel better about leaving Afghanistan.”
Khalilzad insisted it was the best way forward given the constraints. “Our withdrawal is conditional and will be based on actions not just words from the Taliban,” he reiterated at the hearing – a point he had made in an interview with Al Jazeera.