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The long road to peace: Four issues that must be resolved if Afghans have a chance for peace

The stakes are high. Afghans are desperate for respite in a country where anyone under the age of 40 has known only war.
Image: Aftermath of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Smoke rises from the site of an attack after a massive explosion the night before near the Green Village in Kabul, Afghanistan, in September 2019.Wakil Kohsar / AFP - Getty Images file

Taliban militants and delegates appointed by the Afghan government are meeting in Qatar in an attempt to end decades of war that have torn Afghanistan apart and left it reliant on foreign aid.

And as the sheen of the opening ceremony begins to fade, the huge task remains of resolving one of the world’s deadliest conflicts.

NBC News has spoken to Taliban commanders, an Afghan government negotiator and a former high-level diplomat to find out what barriers could prevent the cycle of conflict being broken.

The two sides are currently discussing rules and procedure for talks and it remains unclear when they will move on to the more substantive issues in the peace talks.

But despite cautious positivity from some analysts, even in this early phase the two sides have expressed clashing visions of how Afghanistan should be governed.

Image: A burqa-clad woman stands near a young girl among households' debris after a flash flood affected the area at Sayrah-e-Hopiyan in Charikar, Afghanistan
A woman stands near a young girl among households' debris after a flash flood affected the area at Sayrah-e-Hopiyan in Charikar, Afghanistan, in August.Wakil Kohsar / AFP - Getty Images

A transition of power?

If the Taliban insist on the installation of an interim government that would remove the current administration in Kabul, that could spell trouble.

A Taliban commander in Helmand province told NBC News that the group would push to replace President Ashraf Ghani’s government with an interim one and that it would refuse to work with the current Afghan leaders. It remains unclear whether this view reflects that of the Taliban political leadership, but it is indicative of a wider rejection of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

The commander, like other Taliban leaders quoted in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

Traditionally, the Taliban have refused to recognize the government's legitimacy and have referred to Ghani as a puppet.

Ghani, meanwhile, has been careful not to make promises when asked whether he would step aside to make way for an interim government if requested by the Taliban and Washington.

“I serve at will of the Afghan people, not to the will of the Taliban,” he told a virtual conference in June when questioned by a journalist, adding that the key issue was not the president, but the republic.

He said any discussion of an interim government was “premature,” adding that former President Najibullah, who was killed before his body was hanged near the presidential palace in Kabul when the Taliban militants swept into the capital in 1996, made the “mistake of his life” by announcing he would resign.

Image: Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the peace deal and their victory in the Afghan conflict on U.S. in Afghanistan
Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering in Alingar on March 2, 2020.Noorullah Shirzada / AFP - Getty Images file

A permanent, comprehensive cease-fire

“From our point of view, of course, the cease-fire is the most important thing,” Fatima Gailani, a member of Afghanistan’s peace negotiating team, said. “This was the request of the people of Afghanistan.”

A cease-fire, she said, would help both sides trust each other and allow the people of Afghanistan on either side of the conflict to breathe.

However, three Taliban commanders and one member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha said they were not in favor of a cease-fire until there was significant progress in the peace talks, or even until a peace deal was agreed upon.

That indicates how far the two sides could be in agreeing to even a temporary halt in the fighting — and a reluctance from the Taliban to give up its most powerful bargaining chip.

“If we stop fighting, then what does there remain to talk about,” the member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha said.

But as the conflict drags, more civilian lives become data points in this devastating conflict. Between 2009 and 2019, more than 100,000 casualties were recorded in Afghanistan, according to United Nations estimates.

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Johnny Walsh, a former U.S. diplomat and senior adviser on the Afghan peace process at the State Department, said it was “somewhat plausible” that narrow cease-fires could happen in the near term as a confidence building measure.

But he said the Taliban considered an indefinite and comprehensive end to the violence to be one of their biggest concessions, so they would be reluctant to agree to it right away.

When asked about the Taliban’s perspective, Gailani said she was expressing the hope of the Afghan negotiating team that there would be a cease-fire first.

“Now when the negotiations start, then let’s see what will come or maybe a combination of both at the same time.”

Image: Qatar's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the Afghan negotiations
Qatar's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the Afghan negotiations in September.AFP - Getty Images

A future Afghanistan

There is one fundamental hurdle for any negotiation over what the country should look like: the Taliban do not support democracy, according to a Taliban commander in Ghazni province.

“We would follow the emirate system,” he said, referring to a state ruled by an emir, a Muslim ruler.

“Only religious scholars would give their opinion to choose members for the supreme council. The supreme council would then devise strategies to run the country as per Islamic Sharia,” he said, referring to Islamic law as derived from the Koran.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement Tuesday that an Islamic system has its own “definition and structure,” adding that at least two members of the Kabul delegation were unable to understand and recognize that due to their “lack of command of Islamic studies and history.” He gave few further details.

According to Walsh, the senior Taliban leadership has backed away from publicly calling for an emirate and say broadly that there should be a more Islamic system. It's unclear how they define this and whether privately they still envisage Afghanistan as an emirate.

Taliban figures often say democracy is not inherently contrary to Islam, but say they are negative about the 2004 constitution because they were excluded from its creation, which they say happened under the shadow of B-52 bombers, according to Walsh.

“They’re insinuating that Western powers dictated this constitution,” he added.

The 2004 constitution, which enshrines the state as an Islamic republic, was ratified after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, which toppled the Taliban.

The International Crisis Group, an organization that works to prevent wars, has reported that Taliban members are divided over the democracy question.

On the other hand, Kabul is broadly expected to push to maintain the status quo.

Ghani told a virtual conference organized by the Atlantic Council and the United States Institute of Peace in June, that the Afghan side had gathered a consensus around two “fundamental notions.”

“One is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as a sovereign, democratic, and united republic,” he said. “And second, citizens. The rights and obligations that bind us together are those of citizenship.”

Members of the Taliban delegation at the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in September.Hussein Sayed / AP

Women’s rights

Gailani said the delegates appointed by the Afghan government had been given a specific demand from Afghan women that they did not want to compromise on their rights to education, work and political participation.

“This is a message that we have to bring with sincerity, and as strongly as it came to us it has to be expressed on the negotiating table,” she said.

Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan with a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law under which most women were barred from attending school, holding jobs or even leaving their homes without male escorts.

The Taliban have since indicated they will adopt a less draconian stance toward women and girls than before but have offered scant details.

The commander from Helmand province said that the Taliban would protect women's rights under Islamic Sharia law. He did not elaborate on what this meant for women but said the governance system would be “different” from that in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Saphora Smith reported from London and Mushtaq Yusufzai from Peshawar, Pakistan.