US diplomats held face-to-face talks with Taleban, insurgents say

Street stall vendors wait for customers at the Mandai Bazaar in Central Kabul, Afghanistan.
Street stall vendors wait for customers at the Mandai Bazaar in Central Kabul, Afghanistan.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (NYTIMES) - In a reversal of a long-standing policy, US diplomats held face-to-face talks with Taleban representatives in Qatar a week ago without Afghan government officials present, two senior Taleban officials said on Saturday (July 28).

The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday. But the department has not denied that its diplomats had taken part in such talks - a significant shift in US strategy towards the Taleban in Afghanistan.

The Afghan president's office said Saturday that it welcomed any support for peace efforts.

The talks took place in Doha, where the Taleban have long maintained an informal "political office" for the purpose of restarting the long-dormant peace process. They involved several members of the Taleban political commission and Alice Wells, the State Department's senior South Asia diplomat, as well as other unidentified US diplomats, according to the two Taleban officials.

The Taleban officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities around the talks, which were initially reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times reported on July 15 that such talks were expected, after the Trump administration told its top diplomats they could begin direct negotiations with the Taleban. The insurgents had always demanded negotiations with the Americans as a precondition to any peace talks as long as the US military was still in Afghanistan.

But US officials have taken pains to insist that such talks would not mean the abandonment of what has been a long-standing policy that any peace process would be "Afghan owned and Afghan led."

The meeting involved Wells and other senior US diplomats, one of the Taleban officials said, and emphasised that direct talks with US officials, in person and without the presence of Afghan officials or ministers, were a demand of the insurgents' leadership.

The other official said that the meeting had concerned the peace process, and that the Taleban were expecting good results from it, including further similar meetings. Neither Taleban representative would discuss in further detail the substance of the talks.

Similar efforts to start peace talks between the Americans and the Taleban in Doha in 2015 faltered after the Afghan government denounced the process. There has been no such reaction so far this time.

"The government of Afghanistan welcomes every effort which supports the peace process under the auspices of the government," said Durrani Waziri, a deputy spokeswoman for President Ashraf Ghani. "We appreciate help and support from any side that can facilitate the peace process."

Waziri declined to comment, however, on whether the government was aware that the Americans had met with the Taleban in Doha.

Atta Ul Rahman Salim, deputy head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, said, "We as the peace council welcome every effort by the people, organisations and countries that can facilitate peace talks between the Taleban and the Afghan government."

Hopes for peace talks were bolstered recently when the government and the Taleban declared overlapping cease-fires at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The cease-fires were widely respected by both sides and received enthusiastically.

In addition, peace marchers have drawn widespread support throughout much of the country, building grass-roots pressure on the government to hold peace talks.

Ghani has offered to hold another cease-fire for the Eid al-Adha holiday, in late August, and US military and diplomatic officials have approved of that suggestion.

On a visit to Kabul last Monday, the US military officer in charge of Central Command, General Joseph L. Votel, was asked about the new US stance on peace talks.

"As President Ghani has indicated, he's ready to pursue something without conditions - that speaks for itself," he said.

"Everything can be on the table here as we move forward with this Afghan-led process."