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    Taliban says peace talks with Afghan team to start Saturday

    The long-awaited peace talks with the negotiating team selected by the Afghan government are to begin on Saturday in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, the Taliban said in a statement Thursday.

    The start of negotiations was also announced by Qatar’s foreign ministry, and Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, confirmed in a tweet that the government delegation will be in Qatar’s capital, Doha, for the talks.

    The talks — known as intra-Afghan negotiations — were laid out in a peace deal that Washington brokered with the Taliban and signed in February, also in Doha, where the Taliban maintains a political office.

    That deal aims to end Afghanistan’s protracted war and bring American troops home, while the intra-Afghan talks are intended to set a road map for a post-war society in Afghanistan.

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    The negotiations are expected to be a difficult process as the two sides struggle to end the fighting and debate ways of protecting the rights of women and minorities. The fate of the tens of thousands of armed Taliban members, as well as militias loyal to government-allied warlords, will also be on the agenda, along with constitutional changes for Afghanistan.

    Washington’s peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the U.S.-Taliban deal signed on Feb. 29, has been in Doha for the past week, trying to push the talks forward.

    The withdrawal of U.S. troops is not dependent on the success of the negotiations but rather on commitments taken by the Taliban under the deal with the U.S. to fight other militant groups, most specifically the Islamic State, and to ensure that Afghanistan is not used as a staging ground for attacks on the United States or its allies.

    Washington and NATO have already begun withdrawing troops, and by November the U.S. expects to have fewer than 5,000 troops still in Afghanistan.

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