KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A high powered Afghan government delegation, which will include the head of the country’s reconciliation council, is to meet the Taliban in Doha to jump-start a long-stalled peace process, two Afghan officials said Tuesday.
The two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the Taliban were expected to bring their senior leaders to the table when the two sides meet, possibly on Friday. The Taliban maintain a political office in the Qatar capital of Doha.
The latest attempt to revitalize peace talks comes as the U.S. all but winds up its “forever war” in Afghanistan. The development comes after outgoing U.S. commander Gen. Scott Miller warned that increasing violence seriously hurts Afghanistan’s chances of finding a peaceful end to decades of war.
It a also comes as Taliban fighters surge through district after district taking control of large swaths of the country. Although the exact number of districts now under Taliban control is not known, it is believed they now rule in more than a third of Afghanistan’s 421 districts and district centers.
Several of the districts are strategic, bordering neighbors Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The surge has also exposed weaknesses within the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces as many districts fell without a fight and more than 1,000 soldiers fled to Tajikistan. There have been repeated reports of troops not receiving resupplies or being left without reinforcements, often outgunned and outnumbered by their Taliban adversaries.
While the Taliban have sought to show images of soldiers peacefully surrendering, there have been reports of killings and atrocities being committed.
The talks planned for Doha will be led by Abdullah Abdullah, who heads Afghanistan’s reconciliation council. They are reportedly intended to plot a way forward that could end the violence that has steadily increased since the U.S. signed a deal with the insurgent movement in February last year.
Former president Hamid Karzai, who is expected to be among the Kabul delegates to participate in the Doha talks, held a news conference Tuesday in the capital saying peace was coming to Afghanistan and urging the country’s youth to stay in the country.
Karzai’s urging came as France urged its citizens to leave Afghanistan and announced it was arranging a special flight Saturday to evacuate them from Kabul. There was no indication the French Embassy would be closed.
Australia has closed its embassy. While the U.S. has downsized, it says it has no plans to evacuate and announced its visa section had re-opened after temporarily closing due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Meanwhile, Karzai called on the government to seize the moment and press ahead toward peace.
“I want to call on the Afghan government to not miss the opportunity for peace, do your best to make peace and create a national government through peace,” Karzai said. “I want to say on both sides that you are the owner of this land, sit with each other and make peace.”
He expressed hope that one day Afghanistan would have a woman as president.
“This country has everything, youths, educated people … I call on the young generation to not leave your country, stay here. … You must trust in your country, peace will come,” he said.
“I call on women to continue working in offices and continue your educations. … I hope the day comes that a woman will become the president of Afghanistan.”
But even as the former president spoke of peace, another explosion rocked the capital Kabul on Tuesday, killing four people and wounding 11 others, according to police spokesman Ferdaws Faramaz.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. The Taliban and government accuse each other of carrying out attacks in the capital, while the Islamic State group often is the only one to claim an attack.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.