The Taliban on Sunday detonated a car bomb outside a government security compound in central Afghanistan killing 14 people and wounding 180, including scores of children.
The attack came at the onset of a two-day meeting between Afghan citizens and the militants, meant to open the way to an Afghan peace process that should build on a hoped-for deal between the United States and the Taliban to end the longest ever U.S. war.
“It is very hard to sit across from those men who are waging a war against innocent Afghans, but it is also a test of our commitment to peace,” said a senior Afghan government official involved in the talks.
The Taliban and U.S. officials are trying to strike a deal on a Taliban demand for the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces and a U.S. demand that the Taliban not let Afghanistan be used as a base for terrorism.
But the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, denouncing it as a U.S puppet.
So while the 60-member delegation of Afghan representatives in Qatar includes government officials, they are not there in their official capacity.
“I am here as an Afghan, but I am not sure if the Taliban view themselves as Afghans before anything else,” said the government official, who spoke by telephone from Qatar but declined to be identified.
Reuters spoke to six of the Afghan delegates attending the talks.
The Taliban officials were welcoming in general although less willing to discuss issues like women’s right and freedoms in society, the delegates said.
During their 1996-2001 rule, the Taliban barred women from working outside their homes, and said women could only go out in public if accompanied by a male relative.
Afghan society has taken huge strides since the Taliban were ousted weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States, and many Afghans are nervous about preserving the progress under some sort of a power-sharing government that might be part of a deal to end the war.
The talks, facilitated by Germany and Qatar, have touched on how Afghanistan might be organised but no conclusions have been reached.
“The Taliban prefer Islamic Emirates style of government while we ask for a republic,” Khalid Noor, the son of a powerful politician from northern Afghanistan, Atta Mohammad Noor, told Reuters by telephone.
Some Afghan government officials fear the United States and the Taliban will strike a deal enabling the United States to get out of a war that President Donald Trump is impatient to end, leaving government forces to battle on alone.
Such fears are only compounded by the relentless violence across the country. The Taliban now control and influence more territory than at any point since 2001.
According to the United Nations, 3,804 civilians – including more than 900 children – were killed and 7,000 wounded in 2018, the deadliest year for civilians in the conflict.
U.S. negotiators and the Taliban get back to their talks on Tuesday.
Last week, the chief U.S. negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the discussion was the “most productive session” since the process got going late last year.