ISTANBUL — The sudden cancellation of eagerly awaited talks between Taliban officials and Afghan leaders, planned to begin last Friday in Qatar, seemed a stunning reversal in slow-going efforts to bring a peaceful negotiated end to the 17-year Afghan war.
As it turned out, the moment did not go entirely to waste.
On Saturday, about 20 Afghan emigres from Europe and the United States, including three women, privately met Taliban representatives in Doha, the Qatari capital. They said they spoke for more than six hours with the group’s chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, and a dozen other insurgent representatives.
The result, or at least the vibe, was unexpectedly positive. Several participants said there was not much detailed discussion, but they described a willingness by Taliban representatives to explore issues of importance to Afghans and to keep open a dialogue that could lead to the end of the conflict.
“This was the cracking open of the door,” said Masuda Sultan, 46, an Afghan American activist and board member of the nonprofit organization Women for Afghan Women, which has offices in Washington and Kabul. She said her organization had been excluded from the Afghan delegation to the formal talks, but she flew to Doha anyway.
“The Taliban were warm and cordial,” Sultan said Sunday by phone from Doha. “They said they wanted peace and that they were disappointed the talks had fallen apart.”
The formal meeting was canceled after Afghan, Taliban and Qatari organizers could not agree on the size and membership of the Kabul delegation.
Sultan said the Islamist militia leaders did not lay out their specific views on women’s rights, other than to say they would be “respected within Islam” — a vague position the extremist group has previously stated. Many Afghan women have expressed concern the Taliban would restrict women’s rights if they returned to power.
“I know some people will say we were naive” to meet with the insurgents after formal talks were called off, Sultan said. “But they asked for our advice, they said they had made some mistakes and they said they were serious about wanting peace. They spoke with us for more than six hours. If we don’t engage with them in dialogue, we will just be continuing the same war that has gone on for 17 years.”
Another female participant was Khatol Momand, an Afghan-born teacher who lives in Norway. “Our presence here says a lot,” she said before the Saturday meeting. “We are told the Taliban have changed, that they don’t just want women to be a symbolic presence, they want them to play a role in society. But it is still too early to judge.”
Several of the men who came from Western countries for the canceled meeting and met the Taliban are members of an international movement for Afghan peace. They blamed the Afghan government for derailing the talks, saying it had given too large a role to former militia leaders who had fought the Taliban.
“For peace to take root in Afghanistan, the traditional reliance on warlords to form governing coalitions and ensure stability must end,” said Daud Azimi, 37, a technology consultant in Germany. “Afghanistan’s silent majority — refugees, those who live abroad, those with no money, no weapons, no government officials in their back pockets — must be given a voice.”
In Kabul on Sunday, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani said the government had no comment on the private talks, noting only that the participants “went in their own capacity, and they are entitled to do their own thing.”
The spokesman, Samimullah Arif, said the government hopes to revive the canceled talks but wants to move them to Uzbekistan because the Doha organizers did not respect the “sovereignty” of the Afghan delegate list. The Taliban maintains a political office in Doha, and peace talks have been held there between Taliban representatives and U.S. officials.
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