Taliban return to Doha setting stage for Afghan talks
Taliban officials say a senior delegation returned early Saturday to Qatar, paving the way for the start of peace talks with the Afghan government that are expected to take place in the tiny Gulf state.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The negotiations are the second, critical part to a peace deal the U.S. signed with the Taliban in February in Doha.
Washington has ramped up pressure on Afghans on both sides of the conflict to get started with their negotiations to decide what a post-war Afghanistan might look like, how rights of women and minorities would be protected, and how the tens of thousands of armed Taliban and government-allied militias are disarmed and re-integrated.
The U.S. Security Adviser Robert O'Brien had a long call with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last week.
American officials have also pressed neighboring Pakistan to get the Taliban to the table.
Relentless delays over the exchange of prisoners —5,000 held by the Afghan government and 1,000 by the Taliban — have hindered efforts to get intra-Afghan talks started.
In late August, a delegation led by the Taliban's political office head and the chief negotiator of the February deal with the United States, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar came to Pakistan.
While little was revealed about the details of his meetings with Pakistani officials, it is believed he was pressed to get started with intra-Afghan talks.
With many of the Taliban leadership council living in Pakistan, Islamabad has been pressed by Washington to use its influence to push negotiations forward.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly said he wants peace talks started and that a military solution for Afghanistan is an impossibility.
Pakistani officials reportedly met a second time with Baradar on Friday before his return to Doha again pressing for a swift start to Afghan peace talks, it is believed.
U.S. and Afghan officials have both said they want to see a reduction in violence in the conflict going into talks with the Taliban, but the militant group maintains that a cease-fire would only be on the agenda once talks begin.
Washington's February agreement with the Taliban was reached to allow the exit of American troops after nearly 20 years at war in keeping with a promise President Donald Trump made during the 2016 U.S. election campaign.
The withdrawal, which has already begun, is not dependent on the success of the Afghan negotiations but rather on commitments made by the Taliban to fight terrorist groups and ensure Afghanistan cannot be used to attack America or its allies.