The Taliban held its first direct contact with a U.S. official in a preliminary discussion about future peace talks on Afghanistan, a senior official with the insurgent group said Saturday. It marked one of the most significant developments amid efforts to find a negotiated end to the country’s protracted war.
The official described as “useful” a meeting with Alice Wells, the U.S.’ top diplomat for South Asia, earlier this week. He said the meeting was held in the Middle Eastern country of Qatar, where the Taliban has maintained a political office since 2013.
“The environment was positive and the discussion was useful,” the Taliban official told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
U.S. officials neither confirmed nor denied a meeting took place. However, Wells was in Doha, the Qatar capital, this week. In a statement following her return, the State Department said only that Wells had been in Doha, had met with the ruling family and “the United States is exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government.”
Any talks about a future political setup would be between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the statement said.
The Taliban has long demanded direct talks with Washington, saying the group does not want to talk politics with the U.S. but instead meet face to face to discuss Washington’s concerns — particularly security concerns — about the Taliban and Taliban involvement in Afghanistan’s future. They also say they want a time frame for the withdrawal of the roughly 15,000 U.S. and NATO troops still in Afghanistan.
It wasn’t clear when the next meeting would be held or with whom, but the Taliban official who spoke to the AP was certain one would be held.
A former Taliban minister and ex-head of its political committee, Aga Jan Mohtism, who has maintained close contacts with the insurgent group, also confirmed a meeting in Doha between U.S. officials and the Taliban took place earlier this week.
“The Taliban want to solve their problems with the Americans to end the invasion,” he said.
The Taliban have argued that the Afghan government cannot act independent of Washington.
During the Taliban’s five-year rule that ended with the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, leader Mullah Mohammed Omar said regardless of whatever concessions it agreed to, including allowing girls to attend school, it would not gain the group international recognition as long as the U.S. refused to accept it.
The current leadership, most of whom are Omar’s contemporaries, still believe their future in Afghanistan can be guaranteed only if the United States’ concerns are addressed.
A previous attempt at direct talks between Washington and the Taliban in 2013, also in Doha, was scuttled when then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai objected to the Taliban calling its office the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the name of its government — and flying the flag the movement flew when it ruled Afghanistan.