Negotiators for the United States and Taliban militants will start a seventh round of peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan on Saturday, offering what one US official called a “make-or-break moment” to halt 18 years of fighting.
US and Taliban officials privy to the talks said they will seek to finalise a schedule to withdraw foreign troops in return for a Taliban commitment to keep militant groups from using the country as a base to attack the United States and its allies.
Saturday's talks will be led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US peace envoy for Afghanistan, who has held six rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar's capital of Doha since October.
“There is a genuine sense of expectation on both sides,” said a senior US official, who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to media. "It's a make-or-break moment.”
The pace of talks between the US and Taliban has sped up as Afghanistan heads for presidential elections on September 28.
"This is one of the crucial meetings," a senior Taliban leader in Qatar said, on condition of anonymity.
"If we fail to find any solution to the Afghan conflict then we would like to negotiate with the elected representatives of the American people."
On a trip to Kabul this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said America was close to finishing a draft agreement with the militants on counter-terrorism assurances, and he hoped a peace pact could be reached by September 1.
About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some US forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.
The Taliban, who control or contest half the country, more than at any time since they were ousted by the US invasion in 2001, do not support the election process.
They want to form an interim government, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and leaders of opposition political parties have rejected the demand.
Mr Ghani, who has been sidelined from the talks, hopes the seventh round will open the door for an intra-Afghan meeting.
Germany, a key ally of the United States in Afghanistan, is trying to organise a meeting of the Taliban and civilian representatives.
Some Afghan officials fear the United States and the Taliban will strike a deal allowing America to exit the country, leaving government forces to battle on alone.
On Friday, the Afghan Defence Ministry said a senior Taliban governor was killed in an airstrike in the eastern province of Logar, and a commander was killed in clashes with Afghan security forces in northern Balkh province.
The Taliban dismissed the report about the death of the Logar governor as government propaganda, however.