Intra-Afghan negotiations are to begin in Doha on Saturday, a day mostly reserved for ceremony before hammering out a road map for a post-war Afghanistan.
A team representing the Afghan government has flown out for Doha ahead of long-awaited peace negotiations with the insurgent Taliban scheduled to begin on Saturday, Afghan officials said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the impending "historic" talks while himself on his way to Doha for the inauguration event on Friday.
The Trump administration has been attempting to usher the Taliban and Afghan government towards negotiations, which would pave the way for the United States to finally withdraw from its longest war and hand President Donald Trump an important foreign policy success right before the US presidential election.
"Today, we depart to Doha with hopes and self-confidence to create a condition in Afghanistan where guns are silent and the values of (the) republic are consolidated and Afghan people achieve what they deserve," said senior negotiator Nader Nadery, part of the team that left Kabul on a commercial airliner.
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Pompeo is also scheduled to arrive in Doha on Friday, ahead of Saturday's opening ceremony, following which the actual talks are expected to begin between the Afghan government representatives and the Taliban, as envisaged in a February agreement between the militant group and the US.
"It's taken us longer than I wish that it had to get from February 29 to here but we expect Saturday morning ... to have the Afghans sitting at the table together prepared to have what will be contentious discussions about how to move their country forward," Pompeo told reporters shortly after taking off from Washington on Thursday evening. "(It's) truly historic."
Pompeo in his comments made it clear the US was ready to return soldiers to Afghanistan if it saw a threat emerging and the Taliban reneged on their commitments.
The White House and its peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have refused to give specifics on commitments made by the Taliban, citing security concerns.
“Our commitment to reduce our forces to zero is conditioned on them executing their obligations under the agreement (which is) so very clear about their responsibilities with respect to terrorist activity taking place in Afghanistan," Pompeo said.
But Pompeo warned of spoilers to peace, citing recent targeted killings in Afghanistan and an attempted assassination earlier this week of Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh.
“It’s very clear that the violence levels have to come down to acceptable levels,” he said.
The Taliban had hitherto refused to have direct talks with a government that the group says is powerless.
Pompeo's arrival in Doha on Friday would coincide with the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States that triggered US military involvement in Afghanistan against the Taliban, who harboured Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda militant leader who plotted the attacks.
A diplomatic source in Kabul said that the start of talks had been arranged to ensure it did not fall on the anniversary.
A jet had picked up six prisoners demanded by the Taliban from Kabul on Thursday.
Some Western governments had objected to their release, and as a compromise, it was agreed that they would be kept under supervision in Qatar.
France and Australia said overnight that they objected to the prisoners being released from Afghan prisons.
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Negotiations have raised hope among Afghans across the country that the grinding conflict might come to a halt.
"We are desperate for peace. The killing of Afghans should be stopped," said Kabul shopkeeper Abdullah, who lost a relative in a bomb attack that targeted Vice President Amrullah Saleh this week.
"I'm not very optimistic about the future, but peace talks is a good first step to at least reduce the violence."
Afghan school teacher Aminullah, who lives in restive Kunduz province, insisted that gains made in the past two decades should not be lost.
"As much as we want peace, we also want the achievements of the past years kept," he said.
"I don't want my school closed, but peace is the priority now."
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