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Fatima Gailani, one of only four women at crucial peace talks in Qatar's capital Doha, is preparing the way for a new Afghanistan. For her, it's a dream come true. For her country, it's a painstaking endurance test.
Coming face to face with the enemy is still a rare occasion. In Doha, only a few leaders from the warring parties are still doggedly discussing the rules and procedures that will later apply to all delegates to the Afghan peace negotiations. But for female delegate Fatima Gailani, direct contact with the Taliban has already occurred.
"During dinner we had a long, long conversation," says Gailani. "And when we see each other in the corridor, we stop to ask about each other's health. And because I came from such a serious illness, most of them stop and show their sympathy, they show their happiness that I am well and that I have joined."
When referring to the Taliban, Gailani does not use the term "enemy" despite an acrimonious history. "Really, I haven't seen any reaction that I didn't like. But when it comes to serious talks in the future, of course, we will have our differences. But my hope is that we will resolve these differences because we have a very ugly option in front of this peace, and that's war."
Gailani is part of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan's negotiating team, which was established through international efforts following the overthrow of the Taliban regime. "For me it was like a dream come true," Gailani told DW via a WhatsApp call from the luxury hotel that is hosting the historic peace talks in Qatar's capital. "The last 42 years of my life was dedicated to seeing peace one day in my country."
Twenty-one people are representing each side at the negotiating table in Doha, for a total of 42 delegates — one for each year of the war.
Fatima Gailani was only 24 years old when Afghanistan sank into chaos in the late 1970s. At that time, a conflict over communist and Islamist ideals broke out in Kabul, culminating with an invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979. That was followed by an explosion of violence that has unfolded across five chapters of the country's modern history and continues to this day:
— The war of the Islamic mujahedeen against the Red Army, largely supported by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia
— The fratricidal power struggles among the mujahedeen after Soviet troops, humiliated, withdrew in spring 1989
— The rapid rise of the radical Islamic Taliban, which established an emirate in 1996
— The overthrow of the Taliban regime by the US and their allies following the 9/11 attacks
— The Taliban's fight against Western intervention, through which an Islamic republic with a democratic constitution was created in Afghanistan
The US-led intervention and NATO troops have added another chapter to Afghanistan's history of conflict and war
Gailani is now 66 and is suffering from cancer. She has returned from retirement, after three major operations, to be present in Doha. She is one of only four women involved in the peace talks.
To the question of whether she is a feminist, the humanitarian replies: "Well, if someone is working for women and the future of women is important to them and the name for that is feminist, then maybe I am. But I have equal passion for other things which are not right in my country. So maybe I am an activist for whatever goes wrong in my country."
Gailani hails from an influential religious family with connections to the former Afghan monarchy. She studied Persian literature, Islamic Studies and Islamic law. She grew up in peace under the reform-minded King Zahir Shah, Afghanistan's last monarch, who in the 1960s initiated reforms that created opportunities for women to participate in public life.
These four women are representing Afghanistan in Doha — from left to right: Fawzia Koofi (former member of parliament), Sharifa Zurmati (former member of the Independent Election Commission), Fatima Gailani and Habiba Sarabi (former governor of Bamyan Province)
"But we did lose it, didn't we?" asks Gailani without expecting an answer. "Most of the young generation, they have never seen peace — and that especially makes me want to put my steps forward very carefully."
Every wrong word can have consequences — even on the battlefield.
Gailani left her homeland during the Soviet occupation and lived in London, where she appeared at the time as the young female face of the Afghan mujahedeen. Her father was one of the leaders of the "holy war" against the Red Army.
In late November 2001, after the Taliban was overthrown, she was present in Bonn, Germany, where negotiations toward a democratic Afghanistan were held in great haste.
She then returned to her homeland after more than 20 years of exile and became a constitutional commissioner, helping to write the new Afghan constitution, before serving as president of the Afghan Red Crescent for 13 years until 2016.
Grief and loss are part of everyday life in Afghanistan — this mother lost her daughter to a suicide bomb attack on a school
"I saw the human tragedy happening on both sides. The misery which happened in Afghanistan, it doesn't recognize name or territory."
After a moment of silence, she adds: "No one was an angel, really. So, I don't allow myself to blame one side or the other."
Gailani follows one guiding principle, and it applies to the whole of Afghanistan, she says: the killing must stop. "Whoever is responsible for it — it has to stop. That's why for me, a cease-fire is the number one priority. The people of Afghanistan have put a tremendous hope in these peace talks."
But fighting, bombings, terror attacks and killings continue relentlessly in Afghanistan — even as US and NATO troops prepare to leave. Washington wants to end its longest war as soon as possible and has single-handedly negotiated the terms of the Western withdrawal with the Taliban, without involving the Afghan government.
It is an approach Gailani criticizes. "This will be wrong because it is always wrong. In Bonn, only a few people were put in the driving seats. And to again be put in driving seats by someone else, this would be wrong," she says.
Nineteen years ago, US officials prevented Taliban representatives from taking part in the Afghan peace conference in Germany. But the tide has now turned. The US still holds all the cards, as diplomatic sources in Kabul and Doha confirm — but with the big difference that direct contact with the Taliban is now the new norm. The US policy shift has the Afghan government feeling threatened.
Gailani warns outsiders against unilaterally taking sides in the complicated Afghan peace process. Back in 2001, she emphasizes, "everyone thought that [the Taliban] would vanish. But how could a part of the country vanish?" It did not happen then with the Taliban, nor will it happen now with the people she represents.
"We will not vanish. We are part of this country. These young people are part of this country. These women are part of this country. We are there. And we have our values," she says.
The famed Shah Do Shamsira mosque in the heart of Kabul's old town has not witnessed peace in decades
Indeed, the promotion of differing values and morals is dominating the Doha talks.The main focus is on the future role of Islam in the country: How modern does Afghanistan want to be, how democratic, how equal, how gender fair, how Islamic? Will the country remain a republic or can it only find peace as a theocracy — for example as an Islamic emirate? And who defines the social values that also depend on the interpretation of the Quran and Sharia law?
These key questions have remained unresolved for decades, and not only since the rise of the Taliban.
So what could a possible power-sharing deal with the Taliban look like?
Peace researcher Mariam Safi was born in Kabul in 1983 during the Soviet occupation. In 1988 she and her family fled first to Pakistan, then on to Canada. The 37-year-old has been living in her home country again since 2010 and founded the Kabul-based Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies, or Drops for short.
"Afghanistan as a whole in terms of its culture, traditions and as a society has changed. But I don't think any of us have an actual understanding of how we have changed," Safi says.
Rights activist Mariam Safi isn't sure if the US will fulfill the role of an honest and patient broker between warring sides
Women's rights are still very controversial, and not just among the ranks of the Taliban. "These are laws that still require a lot of work and a lot of time in terms of their cultural implementation on the ground," she says. Two-thirds of the population live in abject poverty, and hundreds of thousands of men earn their living as fighters.
The Taliban and their supporters consider the new constitution to be un-Islamic, even if it prescribes that no law may contradict Islam, says Safi: "They have reiterated consistently that Islamic Sharia law is what will guide their decisions on the development of a new constitution and a new political system. So, it means that their interpretation of Sharia law is what will be returning."
However, social trust in the democratic state and its government has also eroded on the part of the Taliban's opponents due to repeated election manipulation, massive corruption, appalling abuse of power along with a general lack of security. Afghanistan has remained a favorite destination for Islamist terrorists. Would the end of the Afghan attempt at democracy be too high a price for peace?
The return to "the Islamic emirate does not reflect the new Afghanistan that has emerged in the last 20 years of international engagement," Safi believes. Moreover, "it will topple and trample all over the struggles and the achievements that we have so far. It might be a few. It might be limited. But there have been some achievements in democracy, in ensuring freedom and rights," the peace researcher adds.
It will take honest and patient brokers to balance the maximum demands on both sides of the negotiating table. Can the US play this role if it is primarily concerned with the withdrawal of its own soldiers?
As Safi puts it: "Where the United States is going to sway their support in this process, is going to determine how this process is going to unfold — and whether it will represent or reflect the needs of the people of Afghanistan, who will have to live this agreement afterwards."
Can the Doha talks end the Afghan war? This picture was taken by internationally acclaimed German photographer Anja Niedringhaus who was killed by an Afghan police officer on April 4, 2014.
Thousands of kilometers away, at the negotiating site in Doha, Fatima Gailani sees herself as an envoy of the Afghan people. "For the last 19 years, I never went into the government. I chose to go into humanitarian work because I couldn't deal with all these wheels and deals. I could have never dealt with it," she says.
As to the question of what her personal red lines will be in the talks with the Taliban, she says: "For me, the red line is really the failure of this discussion. This should not happen. It should not be an option. And when it comes to defending the values: we can defend it from the Islamic point of view, from the humanitarian point of view."
Gailani speaks of shared responsibility for human values and looks to Mediterranean islands such as Lesbos and Samos where many Afghan refugees have arrived, looking for a better future in Europe.
"When I watch these reports from Greece and these refugees, I recognize the faces of Afghans," she says. "It breaks my heart [to know] why these young men and women will take such misery, only because they feel their country was worse."