The Afghan government and the Taliban will open peace talks on Saturday, trying to reach a power-sharing deal as American troops leave the country after nearly two decades.
The negotiations to try to end the long civil war were agreed as part of a withdrawal deal that the US signed with the Taliban in February, but have stalled for months over details of a promised prisoner exchange.
After several mass releases of Taliban fighters, the final stumbling block had been six insurgent prisoners held for killing French, Australian and American citizens. Those governments had objected to the men’s release, but agreed a compromise that will see them held under house arrest in Doha. On Thursday they were flown to Qatar, and the start of talks was announced.
The Taliban delegation is headed by the group’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who a decade ago was jailed by Pakistani authorities for trying to open peace talks with Afghan authorities. He was released in 2018.
Religious scholar Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani will also take a senior role in negotiating on behalf of the Taliban and is thought to carry weight with fighters on the ground.
The Afghan government delegation is led by Abdullah Abdullah, who for several years served as “CEO” in a government of national unity under president Ashraf Ghani. His team is a mix of government and opposition figures, with former intelligence chief Masoom Stanekzai serving as chief negotiator.
Any progress is likely to be slow, as the two sides attempt to bridge the gap between the Taliban’s vision of Islamist rule and the democratic system enshrined in the current constitution.
The differences are particularly deep and visible when it comes to women’s rights. There will be four women on the government’s side of the table – one still bearing injuries from a recent assassination attempt. There are no women on the Taliban’s negotiating team.
When the group was in power, women were banned from education, most work, and even from leaving the house without a male guardian. Many Afghan women fear that the rights and freedoms they have fought for since 2001 will be traded away if the Taliban come into government.
Taliban negotiators have repeatedly said that they respect women’s rights under Islam, but in many areas of the country under their control, girls often struggle to get an education, and few women work outside their homes.
Critics of the negotiations say they fear the Taliban have little real interest in a negotiated settlement, and are just looking to buy time, pointing to sustained attacks on Afghan forces that have continued in the run-up to negotiations.
Talks will formally start 19 years and one day after the 9/11 attacks on America. The Afghan conflict that began in their aftermath was just the latest iteration of a long civil war that has engulfed the country since 1979.
Those years have seen shifting alliances, so some of the groups that the US has been fighting for the last 20 years were supported in the 1980s with American cash and weapons in their fight against the Soviet-backed Afghan government of the time.
When the Soviets pulled out in 1989 and US focus shifted away from Afghanistan, the country slid into one of the most destructive periods of its civil war.