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Afghan Government, Taliban to Begin First-Ever Direct Talks Next Week

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, right, after the signing of the agreement with the U.S. in February.

Photo: stringer/Shutterstock

KABUL—Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban are set to begin their first-ever direct talks next week toward ending nearly two decades of fighting, after the U.S. signed a deal with the insurgent group to extricate America from its longest war.

Representatives of the warring factions are expected to convene as early as Monday in Qatar’s capital to agree on a road map for reconciliation, officials said. Doha was also the venue for the signing of the U.S.-Taliban accord in February,

The Afghan government is prioritizing an immediate cease-fire, while the Taliban is likely to focus on a power-sharing arrangement and a transitional government.

The talks reflect a concerted push to end a war that began with the U.S.-led invasion in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that al Qaeda orchestrated from Taliban sanctuary in Afghanistan. The conflict has claimed more than 90,000 Afghan lives, displaced tens of thousands of people and destroyed schools, hospitals and other vital infrastructure. About a third of Afghans need urgent humanitarian aid, the United Nations has said.

But negotiations are expected to be tumultuous and drawn-out over multiple stages in assorted venues—facing numerous challenges, as seen with a recent exchange of prisoners.

In Doha, Qatar, U.S. and Taliban leaders signed a deal that aims to end years of fighting. Photo: Hussein Sayed/Associated Press

Intra-Afghan talks were supposed to begin shortly after the February signing, but were delayed by disagreements over another clause in the accord—a swap of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 security forces held by the insurgents.

On Thursday, Afghanistan’s National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal said Kabul had released the remaining 400 Taliban detainees in its custody, “except the few for which our partners have reservations.”

France and Australia have objected to the release of seven of them, members of the Afghan National Security Forces who were arrested on charges of attacking foreign troops they were working with. An Afghan official said one option is to transfer them to house arrest in Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office, before the talks begin.

Mr. Faisal tweeted that diplomatic efforts were ongoing and that direct talks were expected to start promptly in Qatar.

The Taliban couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. The group hasn’t publicly commented on the talks, which could face another delay if they insist on the release of all their members.

The U.S.-Taliban accord was hailed by all parties as a chance for Afghanistan to bring an end to 19 years of fighting. It called for the U.S. to pull all its forces out of Afghanistan over the next 14 months in exchange for the Taliban pledging to prevent militant groups like al Qaeda from using the country to plan strikes on the West and to discuss a long-term cease-fire with the Afghan government.

President Trump is expected to nominate William Ruger as ambassador to the country, according to people familiar with the matter. Officials view the pick as the president’s way of signaling his intent to make good on his campaign promise to sharply reduce the U.S. presence in the region, the people said.

The U.S. currently has about 8,000 troops in Afghanistan. The Pentagon plans to bring that number down to about 5,000 or fewer by this fall, The Wall Street Journal has reported.

But there are fears that if the U.S. pulls out most of its troops as agreed, the government would lose leverage and Afghanistan could descend deeper into conflict. It would also allow the Taliban to extend influence across Afghanistan and whittle away at the progress the country has made in women’s rights and social freedoms.

“The Taliban has the luxury of time,” said Michael Kugelman, senior research associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington. “It knows U.S. troops are leaving and it can do some shopping, come to the table, see what’s on offer and if it doesn’t like what it’s hearing it can just return to the fight.”

Islamic State, which is a rival to the Taliban, also remains a threat, as evidenced by an attack last month in eastern Afghanistan that killed at least 29 people and allowed numerous inmates to escape from a prison holding hundreds of militants from the group.

Although intra-Afghan negotiations could drag out for years, Washington is eager for quick progress.

“The U.S. government believes the optics of a military withdrawal when peace talks are making good progress are a lot better than U.S. troops heading for the exit with no reason to believe peace talks are going anywhere,” Mr. Kugelman said.

“If this peace process doesn’t work, there’s no logical next step except return to a war,” he added.

More on Afghanistan

Write to Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com

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