Direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are expected to start in Doha on Saturday, paving the way for a further withdrawal of US troops.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said that the start of the talks marked a “historic opportunity for Afghanistan” that “must not be squandered”. Mr Pompeo is expected to attend the opening ceremony of the talks in Qatar.
The meeting between the two sides had been stalled for months after a delayed prisoner exchange that was part of a peace deal signed between the US and the Taliban in February last year.
As part of the agreement, the US was meant to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan over a period of 14 months as long as the Taliban met certain conditions, including counter-terrorism commitments.
Donald Trump hailed the talks, which are meant to thrash out a plan for the country’s postwar future, as a foreign policy victory. The US president, facing a re-election battle in November, said that the “negotiations are a result of a bold diplomatic effort on the part of my administration”.
The start of the peace negotiations are taking place even as the Taliban has stepped up its attacks on Afghan soldiers across the country.
“This is a test for both sides,” Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy to Afghanistan who helped broker the talks, told reporters on Friday, adding they were an “important achievement” in their own right.
But he acknowledged both sides would face “significant challenges” in seeking to agree a political road map to end the war.
“There will be no mediator, and no facilitator. When Afghans meet with each other, they will be talking to each other,” he said.
General Kenneth McKenzie Jr, the chief of the US central command, said this week that the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan would be reduced from about 8,600 to 4,500 by November. During Barack Obama’s term as president, up to 100,000 troops were stationed in the country.
Confirming the talks, Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman tweeted that “the Afghan government has made all the necessary arrangements for peace and the negotiating team of the Afghan government is fully prepared to travel to Doha for the start of the peace negotiations with the Taliban group”.
The Afghan government side was set to include women, and Mr Khalilzad said women’s rights were the second most important issue to the US after terrorism, adding Washington had encouraged the inclusion of women in the negotiating teams.
“I expect them to be fully prepared to defend their rights,” he said.
Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia analyst at Stanford University, said there were many challenges to peace in Afghanistan, from the constitution of the country to women’s rights to crafting a potential power sharing agreement.
“It’s a massive moment, but this is just the start of what will be a long road and a complicated process,” he said.
“The stakes are high for the US, the Afghan government and the Taliban too. This is a way for them to bring the conflict to an end on their own terms. If it doesn’t work out, there will be more bloodshed.”