Differences between Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban and the Afghan government hang over a planned weekend gathering in Qatar seen as a stepping stone toward eventual negotiations between the two.
After publicly criticizing the size of the 250-member government-backed delegation on April 17, Taliban representatives said they are considering a boycott of the talks, slated to begin in the Qatari capital, Doha, on April 20.
Requesting anonymity, a Taliban source in Doha told Radio Free Afghanistan on April 17 that they might boycott the meeting if the Afghan government insists on bringing such a large delegation.
Earlier in the day, purported Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the event was "an orderly and prearranged conference ... not an invitation to some wedding or other party at a hotel in Kabul." The Taliban also said they will be talking to delegates as “private individuals” and not as representatives of the Kabul government.
The Taliban source in Doha said they were also dismayed the delegation does not include anyone from the list of 240 Afghans they had given to Qatari officials to share with the Afghan government.
“This list has been dictated by the government, so this conference can achieve no results,” the source said.
But the Afghan government seems determined to dispatch the delegation to Qatar.
“You are undertaking a mission for which our nation has waited almost for 40 years, and that [mission] is a dignified peace,” President Ashraf Ghani told members of the delegation at Kabul’s presidential Arg-e Shahi Palace on April 17.
“For the first time, we have the opportunity to hold comprehensive debates with the opposite side [Taliban],” he said, flanked by former President Hamid Karzai and other prominent members of Afghanistan’s often-divided political elite.
The planned discussions had raised hopes and marked the most significant pubic interaction between senior Afghan political figures and Taliban representatives since the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime in 2001. But it now appears to be in danger.
Some prominent politicians are avoiding the gathering. Atta Muhammad Noor, a former governor and senior leader of the Islamist Jamiat-e Islami party, will not be participating. Ghani’s ally and the first vice president’s candidate on his ticket, Amrullah Saleh, said he too will not be going to Qatar due to technical and personal reasons.
Hamid Azizi, a Kabul-based political commentator, says the controversy over the government’s list shows Kabul is not ready to embrace peace before the presidential elections in September.
“Choosing a 250-member delegation was like pressuring the Taliban,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “But the Taliban thwarted it with a strong diplomatic maneuver, so now the government is under the pressure of public opinion and various [political] factions.”
Azizi predicts that the event might be canceled or postponed.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Ikramullah Ikram’s reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.