Soft path to a hard peace in Afghanistan

The first talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban may have achieved some progress because of a mood of empathy that was created by the sharing of personal sorrows during 18 years of war.

Members of Afghan delegations talk at the intra-Afghan conference for peace in Doha, Qatar July 8.

If forgiveness is key to ending a conflict, then the long war in Afghanistan just saw a merciful ray of hope. On Sunday and Monday, Taliban and Afghan officials held talks for the first time, even issuing a joint “road map” toward national reconciliation. Yet with the hard details still to be negotiated, it was the moments of softhearted sharing that may have set the tone for reaching a final deal.

During the talks in Qatar, more than 50 Afghan politicians and civil society activists and 17 Taliban members recognized the mutual suffering of others in the room as a result of the ongoing 18-year war. They told tales of relatives and friends lost to either Taliban attacks, U.S.-led airstrikes, or imprisonment. The sharing of personal sorrow set a mood of contrition and an opening for compromise. The joint statement stressed that all of Afghanistan is “suffering daily.”

Nader Nadery, chairman of the Afghan civil service commission, said he acknowledged the suffering of Taliban officials who had been held for years in detention. “I have the courage to forgive, as I know your members have suffered, too,” he told the group.

Many wept at the stories. “The pain from all sides, whether it is the night raids or the bombings, that is why we are here,” Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban delegation, told The New York Times.

Such tender moments may help dispel the mistrust, fear, and hatred that drive the war. As often happens in negotiations to end armed conflicts, the two sides found some empathy. According to participants, there was great patience in listening to each story. Their newfound vulnerability and humility may yet create a capacity to forgive the violence of the past and move toward peace.

The two sides are a long way from finding common ground on basic issues of governance, women’s rights, and the role of other countries in Afghanistan. A parallel set of talks between the Taliban and the United States has made more progress. Yet this intra-Afghan negotiation has broken ground on essential virtues necessary for an agreement. “It is not easy for me to sit across from people who have killed my father,” said Abdul Matin Bek, an Afghan Cabinet member, according to the Times. Yet in a sign of forgiveness at work, he added, “But we have to end this.”

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