KABUL -- The Afghan government and Taliban negotiating teams are expected to begin direct talks later this week, High Council for National Reconciliation Chairman Abdullah Abdullah said Tuesday (September 8).
"Inshallah, in the next few days, delegations from the two sides are expected to sit outside the country for talks," Abdullah said at an event in Kabul marking the 19th anniversary of the death of Afghan politician and military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.
A date for the talks, to be hosted in Doha, Qatar, has not been set, but both sides this week have signalled that negotiations could launch soon, following efforts to wrap up a drawn-out prisoner exchange.
The Taliban's negotiating team has already arrived in Qatar, a spokesman said Saturday (September 5).
"All members of our negotiating team have arrived in Doha," Suhail Shaheen, former spokesman for the Taliban's political office, told AFP. "The talks will begin once some small technical issues are resolved."
The Taliban on Sunday (September 6) announced a new chief negotiator for the group, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani, 53, a former chief justice for the Taliban. He replaced Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai.
Muhammad Naeem Wardak, 35, replaced Shaheen as spokesman.
Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada two months ago shuffled his team of negotiators -- adding four close aides to the group -- to strengthen his control over the team, a Taliban commander based in an unknown location in Pakistan told AFP on July 18.
Late last year, growing divisions and discontent within the Taliban became more apparent as increasing conflict over the group's leadership and its political direction further drove a wedge inside the splintered organisation.
'Now is the time to start'
US Special Representative on Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad traveled to Doha on September 4, the US State Department said, in another sign that talks could be imminent.
"The Afghan people are ready for a sustainable reduction in violence and a political settlement that will end the war," the department said in a statement.
"Afghan leaders must seize this historic opportunity for peace. All sides have taken important steps to remove obstacles for the start of IAN," it added, referring to the acronym for intra-Afghan negotiations. "Now is the time to start."
The Taliban team had recently been in Pakistan discussing the peace process with the government in Islamabad.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi "emphasised the implementation of the US-Taliban peace agreement, in its entirety, paving the way for the earliest possible commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations", Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement August 25.
Qatar authorities have been imposing a seven-day quarantine period on all arrivals to the country but have made exemptions for some delegations who undergo regular testing.
The Afghan government's negotiating team remains in Kabul, but a logistics team landed in Doha last week.
Kabul's negotiating team is ready for talks, said Faraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the Afghan government's reconciliation council.
"The release of the prisoners is completed and there is no excuse for delaying the talks," he tweeted.
The Taliban's seriousness about peace will be evident from the outset, when Kabul's negotiating team pushes for a permanent ceasefire, Vice President Amrullah Saleh told TOLOnews September 6.
"The first test for the Taliban is [a] ceasefire," he said. "If they accept the ceasefire, they are committed to peace. If not, they are not."
The talks were initially due to begin in March as set out in a deal between the United States and the Taliban in February.
But disagreements over ongoing violence and the prisoner swap have seen the start repeatedly pushed back.