KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Officials on both sides of Afghanistan's protracted conflict say efforts are ramping up for a start to intra-Afghan negotiations, a critical next step to a U.S.-negotiated peace deal with the Taliban.
The talks, which will begin in Qatar where the Taliban maintain a political office, are intended to lay out a road map to a future Afghanistan, with the first item on the agenda expected to be a cease-fire agreement.
The peace deal, which calls for the intra-Afghan negotiations, was signed by the U.S. and the Taliban in February and was seen at the time as Afghanistan's best hope at peace after four decades of war.
The deal was brokered to provide for America's exit from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war and calls on the Taliban to fight against militant groups.
Although Washington has pushed the warring sides to the negotiating table, America's exit is not dependent on the success of talks, but on the Taliban fulfilling their commitment to not support terrorist groups and fight against them and ensure Afghanistan cannot be used as a staging arena for attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
Washington has already begun reducing its troop levels and by November will have less than 5,000 soldiers still in Afghanistan, down from around 13,000 when the deal was signed in February.
This week, the government and the Taliban have quietly moved to reduce the last hurdle to the start of talks -- the mutual release of remaining prisoners. Neither side has spoken publicly of the releases, but both Taliban and government officials who have spoken to The Associated Press say both sides have completed the releases as outlined in the agreement. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the record.
The Afghan government was to free 5,000 Taliban members, which it had been delaying, particularly on the final 400, and the Taliban were to free 1,000 government and military personnel. The latest holdup from the Taliban side was apparently over 22 Afghan commandos who they reportedly have now freed.
President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the High Council for National Reconciliation, the umbrella organization overseeing the government talks, says a reduction of violence or cease-fire will top their agenda.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen earlier told The AP a cease-fire would be among the first items on the negotiation table. The group has reportedly completed its agenda and its 20-member negotiation team reports directly to Taliban chief Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada.
Both sides have been short on specifics going into talks. But the Taliban have said in recent statements and interviews with The AP that they do not want to monopolize power, are ready to share power, accept that women should have the right to work and girls the right go to school and be judges. However, they say a woman would not be acceptable as a Supreme Court chief justice or president of Afghanistan. They have also talked of constitutional changes without offering specifics.
In all their statements, the Taliban have said that whatever rights and privileges are Afghans they would be in keeping with the tenets of Islam, without specifying what that would mean.
The government side also has hard-line Islamic conservatives such as Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who have also publicly stated that a woman president or chief justice would not be acceptable. They too have in the past advocated for strict interpretations of Islamic injunctions.
The government's negotiation team will have women among its ranks and will carry a heavy burden to defend and protect rights for women and girls from negotiators on both sides, analysts say.