DOHA, Qatar — The Taliban and the Afghan government began historic peace talks in Qatar on Saturday, aimed at shaping a power-sharing government that would end decades of war that have consumed Afghanistan and left millions dead and displaced.
If realized, a peace deal would be the first time in generations that a new form of Afghan government was not being established at the point of a gun: The current model was ushered in by the American invasion that toppled the Taliban’s harsh Islamic regime in 2001, and each previous one back to the 1979 Soviet invasion was set off by coup, collapse or conquest.
But as the Qatar talks begin, against the backdrop of an American troop pullout and grievous violence against Afghan officials and civilians, some critics of the process argued that the Taliban insurgency was still, in essence, holding a gun to the government’s head.
The peace talks opened on Saturday morning in Doha, the Qatari capital, with formal ceremonies held under tight security and strong coronavirus restrictions. The negotiations will be complicated at every turn by the threat of continued insurgent assaults, deep political divisions after a disputed election, decades of loss and grievance, and by foreign powers pulling Afghan factions in opposing directions.
Still, the arrival of the delegations from the two sides, who are finally coming to the table, after repeated delays, offers the nation a rare opportunity in its recent history: a chance to find a formula of lasting coexistence before the withdrawal of another foreign military creates a vacuum, potentially repeating the country’s cycle of misfortune.
“We have come here with the good will and good intention to stop the 40 years of bloodshed and achieve a countrywide and lasting peace,” Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation and the leader of the delegation from Kabul, said at the opening ceremony. “The current conflict has no winner through war and military means, but there will be no loser if this crisis is resolved politically and peacefully through submission to the will of the people.”
The Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said the insurgents would participate in the talks “with full sincerity,” and he urged both sides to exercise calm and patience.
Mullah Baradar offered little detail about the Taliban’s vision for a future Afghanistan, except in broad strokes. But many on the Afghan negotiating team said that his tone — in contrast to previous Taliban speeches in public forums — was measured and offered hope.
“We seek an Afghanistan that is independent, sovereign, united, developed and free — an Afghanistan with an Islamic system in which all people of the nation can participate without discrimination and live harmoniously with each other in an atmosphere of brotherhood,” he said.
The direct negotiations became possible after the United States signed a deal with the Taliban in February that began a phased, 14 month, withdrawal of the remaining American troops from Afghanistan and pressured the Afghan government to free 5,000 of the Taliban’s prisoners.
Because the Taliban had long insisted on not holding direct, exclusive talks with the Afghan government, which they consider illegitimate, Mr. Abdullah’s delegation includes not just government officials but opposition politicians and other figures outside the administration.
Members of Mr. Abdullah’s team said their priority was to get to a lasting cease-fire — a “silencing of the guns,” as one delegate, Nader Nadery, put it. The violence, whose total daily death toll on all sides often surpasses 50 lives, is exacting an enormous cost on the nation of just over 30 million.
The war is also devastating the Afghan economy, with about 90 percent of the population living below a poverty line of $2 a day, President Ashraf Ghani recently said — all while billions of dollars a year in foreign aid, mostly from the United States, holds the national budget together.
The Taliban have been so singly focused on securing the withdrawal of U.S. troops that they have provided little clarity on how they envision the country’s political future — beyond broad statements about establishing an “Islamic government.” When in power in the 1990s, they curtailed civil liberties and deprived women and minorities of basic rights.
While many in the Taliban indicate that they have learned from the experience of struggling to govern in the 1990s, others fear that the intervening decades of fighting may have propped up an even more hard-line generation of insurgents, limiting their negotiators’ ability to compromise.
Diplomats and officials said that getting the Taliban to agree to a permanent cease-fire right away would be difficult, as the insurgents will be reluctant to give up their main leverage before a political settlement is finalized. Right on the eve of the talks, the insurgents carried out attacks in 18 of the country’s 34 provinces, Afghanistan’s defense ministry said.
But many officials suggested that the sides could agree to an immediate “humanitarian cease-fire” — what Mr. Abdullah mentioned in his remarks — to create more space for negotiating a settlement that will include a permanent cease-fire.
The U.S. deal with the Taliban, under pressure from President Trump to get American troops out, has been criticized by many Afghan officials as having been rushed and giving the Taliban too much without assurances in return.
The American troop withdrawal began on the Taliban’s promise that they would negotiate with the Afghan government and not let terrorist groups use Afghan territory as a haven and staging ground for international attacks. But in the months since, some international observers have questioned the Taliban’s commitment to their vow to abandon their allies in Al Qaeda and other such groups.
Before the talks began, Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that international forces would continue to support the Afghan forces on the battlefield and make clear to them that “their sacrifice is not lost on us.”
But in Doha, as hundreds of diplomats and dignitaries took their seats in the large ballroom General Miller, in uniform, walked under the chandeliers and across the hall to the Taliban side and offered greetings — an image that made clear his direct war with the Taliban was largely over.
The Taliban team includes some of the delegates who negotiated the deal with the United States. But they have brought in a new chief negotiator: Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani, an influential religious scholar who has led the Taliban’s network of Islamic courts in recent years.
The 20-member negotiating team that came from Kabul, led by Mr. Ghani’s former spy chief Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, includes only three women — not five, as earlier believed — underscoring how Afghan women have struggled for equality since the Taliban were driven from power, despite various promises.
The careers of the three female delegates reflect the hard-fought gains that women have made in Afghanistan’s patriarchal culture — gains that they must now convince the Taliban to accept in a future system. One delegate, Habiba Sarabi, was the first female governor of an Afghan province. Another, Fawzia Koofi, a single mother, fought her way to the deputy speakership of Afghanistan’s Parliament; the third, Sharifa Zurmati, was a journalist before switching to politics and entering Parliament.
During speeches by about 20 foreign ministers and other dignitaries, many of them given via video conference because of coronavirus travel restrictions, Ms. Zurmati said she was taking note of which country made a point of stressing the protection of civil liberties and women’s rights in the future political system.
Afghanistan is deeply dependent on foreign aid. The Taliban, who struggled to govern because of cash shortages when in power, have said they would want foreign aid to continue even after the Western military coalition leaves. Some diplomats see that as leverage to get the Taliban to soften some of their positions.
“As you make your decisions, you should keep in mind that your choices and conduct will affect both the size and scope of future U.S. assistance,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was at the event.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan peace, said there was still an opportunity for the country to reach some sort of equilibrium. A veteran diplomat, Mr. Khalilzad was an adviser to the American government during the Cold War when the United States was funding insurgents to push Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.
“The Afghan tragedy has been not being able to get to an agreement on a formula and then stick to it,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “There was a great victory after the Soviet departure, the Afghans had this great victory. The rest of the world benefited from it a lot: we became the only superpower, Eastern Europe got liberated, Central Asia got freed. But Afghanistan continued this disintegration. The Afghans — they won, but they lost.
“But now they have another chance to get to a formula — where imposing one group’s will on the rest with the force of arms has not been a successful formula. The historic record is not encouraging, but the lessons could be instructive for them.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Kabul.