Hopes are high that a first-ever meeting between the Taliban and a large delegation of prominent Afghan figures will prove a turning point in a US-led peace process that has dragged on inconclusively for months.
The insurgent group, which has long refused to recognise the Kabul Government and said it would not deal with Afghan concerns until US forces leave the country, finally agreed to meet informally with a group of Afghans, prompting widespread public relief here, despite the Taliban announcement of a spring offensive.
The office of President Ashraf Ghani announced that 250 delegates - an inclusive but unwieldy array from across the political and social spectrum - would fly to Doha, the Qatari capital, to meet a far smaller group of Taliban officials. The militia leaders will hold separate formal meetings with US officials.
The Afghan delegation will include Ghani's chief of staff, national intelligence director and numerous cabinet ministers, plus a variety of ethnic politicians and former anti-Soviet militia leaders, members of parliament, and representatives of civic and women's groups. They will travel on a plane chartered by the Qatari Government, which has hosted the previous US-Taliban talks.
"The main idea is to get to know each other informally, to give the Taliban a feeling of how Afghanistan has changed in 17 years, to make sure they understand it is a different country now," said Mohammad Umer Daudzai, a senior aide to Ghani who is coordinating the Government's peace initiatives. He said his hope is to see the interactions continue and a peace settlement reached by year's end.
But there were reports from Kabul of new difficulties in putting together the final delegation. A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, issued a statement ridiculing the delegation as too large and disorganised.
Mujahid said that the ongoing talks with US officials have been "orderly" and "pre-arranged" in a foreign country, and that they are "not an invitation to some wedding or other party in a hotel in Kabul." His statement said the Taliban team in Doha had "no plans" to meet with such a large Afghan group. He later said any Afghan officials in the group would be met only in their personal capacity, not as government officials.
Despite strong support from the Afghan public, the initiative has met with considerable criticism, both from political figures who were excluded and from observers who warn that the huge contingent - which has no single leader - could produce a profusion of opinions rather than a unified position needed to confront the demands of a hierarchical religious militia.
"Every person will want to express their own ideas, while the opposite side will have a single voice," fretted Ahmad Wali Massoud, a candidate for president.
Young liberals charged that the delegation was stacked with aging ex-warlords; some ex-warlords charged that Ghani had designed the list to sabotage the peace process. Even pro-government parties could not agree on a message to the Taliban.
"The intra-Afghan talks are much more complicated than the Taliban negotiations with the US," said Mohammad Nateqi, an aide to one ethnic Hazara leader who plans to attend the talks. "What will happen to Taliban fighters and the Afghan Army? What will happen to our constitution? How will the Taliban join the system?"
The Taliban, for its part, sent mixed signals as the talks neared. This week, a Taliban spokesman told news agencies that several unidentified women would be part of its delegation - a remarkable shift that seemed aimed at assuaging Afghan and international concerns that women's rights would be ignored in the talks and curtailed if the Taliban returned to power.
Last weekend, however, the insurgents launched their annual "spring offensive," which they dubbed "Operation Victory." In a statement little changed from previous years, the group said attacks would be carried out across the country with the aim of "eradicating occupation, cleansing our Muslim homeland from invasion and corruption, and establishing an Islamic system."
As promised, Taliban fighters in the past week have staged several attacks, including a suicide truck bombing and firearms assault in eastern Nangahar province, an attack on the northern provincial capital of Kunduz, and a multipronged assault on a district in far-northern Badakhshan province.
The surge in violence drew angry retorts from Ghani, who called it a sign of Taliban intent to continue an "illegitimate war," and from Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy spearheading the peace process, who condemned it as "reckless." In March, however, Afghan security forces announced their own spring operation to force the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul.
"We did not impose this war," Khalilzad tweeted. ". . . Tens of thousands of innocent civilians have died. . . . By refusing to work w/us to end the killing, the Talibs are prolonging it." American troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001, joining with Afghan forces to topple the Taliban regime, and have remained in the country for 17 years.
While some prominent Afghans were fighting for seats on the plane to Doha, others announced they would boycott a separate gathering convoked by the Ghani Government to discuss the peace process at the end of April. The traditional consultative meeting of some 2500 Afghans, known as a jirga, will be held in Kabul.
In the past week, a number of political party leaders and rivals of Ghani, who is seeking re-election in polls scheduled for September, have declared they will not participate. They include the government's chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, and key ethnic leaders, who have called the meeting a waste of time and a political show. The Taliban were invited but refused to attend.