DOHA, Qatar — Afghan government officials plan to meet face-to-face with Taliban representatives for the first time since President Donald Trump launched peace negotiations last year, a sign that efforts to end the long war are gaining momentum, U.S. diplomats said Saturday.
The Afghan officials will be part of a delegation that also includes representatives of a cross-section of Afghan society and the discussions are expected to run today and Monday in the Gulf state of Qatar.
The meetings, organized by Qatar and Germany, are seen as an icebreaker that could eventually lead to direct negotiations between the Afghan rivals and to a peace deal that would end the costly 18-year U.S. military presence in the country.
Some 14,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, and their continued presence there has become a political flash point in Washington.
The Americans and the Taliban are in their seventh round of peace negotiations that do not include any representatives of the Afghan government. Even as U.S. diplomats have made progress in talks with the Taliban on the future of their military presence, the insurgents have refused to meet Afghan officials directly to chart a government after the U.S. withdrawal.
A previous attempt at bringing the two sides together in a similar meeting fell apart in April.
The Afghan delegation arrived Saturday in Qatar, which has hosted all the peace talks. The American-Taliban talks will pause for two days, while the Afghan sides meet, and are set to resume Tuesday.
U.S. and Taliban officials suggested that a breakthrough is possible when they resume negotiations Tuesday.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran U.S. diplomat leading the negotiations with the Taliban, said Saturday that the previous rounds had focused on the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the Taliban’s prevention of terror attacks launched from Afghan territory against the U.S. and its allies.
He said this round brought “substantive progress” on two elements necessary for a comprehensive peace deal — establishing direct talks between the Taliban and Afghans and forging a cease-fire.
“We have just had six days of meetings, and these six days have been the most productive of the rounds we have had with the Talibs,” Khalilzad said.
He refused to discuss details but said his biggest challenge was “to get a framework agreed to that isn’t just a withdrawal agreement” but one that includes a political road map so “that we can leave a good legacy behind with a government and political order that Afghans agree to.”
U.S. and Taliban officials have remained extremely tight-lipped about what the sticking points are, with some only specifying that they are trying to iron out details related to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The diplomats are moving with a sense of urgency not only because the human toll of the war continues to escalate by day, but also because an Afghan presidential election is looming and it could complicate the negotiations.
The previous elections in 2014 were so disputed that they nearly tore the country apart, and the political divides have only increased in the ensuing years.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is running for a second term, has said the elections in September need to go ahead as scheduled to make sure those negotiating across the table from the Taliban have a strong mandate to carry out any agreement they reach.
The nearly two decades of war have been costly, both in human lives and economic toll. In the past five years alone, more than 20,000 civilians and 45,000 Afghan security forces have been killed. Taliban casualties are difficult to verify, but their losses are believed to be similar to those of the Afghan forces.
About 3,550 members of the U.S.-led NATO coalition have died in the war, more than 2,000 of them Americans.
Last year, Trump ordered U.S. diplomats to open direct negotiations with the Taliban. The insurgents insisted they would talk to Afghans only after negotiating the withdrawal of the U.S. forces who toppled their regime in 2001.
In January, U.S. and Taliban officials agreed in principle to the framework of a deal in which the insurgents would guarantee that Afghan territory would never be used by terrorists in return for a U.S. withdrawal.
But moving the peace process to a stage where the Afghans can chart the political future of the country among themselves has been frustratingly slow. The talks that were aborted in April fell apart with both sides blaming each other.