Islamabad — Taliban officials say a senior delegation returned early Saturday to Qatar, paving the way for the start of peace talks with the Afghan government that are expected to take place in the tiny Gulf state.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The delayed negotiations are the second, critical part to a peace deal the U.S. signed with the Taliban in February in Doha.
The Taliban delegation's arrival in Qatar, where the group keeps its political office, came as a top Afghan government body blamed the militants for delays in starting talks.
In a tweet on Saturday, the spokesman for Kabul's High Council for National Reconciliation, Faraidoon Khwazoon, said the government was ready to start direct negotiations.
"The process of releasing the prisoners is over and there is no excuse for delaying the talks, but the Taliban are still not ready to take part in the talks, " he said, without further elaboration.
In a surprise late night Saturday tweet, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed announced a shakeup in the Taliban negotiation team. The Taliban's Chief Justice Abdul Hakim has been named the lead negotiator replacing Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who will be deputy negotiator. The appointment of Hakim, who is close to the Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhunzada, brings the Taliban's negotiating team to 21. There was no explanation for the sudden changes.
Until its February deal with the U.S., the Taliban refused to directly negotiate with the Afghan government. The current Kabul negotiating team is a collection of government and opposition officials.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement Saturday that its envoy Zalmay Khalilzad who brokered the February peace deal left for Qatar on the previous day to press for an "immediate" start to negotiations between the warring Afghan sides.
Washington has ramped up pressure on Afghans on both sides of the conflict to open up negotiations over what a post-war Afghanistan might look like, how rights of women and minorities would be protected, and how the tens of thousands of armed Taliban and government-allied militias are disarmed and re-integrated.
"The Afghan people are ready for a sustainable reduction in violence and a political settlement that will end the war," the State Department statement said.
The U.S. Security Adviser Robert O'Brien had a long call with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last week. American officials have also pressed neighboring Pakistan to get the Taliban to the table.
Relentless delays over the exchange of prisoners —5,000 held by the Afghan government and 1,000 by the Taliban — have hindered efforts to get intra-Afghan talks started.
In late August, a delegation led by the Taliban's political office head and the chief negotiator of the February deal with the United States, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar came to Pakistan. While little was revealed about the details of his meetings with Pakistani officials, it is believed he was pressed to get started with intra-Afghan talks.
With many of the Taliban leadership council living in Pakistan, Islamabad has been pressed by Washington to use its influence to push negotiations forward. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly said he wants peace talks started and that a military solution for Afghanistan is an impossibility.
Pakistani officials reportedly met a second time with Baradar on Friday before his return to Doha again pressing for a swift start to Afghan peace talks, it is believed.
U.S. and Afghan officials have both said they want to see a reduction in violence in the conflict going into talks with the Taliban, but the militant group maintains that a cease-fire would only be on the agenda once talks begin.
Washington's February agreement with the Taliban was reached to allow the exit of American troops after nearly 20 years at war in keeping with a promise President Donald Trump made during the 2016 U.S. election campaign. The withdrawal, which has already begun, is not dependent on the success of the Afghan negotiations but rather on commitments made by the Taliban to fight terrorist groups and ensure Afghanistan cannot be used to attack America or its allies.
Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report