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, an Afghan official said Tuesday.
The Taliban were expected to bring their senior leaders to the table when the two sides meet, possibly on Friday, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters. The Taliban maintain a political office in the Qatari capital of Doha.
The renewed push to reach a peace deal comes as the U.S. winds down its military presence in Afghanistan. Outgoing U.S. commander Gen. Scott Miller recently warned that increasing violence seriously hurts Afghanistan's chances of finding a peaceful end to decades of war.
At the same time, Taliban fighters have taken 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 Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The surge has also exposed weaknesses in the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces. Many districts fell without a fight and more than 1,000 soldiers fled to Tajikistan. There have been repeated reports of troops not being resupplied or being left without reinforcements. They are often outgunned and outnumbered by their Taliban adversaries.
The Doha talks will be led by senior government official Abdullah Abdullah, who heads Afghanistan's reconciliation council.
Former President Hamid Karzai is also expected to be among the delegates. The negotiations are aimed at ending the violence that has steadily increased since the U.S. signed a deal with the insurgent movement in February last year.
Karzai called on the government not to miss the opportunity and press ahead toward peace.
He also expressed hope that one day Afghanistan would have a woman as president and urged women to stay in their jobs and continue their education.
"This country has everything, youths, educated people," he said. "I call on the young generation to not leave your country, stay here. ... You must trust in your country, peace will come."
Thousands of Afghans are trying to leave the country amid growing anxiety about the future.
In a new sign of concern about what lies ahead, 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 its embassy staff, it says it has no plans to evacuate and announced its visa section had reopened after temporarily closing due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Also Tuesday, an explosion in the capital of Kabul killed four people and wounded 11 others Tuesday, 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.