As Afghan President Hamid Karzai comes to Washington to meet President Obama and other U.S. officials this week, there is renewed discussion in Afghanistan about the possibility of a negotiated end to the country's war.
Recent talks hosted by France have renewed hopes for some sort of reconciliation between the Taliban and Karzai's government. But given the decades of war in Afghanistan, many think the prospect of a peace deal remains nothing but talk.
The on-and-off peace efforts have spent most of the last year off due to a set of seemingly irreconcilable differences.
U.S. Calls For Direct Afghan Talks
Taliban leaders have long rejected peace talks with the Karzai government, saying they will only negotiate with the U.S. The U.S., for its part, says the two Afghan parties should negotiate directly.
But at least the mood has changed a bit since an informal meeting last month outside Paris.
For the first time, envoys from the Taliban sat at the same table with members of the Karzai-appointed Afghan High Peace Council as well as other Afghan politicians and members of parliament, including Nilofar Ibrahimi.
"It's the first time the Taliban accepted two women to join the peace talks. This is something very positive and this is a very strong move towards peace," Ibrahimi tells NPR.
Ibrahimi says the Taliban delegates seemed ready to make some concessions on the question of women's rights once there is a peace settlement.
"The Taliban agreed that women will have the right to work, to study, and to do business, but according to Islamic law," says Ibrahimi.
That's progress in Ibrahimi's view, though she's still skeptical about the Taliban's intentions.
"I cannot say that I'm definitely optimistic about this meeting. There might be something that is still hidden behind the curtains," she says.
Mawlawi Qalamuddin, a former Taliban official and a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, says the talks in France were symbolically significant.
"The most important part of the talks in France was the participation of the Taliban," he says. "For the two years the Peace Council has been in existence, no one from the Taliban has come to share their views with us."
Kate Clark, a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, says, "I think peace is possible here."
She says that one of the main challenges is that there are so many players – the U.S., the other NATO counties, Pakistan, the Taliban, the Afghan opposition, and the Karzai government. And each has its own interests, and needs to come away with some sort of victory they can take back to their respective constituencies.
"It's messy. It's really messy and, I think, to get beyond that requires a level of political seriousness that we have yet to see amongst the big players," Clark says. "Up until now, they've mainly been serious about waging war."
Skepticisim In Kabul
That also explains why the attitude on the Afghan street is subdued – people hunger for peace, but they seem to think that one party or the other won't agree on a deal.
Sayed Shekeib, a 19-year-old student, says he doesn't trust the Taliban.
Ahmad, a 43-year-old shopkeeper, says only the U.S. can make peace happen. He doesn't think the Karzai government is looking out for the interests of the Afghan people.
Wahid Mujdah, a former Taliban official who now lives in Kabul, agrees.
"The Afghan government [has] no idea about this peace, no plan [or] agenda about the peace process," Mujdah says.
He and others within Afghanistan say a recent plan drafted by the government is a half-hearted effort to exert control over the peace process. Mujdah says Taliban leaders have told him they still will not negotiate with Karzai.
"We want to reach an agreement with the Americans on the future of Afghanistan," says Mujdah.
Which circles back to another apparent dead end since the U.S. says peace talks must be Afghan-led.
So, while in France, the parties agreed that there must be peace in Afghanistan, they still can't agree on a road map to get there.
NPR's Sultan Faizy contributed to this report
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