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Afghan Peace Talks with Taliban: Issues, Players and Challenges

Image: former Taliban

Former Taliban fighters display their weapons as they join Afghan government forces during a ceremony in Herat province on April 26, 2012. AREF KARIMI / AFP - Getty Images file

The Afghan government announced earlier this year that it was ready to hold peace talks aimed at ending the country’s 13-year Taliban insurgency and helping one of the world’s poorest countries emerge from decades of war. Here’s a look at the issues, challenges and who the players are.

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THE PLAYERS

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani: The academic, former World Bank official and finance minister under predecessor President Hamid Karzai has openly supported talks with the Taliban. As part of this he has sought a rapprochement with neighbor Pakistan, which has long been accused of supporting militant groups in Afghanistan. Ghani has also made two trips to Saudi Arabia, one of a handful of countries that recognized the Taliban when they governed Afghanistan, as well as China, which is helping facilitate talks.

Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah: The country’s second-most powerful man and longtime member of the fiercely anti-Taliban Northern Alliance is vital to the success of talks. Sources close to him told NBC News Abdullah wants the U.S. and NATO to be more involved in a peace process. Abdullah has also demanded the Taliban accept the constitution.

Image: Pakistani Gen. Raheel Sharif and Adbullah Abdullah on Feb. 17
Pakistan army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif sits with Abdullah Abdullah during their meeting in Kabul on Feb 17. HEDAYATULLAH AMID / EPA

Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar: It's been years since there has been a reliable sighting of the Taliban’s leader, who is wanted by the United States for sheltering al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden in the run up to the 9/11 attacks. While some members of Afghanistan’s intelligence services say he died years ago, militants maintain he remains in charge and is running operations from the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Image: Mullah Mohammed Omar
This undated photo reportedly shows the rarely photographed Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. ASSOCIATED PRESS, file

Other militants: Mullah Omar has given his old friend and deputy Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor the authority to make decisions on his behalf, senior Taliban commanders told NBC News. He has clashed with other militants, such former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and ex-Taliban military operations chief, Abdul Qayyum Zakir, who is in favor of direct negotiations with the U.S., but not Kabul, militant sources say.

Pakistan Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif: Sharif has worked hard to convince the Americans, Afghans and skeptics at home that his army — long blamed of supporting certain rebel groups while fighting others — is now serious about stamping out militancy. Pakistan’s massive anti-Taliban campaign in North Waziristan has gone a long way to convincing Afghanistan of that.

Beijing: China’s interests in Afghanistan are twofold — it wants to protect its investments, and make sure the country does not slip back into chaos and fuel a separatist Islamic insurgency in its western province of Xinjiang, according to China’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Sun Yuxi.

Taliban leaders say Beijing is more trusted as a peace broker than any Western power. According to militant commanders, Beijing has already hosted top Taliban officials to discuss the peace process (Chinese officials deny this). In addition, Ghani chose China for his first official state visit.

United States: U.S.-led forced toppled the Taliban in 2001 and proceeded to hunt its commanders and the remnants of al Qaeda. Now the U.S. is trying to sign a peace deal with the group to end the insurgency — and America's longest war — while ensuring Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan are no longer havens for extremists.

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After years of a turbulent relationship with Ghani’s predecessor Karzai, U.S. officials such as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stress the strength of Washington-Kabul ties. A sign of this, they say, is the pledge to slow the drawdown of U.S. troops and keep 9,800 in the country through 2015.

WHAT'S ON THE TABLE

Afghan officials maintain the Taliban must recognize the government’s legitimacy and the country’s constitution for there to be any deal. In this, the U.S. and Afghanistan are putting up a united front.

"We are going to support an Afghan-led reconciliation process,” President Barack Obama said at a press conference with Afghanistan's Ghani on March 24. “Afghanistan and the United States agree on what the Taliban must do, which is break with al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws including protection for women and minorities."

Image: Former Taliban militants surrender as part of reconciliation initiative
Former Taliban militants surrender their weapons during a reconciliation ceremony in Ghorian district of Herat, Afghanistan, on January 18. JALIL REZAYEE / EPA

Militants who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity claimed that that during preliminary talks they were offered control of three provinces, as well as the religious affairs and rural development ministries in return for laying down arms and accepting the constitution.

Taliban sources told NBC News that during meetings with U.S. officials in Qatar, Washington also promised to release certain high-ranking Taliban members. The U.S., the government in Kabul and Taliban leadership deny these talks took place.

CHALLENGES

Trust deficit: Long-held ethnic rivalries and memories of atrocities committed during the 1992-1996 civil war and under Taliban rule undermine trust and ability for different groups to work together.

The Taliban are mostly Pashtuns, a collection of tribes that have ruled Afghanistan for most of its history. During their time in power the Taliban massacred and oppressed other ethnic and religious groups, as well as moderate Pashtuns and women. So many Afghans will take some convincing that the group should be brought in from the political wilderness.

Image: Ethnic Hazara demonstrators protest demanding action to rescue Hazaras kidnapped from a bus
Ethnic Hazara demonstrators protest demanding action to rescue Hazaras kidnapped from a bus by masked men in Ghazni, Afghanistan, on March 17. MUSTAFA ANDALEB / Reuters

Another complicating factor is Pakistan’s long involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan — aimed at countering the influence of arch-rival India — and its record of sheltering and supporting militants. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban before the U.S.-backed invasion in 2001, and covert help after it, convinced many Afghans that Islamabad cannot be trusted.

There has been a dramatic shift in relations with Pakistan since the inauguration of Ghani, who unlike his predecessor Karzai, has reached out to Pakistan directly to address their worries. “All and any concerns they have are open for discussions,” a source close to the president told NBC News.

A history of a weak government in Kabul may also hinder talks. While many Afghans do not support the militants, they also do not trust the central government to impose the rule of law and provide basic services necessary.

Militant splits: Many militants are exhausted after years of war and feel the time has come for a deal.

"It's a matter of few weeks now as everything is ready and the team has been selected to meet U.S. and Kabul as well," one senior commander told NBC News in mid-March. The Taliban leadership has not acknowledged the run-up to talks, but a previous failed attempt at talks Qatar in June 2013 show that there is willingness.

But while the leadership under Mullah Omar has tried to present a unified front, it may be difficult to convince thousands of foot soldiers to make peace with a government widely seen as the corrupt puppet of foreign powers. A recent decision to slow the drawdown of U.S. troops has provoked even more dissent.

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If Taliban leaders do join peace negotiations, factions unhappy with the process may pledge allegiance to ISIS, which has gained a foothold in the region. Given the history of Afghanistan, it’s conceivable that militants will continue to fight well after the last Western soldier leaves.

NBC News' F. Brinley Bruton and Eric Baculinao contributed to this report.