The day after, as the ceremony kicked off, with hundreds of diplomats filling the grand ballroom, the public address announcer repeatedly urged: “Please wear your masks.”
The leaders of both delegations struck a measured tone in their speeches — creating optimism that both sides were genuine about the talks. Then, there were more than 15 ministerial speeches from various countries, an indication of the Afghan conflict’s complexity. Almost all the speeches were via video conference because of Covid travel restrictions, sapping the energy from the hall. Many delegates from both sides started browsing on their phones. Others started dozing.
The new Taliban chief negotiator, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani, was hunched in his seat in a monk-like stillness, rarely looking at the screen. Mawlawi Haqqani, 62, did not bother to put on the translation headset even though all the speeches were in English, which he does not understand. Occasionally, he ran a hand through his graying beard. An hour into the speeches, he slowly parted the red folder in front of him, lowered his head to take a peek, and shut it again, placing his pen on top.
Mawlawi Haqqani, the head of the Taliban’s courts, is a well-respected seminary teacher in the Taliban ranks. Many analysts see his appointment to lead the talks as a sign that the Taliban are worried about the potential for internal schism because of the talks. Unlike the negotiations with the Americans, where the end goal of withdrawal of foreign forces was clear, the discussions with the Afghan side will bring up issues — a cease-fire, women’s rights, details of power sharing — that will test the Taliban’s unity. He is said to carry the kind of influence that might keep far-flung and often very local insurgent cells united.
On the republic side, those rifts are in the open, the political elite still struggling to unite after a disputed election. Behind the scenes of the launch of talks in Doha, those divides were on display in disagreements over protocol. Details like who would sit where, and whether Mr. Abdullah or Mr. Atmar would give the speech, played out till the last minute, frustrating the hosts and diplomats, even as the two men managed a facade of unity.