KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A first round of Afghan-to-Afghan peace talks that would have seen Taliban and government officials sit together for the first time were postponed indefinitely Thursday after a falling out over who should attend.
Sultan Barakat, director of Qatar's Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, the organization sponsoring the talks, tweeted news of the postponement, saying "this is unfortunately necessary to further build consensus as to who should participate in the conference."
The talks scheduled for Friday between Afghan and Taliban representatives were considered a significant first step toward finding a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops, which would end America's longest war.
The senior official said negotiations went awry after President Ashraf Ghani opposed a list of participants announced by Barakat's organization. A list of 243 people was announced by Qatar on Thursday.
That list differed from Ghani's list of 250 people, which included many more women, according to a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Taliban did not immediately comment but Zabihullah Mujahed, Taliban spokesman, on Wednesday questioned the size of the government delegation.
Efforts to find an end to the war in Afghanistan have escalated since the appointment in September of U.S. Peace Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has held several rounds of talks with the Taliban. The Taliban's negotiating team numbers 14, including five former inmates of the U.S. prison on Guantanamo Bay.
The Taliban had previously refused to hold direct talks with Ghani's government, calling them puppets of the U.S. However, after pressure from Khalilzad and the government of Qatar, where the religious movement maintains a political office, they agreed to an intra-Afghan dialogue that includes members of the government. Still, they said they would recognize them only as ordinary Afghans, rather than government officials or ministers.
But Ghani struggled to cobble together a negotiating team and was highly critical of a meeting held earlier this year in Moscow between the Taliban and prominent Afghan representatives, including former president Hamid Karzai.
Kabul's many groups, including opposing warlords, political opposition and even feuding government officials have made the task of finding representatives everyone can agree on a difficult one.
The government's list of 250 participants is a reflection of its "inability to gather the various political parties together and form a team that can speak with one voice," said Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal.
"There is much distrust amongst the political parties and other groups, particularly after some groups met the Taliban in Russia without the permission of the Afghan government," said Roggio.
Ghani's list of 250 people included 54 women, compared to the Qatar list which included only 10.
Suraya Pakzad, an Afghan women's rights activist, said the Afghan Women's Network was also planning to send 18 women to the talks in the Qatar capital of Doha. Actress Angelina Jolie had even donated $10,000 to cover expenses, she said. But on Wednesday they were told that their sponsors in Doha who were to escort them from the airport had backed out and without escorts they may not be allowed to leave the airport. They were also not guaranteed entrance to the talks and so canceled their plans before the talks were officially postponed.
Pakzad said Ghani's list of women had also been pared down from the original 54 to 11 after Qatar had argued against the large contingent of women.
Khalilzad has on several occasions told Afghans in Kabul that it will be up to them to negotiate women's rights, freedoms and rule of law with the Taliban, who imposed a regressive interpretation of Islam when they were in power that forbade women from working and denied girls schooling.
Khalilzad's direct talks with the Taliban have been narrowly focused on a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal and guarantees from the religious militia that Afghanistan would not again be used to stage terror attacks.