Taliban return to Doha setting stage for Afghan peace talks

The negotiations are the second, critical part to a peace deal the US signed with the Taliban in February

In this Monday, Feb. 25, 2019 photo released by Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Special Envoy of the Qatar Foreign Minister for Counterterrorism and Mediation in conflicts resolution, Dr. Mutlaq Bin Majid Al-Qahtanithe, is the mediator of talks between the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Deputy Commander of the Taliban Movement for Political Affairs, Mulla Abdul Ghani Berader, right, in an undisclosed place in Doha, Qatar. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met with one of the founders of the Taliban for the first time on Monday ahead of the latest round of talks with the insurgents aimed at ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan. (Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP)

Taliban officials say a senior delegation returned early on 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 authorised to speak to the media.

The negotiations are the second, critical part to a peace deal the US signed with the Taliban in February in Doha.

Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad departed for Qatar on Friday to advance US efforts in the negotiations.

Washington has ramped up pressure on Afghans on both sides of the conflict to get started with their negotiations to decide what a postwar 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 reintegrated.

The US Security Adviser Robert O'Brien had a long call with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last week. American officials have also pressed neighbouring 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 Mr Baradar on Friday before his return to Doha again pressing for a swift start to Afghan peace talks, it is believed.

US 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 ceasefire 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 US 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.