Taliban militants meet US for first direct peace talks

A senior official within the Taliban has said that the insurgent group held its first direct contact with a United States official in a preliminary discussion about future peace talks in Afghanistan.

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It marks one of the most significant attempts to find an end to the country’s long fought war.

The Taliban official said his meeting with Alice Wells, a top American diplomat for South Asia, was “useful”.

The meeting was held in Qatar, where the Taliban have been in 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 authorised to speak to the media.

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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 have long demanded direct talks with Washington, saying they do not want to talk politics with the U.S. but instead meet face to face to discuss Washington’s concerns — particularly its 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 US 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.

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A former Taliban minister and ex-head of their 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. They also say that unless they can allay US concerns about the group, an agreement with Kabul would be meaningless.

During the Taliban’s five-year rule that ended with the 2001 US-led invasion, leader Mullah Mohammed Omar said regardless of whatever concessions they agreed to, including allowing girls to attend school, it would not gain them international recognition as long as the US refused to accept them.

The current leadership, most of whom are Mullah Omar’s contemporaries, still believe their future in Afghanistan can be guaranteed only if the United States’ concerns are addressed. Until now, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s national security team has said it is ready to hold talks with the Taliban at any time and that their allies, including the United States, should participate only as observers.

In Kabul on Saturday, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, deputy spokesman for Ghani, repeated the government’s oft-stated position that peace talks should be “Afghan owned and Afghan led, any assistance the allies provide (would be in) a supportive role.”

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