Doha talks could reshape Afghanistan, but peace not assured
The two sides will meet in the Qatari capital Doha from Saturday, six months later than planned owing to bitter disagreements over a controversial prisoner swap.
The US-backed talks mark a major milestone in Afghanistan's 19-year conflict, but a peaceful outcome - or even a ceasefire - is far from guaranteed as negotiators grapple with wildly divergent goals.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is attending the talks' opening ceremony, said they represented a "truly historic" opportunity.
The two sides must flesh out "how to move their country forward to reduce violence and deliver what the Afghan people are demanding – a reconciled Afghanistan with a government that reflects a country that isn't at war," Pompeo told reporters as he flew to Qatar.
President Donald Trump, up for re-election in November, has pushed hard to bring home troops and end America's longest war, which began nearly 20 years ago when Washington invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban following the September 11 attacks.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, an Afghanistan expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said negotiations could last years, "with many stops and halts, sometimes perhaps for months as fighting goes on".
Any deal will depend on both sides' willingness to tailor their competing visions for the country and the extent to which they can share power.
The Taliban, who have refused to recognise President Ashraf Ghani's government, will push to reshape Afghanistan into an Islamic "emirate".
Ghani's administration will seek to maintain the Western-backed status quo of a constitutional republic that has enshrined many rights including greater freedoms for women.
So far, the Taliban have only made vague pledges to protect women's rights through "Islamic values", and many Afghans fear any partial or full return to power would herald a resumption of previous policies such as executing women accused of adultery.
"As much as we want peace, we also want the achievements of the past years kept," said Aminullah, a 35-year-old schoolteacher in Kunduz province.
"I don't want my school closed, but peace is the priority now."
The Taliban, who ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, will assert a stronger bargaining position than at any time since they were ousted.
They claimed victory in February after signing a deal with Washington that laid out a timetable for talks, which were supposed to start in March, and for foreign forces to withdraw by early next year.
In return, the Taliban offered security guarantees critics said were vague.
As soon as the ink dried on the deal, the insurgents unleashed fresh attacks on Afghan forces and have maintained a withering battlefield tempo.
The deal does not require the Taliban to formally renounce Al-Qaeda, the jihadist group formerly led by Osama bin Laden, which enjoyed safe haven in Afghanistan while plotting 9/11.
Instead, the Taliban must "not allow" such groups to use Afghanistan as a base.
"Posturing from the Taliban... suggests they perceive their current position to be one of great strength," said Andrew Watkins, an Afghanistan analyst with the International Crisis Group.
And while the Taliban have generally projected a unified front, the Afghan government has been riven by personal feuds and long-running rivalries.
An immediate point of contention is expected to be the issue of stopping the bloodshed in a war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and displaced millions more.
The US deal insisted the Taliban include a permanent truce only as "an item on the agenda" in negotiations, but Kabul insists it wants to push for a ceasefire from day one -- something the Taliban have said is a non-starter.
The Taliban "don't trust the United States or Afghan government enough to stop fighting, until peace talks reach a point that they believe their group may have genuinely secured their interests", Watkins said.
Still, Felbab-Brown said the Taliban would prefer a peace deal to having to fight for the rest of Afghanistan, particularly Kabul.
Even if the Taliban and the Afghan government eventually strike a deal, what comes next is an open question.
The US has stressed Afghanistan's future is now in Afghan hands and suggested that if a peace process breaks down and chaos ensues, so be it.
"Let's be clear: this isn't negotiating about peace. This is about the US getting out," said Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University.
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