Afghanistan published on Tuesday a lengthy list of delegates who will meet with the Taliban in Doha this week, including government officials, in what could become the highest-level dialogue between the sworn enemies in years.
A massive roster published by the presidential palace comprises 250 names, including President Ashraf Ghani’s chief of staff, Abdul Salam Rahimi, as well as his election running mate, Amrullah Saleh, the former head of Afghan intelligence.
Other delegates named on the list come from many walks of Afghan life including youth leaders, tribal elders and — significantly — 52 women.
The last time the Taliban met with the Afghan government was at secretive talks in Pakistan in 2015, which were quickly derailed by the news that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar had died.
The three days of talks in Qatar, scheduled to start on Friday, come amid a months-long push led by Washington for peace nearly 18 years after the US invasion, and as fresh violence rips across Afghanistan.
Any contact between the Kabul government and the Taliban is seen as hugely significant, because the insurgents view Ghani as a US stooge and his government as a puppet regime, and have long refused to speak with them directly.
They have insisted that any government officials attending this week’s talks will be doing so only in a “personal capacity”.
The US, which has cited significant progress after holding direct talks with the militants in Doha several times since September, is not expected to attend.
The militants have not announced a final list of who is headed to Doha, and distanced themselves from a report that suggested their delegation might also include women.
The peace process thus far has been widely criticised for a lack of female representation, and US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has pushed for greater inclusivity.
While the Taliban previously met with Afghan representatives and politicians in Moscow in February, those talks did not include members of Ghani’s government.
The spokesman for former president Hamid Karzai, who was at the Moscow talks, said Karzai supported the “intra-Afghan” conference in Doha but would not be attending.
Kabul has also been left out of the talks with the Khalilzad and the US delegation, prompting concerns the Afghan government is being sidelined in its own peace process and underscoring the importance of this week’s meetings in Doha.
This month, the United Nations said it had lifted travel bans for 11 Taliban delegates so they could attend talks.
That list includes Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Islamist movement and its top political leader, as well as Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban’s chief negotiator and former deputy minister of foreign affairs.
The Taliban last week announced the start of Operation Fath, this year’s spring offensive, and violence has continued apace across Afghanistan despite Khalilzad calling for a ceasefire.