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To Get to Afghan Talks, Lots of Last-Minute Deals — and Nose Swabs

DOHA, Qatar — Until it happened, few believed that it actually would.

To get the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government into one room for direct negotiations took months even after the insurgents agreed to it in February as part of an agreement with the United States. And getting to that agreement, which delivered the insurgents’ main demand — the withdrawal of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan — had taken nearly a decade of on-again-off-again attempts.

As the start of talks between the two Afghan sides faced delay after delay, diplomats who had arrived in Doha for the opening ceremony waited, repeatedly changed their flights, and some even left. The negotiating team in Kabul and members of the press corps traveling with them were repeatedly swabbed with Covid-19 tests — a requirement by Qatar, which had relaxed its strict quarantine travel restrictions to make the meeting happen in the first place.

The gravest hangup was over the completion of a prisoner swap. The U.S. deal with the Taliban envisioned the exchange of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 members of the Afghan forces in 10 days. But it took six months. The last hurdle was figuring out a face-saving solution regarding six Taliban prisoners that Australia, France, and even some in the U.S. government did not want released, as they were behind attacks that had killed Western soldiers.

ImageTaliban prisoners, before being released, at the Bagram military base in Afghanistan in May. 
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Eventually, a small plane came from Qatar to take those six to house arrest in Doha so that the talks could finally start. One official mentioned that negotiations went down to the minute the plane took off, including trying to persuade the six men to agree to haircuts so they would be presentable in public.

Once the prisoners flew, a flight taking the negotiators to Doha became a possibility. But having followed these talks closely for the past couple years, I knew anything could still derail them — visa trouble, Covid restrictions, or tantrums over even small details.

Last July, for example, when a diverse group from Afghanistan came to Doha for an informal discussion seen as an icebreaker for formal talks, it nearly fell apart at the door. As the delegation from Kabul waited in the hallways of the Sheraton hotel, the Taliban were stopped for a security check as they made their way inside. Their lead negotiator then, Sher Mohamad Abas Stanekzai, seeing that dozens of cameras were focused on them, refused. When the security guards insisted, Mr. Stanekzai threw his folder at the table and walked back out. It took an hour to get the Taliban into the hall.

On the plane from Kabul on Friday, Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the country’s High Council for National Reconciliation and the delegation’s leader, said that he only became sure the talks would go ahead at the moment the plane carrying the prisoners finally took off.

“Since yesterday afternoon, I was more sure,” Mr. Abdullah said on the delegation’s plane. Then he smiled and added, “unless the plane doesn’t start or something.”

On board were equal numbers of journalists and negotiators and officials. Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar said the Afghan government had tried hard to make sure the press came along despite Qatar’s coronavirus travel restrictions.

“We represent a system where freedom of the press is one of its pillars,” he said.

Credit…Mujib Mashal/The New York Times

The day after, as the ceremony kicked off, with hundreds of diplomats filling the grand ballroom, the public address announcer repeatedly urged: “Please wear your masks.”

The leaders of both delegations struck a measured tone in their speeches — creating optimism that both sides were genuine about the talks. Then, there were more than 15 ministerial speeches from various countries, an indication of the Afghan conflict’s complexity. Almost all the speeches were via video conference because of Covid travel restrictions, sapping the energy from the hall. Many delegates from both sides started browsing on their phones. Others started dozing.

The new Taliban chief negotiator, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani, was hunched in his seat in a monk-like stillness, rarely looking at the screen. Mawlawi Haqqani, 62, did not bother to put on the translation headset even though all the speeches were in English, which he does not understand. Occasionally, he ran a hand through his graying beard. An hour into the speeches, he slowly parted the red folder in front of him, lowered his head to take a peek, and shut it again, placing his pen on top.

Mawlawi Haqqani, the head of the Taliban’s courts, is a well-respected seminary teacher in the Taliban ranks. Many analysts see his appointment to lead the talks as a sign that the Taliban are worried about the potential for internal schism because of the talks. Unlike the negotiations with the Americans, where the end goal of withdrawal of foreign forces was clear, the discussions with the Afghan side will bring up issues — a cease-fire, women’s rights, details of power sharing — that will test the Taliban’s unity. He is said to carry the kind of influence that might keep far-flung and often very local insurgent cells united.

On the republic side, those rifts are in the open, the political elite still struggling to unite after a disputed election. Behind the scenes of the launch of talks in Doha, those divides were on display in disagreements over protocol. Details like who would sit where, and whether Mr. Abdullah or Mr. Atmar would give the speech, played out till the last minute, frustrating the hosts and diplomats, even as the two men managed a facade of unity.

Credit…Karim Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Members of the republic’s negotiation team said they were gelling well, and that they had found a unity of voice. They were fighting for a shared set of values, they said, including democracy and civil liberties.

But what was clear was that the Kabul they will be reporting to needed to make peace with itself.

In the hours after the launch event, the hall was buzzing with media — a large number of them young journalists, including three women reporters, who had come from Kabul. They gathered around every Taliban official they could find, bombarding them with questions.

The Taliban officials answered with patience — and many seemed to be enjoying the challenge and interaction. They were asked about women’s rights, and whether the group had changed its hard-line ways since their days in power when they ruthlessly enforced the confinement of women to their homes.

Taliban delegates wiggled their way out of explaining why there were no women in their delegation — the government side had three — by attacking what they called the hypocrisy of the Western nations supporting the cause.

Credit…Mujib Mashal/The New York Times

“America has had about 45 presidents — show me one female president?” the Taliban negotiating team’s spokesman, Mohammed Naem, told one of the journalists.

But in a private chat, one of the negotiators had a more sheepish answer when journalists from Kabul kept pressing the same question: Well, he said, we didn’t have any such women on our side.

Heat came from the Taliban side, too.

A turbaned journalist associated with the insurgents cornered Nader Nadery, a member of the negotiating team from Kabul. Mr. Nadery made a point of noting that he was representing an Afghan republic with an elected president — implying a steep difference with the Taliban’s autocratic Islamic Emirate government.

“A president with just one million votes, and that, too, with fraud?” the journalist replied, referring to the disputed election last year that had a low turnout because of violence.

“Well, Mullah Haibatullah doesn’t even have one vote, and he is hiding somewhere,” Mr. Nadery said, referring to the leader of the Taliban. “Let’s respect each other, give each other dignity, and find a way out of this conflict.”

An hour after the heated exchange, during the coffee break, Mr. Nadery tapped the shoulder of the journalist as he passed him and they embraced with a smile.

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