Afghans, Taliban talk in Qatar about peace as war rages at home

KABUL/DOHA (Reuters) - Wary representatives of Afghan society met Taliban officials in Qatar on Monday for a second day of talks, with bloody insurgent attacks back home casting a pall over efforts to end Afghanistan’s years of war.

Members of Afghan delegations walk during the second day of Intra-Afghan conference for peace in Doha, Qatar July 8, 2019. REUTERS/Eman Kamel

The Taliban on Sunday detonated a car bomb outside a government security compound in central Afghanistan killing 14 people and wounding 180, including scores of children.

The attack came at the onset of a two-day meeting between Afghan citizens and the militants, meant to open the way to a peace process that should build on a hoped-for deal between the United States and the Taliban to end the longest ever U.S. war.

“It is very hard to sit across from those men who are waging a war against innocent Afghans, but it is also a test of our commitment to peace,” said a senior Afghan official involved in the talks.

The Taliban and U.S. officials are trying to strike a deal on a Taliban demand for the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces and a U.S. demand that the Taliban not let Afghanistan be used as a base for terrorism.

“We think the gap between the U.S. and Taliban is narrow now. We hope both sides will reach an agreement this month about the outstanding issues,” said Qatar’s lead mediator Mutlaq Bin Majid Al-Qahtani.

U.S.-Taliban talks, the seventh since last year, are set to continue on Tuesday in Doha, as U.S. officials look to clinch a deal by September ahead of an expected Afghan presidential election.

But the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, denouncing it as a U.S puppet.

So while the 60-member delegation of Afghan representatives in Qatar includes officials, they are not there in their government capacity.

“I am here as an Afghan, but I am not sure if the Taliban view themselves as Afghans before anything else,” said the senior official, who spoke by telephone from Qatar but declined to be identified.

Reuters spoke to six Afghan delegates attending the talks.

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The Taliban officials were welcoming in general although less willing to discuss issues like women’s right and freedoms in society, the delegates said.

During their 1996-2001 rule, the Taliban barred women from working outside their homes, and said women could only go out in public if accompanied by a male relative.

Afghan society has taken huge strides since the Taliban were ousted weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States, and many Afghans are nervous about preserving the progress under some sort of a power-sharing government that might be part of a deal to end the war.

The talks, facilitated by Germany and Qatar, have touched on how Afghanistan might be organized but no conclusions have been reached.

“The Taliban prefer Islamic Emirates style of government while we ask for a republic,” Khalid Noor, the son of a powerful politician from northern Afghanistan, Atta Mohammad Noor, told Reuters by telephone.

Some Afghan officials fear the United States and the Taliban will strike a deal enabling the United States to get out of a war that President Donald Trump is impatient to end, leaving government forces to battle on alone.

Such fears are compounded by ongoing relentless violence.

The Taliban now control and influence more territory than at any point since 2001.

According to the United Nations, 3,804 civilians - including more than 900 children - were killed and 7,000 wounded in 2018, the deadliest year for civilians in the conflict.

Last week, the chief U.S. negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the latest round of U.S.-Taliban talks that began on June 29 was the “most productive session” since the process got going late last year.

Nadir Naim, an Afghan delegate and deputy chairman of the country’s High Peace Council, was hopeful that a ceasefire and deal were just around the corner.

“We believe they are very near. A lot of the differences are being resolved. So, it’s just a matter of time,” said Naim.

Editing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Cawthorne