Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, center, his first Vice President Amrullah Saleh, left, and second Vice President Sarwar Danish, right, take the oath of office during their inauguration, in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 9, 2020.

Afghan peace talks set to start despite escalating attacks on politicians

Government representatives are set to meet this week with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, for the first official meeting between the two warring sides in years.

The World

The force from the roadside bomb that rocked Afghanistan early Wednesday was so strong it melted the window of senior vice president Amrullah Saleh’s car.

At least 10 people died and several others were injured, according to Afghanistan’s interior ministry.

His left hand covered in bandages and looking shaken, Saleh appeared in a video shortly after surviving the attack on his convoy in Kabul, the capital. He said his son was also riding in the car with him and survived. He apologized to bystanders affected by the blast. 

The attack comes as the Afghan government prepares to sit down formally for the first time with the Taliban, its long-standing adversary, in Doha, Qatar. But the security situation in Afghanistan has raised concerns about such peace talks.

Wednesday’s incident is one of several targeting high-profile Afghan politicians and public figures in recent weeks. Last month, Fawzia Koofi, a prominent politician and member of the government’s negotiating team, was shot in the arm by gunmen near the capital. 

No group has taken responsibility for the series of attacks. Both Koofi and Saleh are outspoken critics of the Taliban, and Saleh survived another major attack on his office last July that killed 20 of his aides.

Peace talks stalled by prisoner swap

The Doha peace talks were already delayed by many months.

In February, the Trump administration and Taliban militants signed an agreement with the goal of ending the war in Afghanistan and withdrawing American troops. That deal came with a series of promises, including the Afghan government’s pledge to release around 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and in exchange, the Taliban would release 1,000 Afghan security force prisoners it was holding.

But the Afghan government was not part of the US talks that generated the agreement and seemed to be caught off-guard by the pact. At first, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani even denied there was any prisoner release in the works. Several months later, he called for a national committee to sign off on the releases, which subsequently did happen.

Related: A newborn survived an attack at a hospital in Afghanistan. Now the long road to recovery begins.

Afghans who have lost loved ones to Taliban violence are outraged nonetheless.

Yasir Qobadian was 2 years old when the group killed his father. A few years later, they killed his sister in another attack.

“You released 5,000 Taliban prisoners,” he told Afghan officials on national TV this week. “But you never asked my opinion about it. What about justice for my family?”

Afghan officials have presented the prisoner swap as a sacrifice that Afghans had to make. In an interview with local media earlier this week, Afghan VP Amrullah Saleh called it “the price for peace.”

Yet Yasir Qobadian doesn't see it that way. “Peace without justice doesn’t make sense to me,” he said on television.

‘Our universal values’

There is something else that frustrates victims' families. France, Australia and Norway also opposed releasing a handful of Taliban prisoners convicted of killing their own citizens.

In those cases, the Afghan government negotiated an alternative. Saleh said six prisoners will be sent to Qatar with restrictions on their passports so they won’t be able to return later to Afghanistan.

At least three prisoners in the group are accused of killing American troops. But the Trump administration wants the peace negotiations to move ahead anyway. The US president wants to bring down the number of US troops in Afghanistan by half before the November election.

Related: Analysis: A crucial moment for women's rights in Afghanistan

Nargis Nehan, the former Afghan minister of mining, worries that the White House is too eager to cut a deal.

“Our universal values of human rights, women’s rights, minorities, liberty and freedom … all of them are at stake,” she told a Zoom panel recently convened by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

“Our universal values of human rights, women’s rights, minorities, liberty and freedom … all of them are at stake.”

Nargis Nehan, former Afghan minister of mining

She said Afghan women in particular are concerned about the outcome of these negotiations because they don’t want to see their country slide back into the dark days of Taliban rule, when women were treated as second-class citizens.

“Right now, a number of Afghan women leaders are receiving training on their Islamic rights [so that they] can reason with the Taliban,” she added.

‘I was really scared’

Zarifa Ghafari is the 27-year-old mayor of Maidan Shahr, the capital city of Maidan Wardak province. Last March, the US State Department recognized her work by awarding her an  International Women of Courage Award.

It honored “her bravery and leadership, qualities she continues to demonstrate daily as she faces down those who seek to keep women from fully participating in Afghan life.”

In an interview with The World, Ghafari said she received threats while she was in the US to receive the award.

“Thankfully, and by the prayers of my family and my people, I am safe.”

Zarifa Ghafari, mayor of Maidan Shahr

“I was receiving threats from Taliban by WhatsApp, by Twitter, and I was really scared,” she said.

Ghafari shared the messages with Afghan security forces. “I told them that I’m already targeted, but after this award, it’s going to be worse,” she said.

A few days after Ghafari returned to Afghanistan, she came under attack. Gunmen fired several shots at her car, she said.

“But thankfully, and by the prayers of my family and my people, I am safe,” she said.

Related: A newborn survived an attack at a hospital in Afghanistan. Now the long road to recovery begins.

The State Department condemned the attack, urging Afghan authorities “to fully investigate and prosecute those who opened fire.”

Ghafari was stunned but said she is determined to continue her work. Like many others, she is concerned about what a deal with the Taliban would mean for her country. She wants the bloodshed to end but wonders how many more Afghans will have to pay for the promise of peace.

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