U.S. Diplomats Held Face-to-Face Talks With Taliban, Insurgents Say

The Taliban’s “political office” Doha, Qatar. The militant group has long maintained an informal political office here for the purpose of restarting the long-dormant peace process.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — In a reversal of a longstanding policy, American diplomats held face-to-face talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar a week ago without Afghan government officials present, two senior Taliban officials said on Saturday.

A State Department spokeswoman did not respond to questions about whether the talks took place. But the department did not deny that its diplomats had taken part in such talks — a significant shift in American strategy toward the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“Any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government,” said the spokeswoman, Stephanie R. Newman.

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

The talks took place in Doha, where the Taliban have long maintained an informal “political office” for the purpose of restarting the long-dormant peace process.

They involved several members of the Taliban political commission and Alice Wells, the State Department’s senior South Asia diplomat, as well as other unidentified American diplomats, according to the two Taliban officials.

The Taliban 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 Taliban. The insurgents had always demanded negotiations with the Americans as a precondition to any peace talks as long as the American military was still in Afghanistan.

But United States officials have taken pains to insist that such talks would not mean the abandonment of what has been a longstanding policy that any peace process would be “Afghan owned and Afghan led.”

The meeting involved Ms. Wells and other senior American diplomats, one of the Taliban officials said, and emphasized that direct talks with United States officials, in person and without the presence of Afghan officials or ministers, were a demand of the insurgents’ leadership.

Credit...Raad Adayleh/Associated Press

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

Similar efforts to start peace talks between the Americans and the Taliban 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.”

Ms. Waziri declined to comment, however, on whether the government was aware that the Americans had met with the Taliban 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, organizations and countries that can facilitate peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.”

Hopes for peace talks were bolstered recently when the government and the Taliban 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.

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

On a visit to Kabul last Monday, the American military officer in charge of Central Command, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, was asked about the new American 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.”

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