The highest-level negotiations yet between American diplomats and the Taliban began in Qatar’s capital on Monday, with the presence of the Afghan insurgents’ deputy leader raising hope of progress toward ending the long conflict that is taking lives in record numbers.
The latest round of talks to take place in Doha since President Trump ordered direct negotiations with the Taliban last summer will focus on fleshing out the details of a framework agreement in principle both sides say they reached last month, Western and Taliban officials said.
At issue are a Taliban agreement to keep Afghan territory from being a haven for terrorists wanting to attack the United States and its allies, and the United States in return agreeing to pull its troops out of Afghanistan.
After last month’s talks, American officials said that any withdrawal deal must include the Taliban’s agreeing to a cease-fire and to joining negotiations with the Afghan government. The Taliban negotiators, the American officials said, did not have the authority to discuss a cease-fire or negotiations with the Afghans and asked for time to return to their leadership.
Now, the presence at the talks of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy chief and head of the political commission guiding the negotiators, could bring the Taliban team the decision-making authority it was lacking before.
Mullah Baradar wore a gray-and-black turban as he sat across from Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran diplomat leading the American delegation. It was Mullah Baradar’s first appearance in such a major setting since his recent release after nearly a decade of Pakistani detention.
In the first session of talks on Monday afternoon, American officials once again tried to persuade the Taliban to meet with the Afghan government to advance the peace process, something the insurgents have refused so far.
One official said the two sides would break into “technical groups” to discuss details of the framework between the Taliban and the United States before returning to the issues of cease-fire and talks with the Afghan government.
Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was at the talks Monday. His presence suggested that the discussions were moving into the details of a mechanism for enforcing a Taliban pledge that Afghan territory would not be used by groups like Al Qaeda, and for an American and NATO troop withdrawal.
Before beginning negotiations, the two sides had a working lunch hosted by the government of Qatar at which the American delegation met Mullah Baradar for the first time.
“This could be a significant moment,” Mr. Khalilzad, the American special envoy, said on Twitter about meeting “a more authoritative Taliban delegation.”
After the last round of talks, Taliban negotiators said that the Americans would begin a partial troop withdrawal as early as February, and that the details of a full withdrawal would be fleshed out by technical teams from both sides.
American officials rejected the suggestion that a troop withdrawal was already going into effect, and Afghan officials, as well as analysts, have cautioned against the United States agreeing to such a move right away.
They say it would remove the Americans’ most powerful leverage over the Taliban before the insurgents have made any concessions toward a future deal that would be acceptable to the Afghan government and would preserve progress toward rights for women and minorities.
During their time in power, the Taliban barred women from public life and ruled according to their own harsh interpretation of Islamic law, including banning music and television.
While the Taliban have said recently that they would respect women’s rights according to Islam, including their right to education, work and owning and inheriting property, many people remain skeptical that the insurgents could stomach the progress made in Afghanistan over the past 17 years. In large parts of the country, women have become an integral part of public and political life, and the growth of an independent media has been hailed as one of the biggest achievements.
“Skeptics have rushed to judgment based on just the first part of a much larger effort, as though we have a completed agreement,” Mr. Khalilzad, the American negotiator, said after the marathon round of talks in Doha last month. “But you can’t eat an elephant in one bite! And a 40-year-old war won’t be resolved in one meeting, even if that meeting runs for close to a week.”
The trip to Doha by Mullah Baradar and several other Pakistan-based Taliban leaders — part of an expanded negotiating team the insurgents announced recently — has seemingly resolved two urgent questions hanging over the talks in recent weeks: whether the Taliban, which is on United Nations sanctions lists, can travel for talks; and whether Pakistan had truly freed Mullah Baradar from detention to allow him to engage in political discussions.
Mullah Baradar was a founding leader of the Taliban who was instrumental in its regrouping as a stubborn insurgency after the United States invasion in 2001 toppled their government.
But he ran afoul of Pakistani officials, who are supporting the Taliban as a proxy and giving some of their leaders sanctuary, when he began engaging with the Afghan government to discuss peace options. He was detained in a joint Pakistani-American raid and thrown in jail for years until Mr. Khalilzad requested his release in the hopes that he could be engaged in negotiations.
Afghan government officials, frustrated by what they see as the Taliban’s jetting off for meetings abroad as violence at home only intensifies, have recently complained to the United Nations Security Council that allowing their travel goes against sanctions.
But in a sign that the Americans and the Afghan government disagree over the issue, Mr. Khalilzad, after a recent meeting with Russian officials, said they would seek ways to ease Taliban travel.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, played up the protocol that Mullah Baradar received in Qatar. The Taliban deputy leader, he said, traveled “in a private airplane sent by the said country where he was warmly received by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Qatar and members of the political office” of the Taliban, based in Doha.
While Mullah Bardar made a statement to open the latest round of talks, and stayed for the entirety of the session, he is expected to hand off the leadership of the technical discussions in the coming days to his chief negotiator, Sher Mohammed Abas Stanekzai, and guide the process from a distance.
One thing that could complicate a next step in peace talks is a lack of consensus between President Ashraf Ghani’s government and an array of Afghan political movers who are critical of his leadership.
Mr. Ghani has called for a loya jirga — a traditional grand council gathering — next month that would include about 2,000 Afghan representatives from across the country to provide advice on how to move forward. Mohammed Umer Daudzai, Mr. Ghani’s special envoy for peace, said he hoped the large meeting would create consensus among disagreeing Afghan factions and set the parameters for negotiations with the Taliban.