WASHINGTON: Taliban officials told several US media outlets on Saturday that they have held face-to-face meetings with American diplomats in Doha last week.

The New York Times (NYT), The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and Voice of America (VOA) reported that Alice Wells, the top US diplomat for South Asia, led the US team in these talks.

The NBC News television channel reported last week that five US diplomats participated in these talks with Taliban representatives and that some meetings were also held in Afghanistan and UAE.

NYT described the meetings as “a reversal of a longstanding US policy” of not holding direct talks with the Taliban.

WSJ reported that the meeting between Ms Wells and Taliban political leaders in Qatar earlier this week was “an effort to lay the groundwork for peace talks.” But the optimism about potential talks “is tempered by a recognition that any number of unexpected developments could quickly derail any proposed talks,” the report.

General Joseph Votel, who oversees the war in Afghanistan as head of US Central Command, told WSJ that the United States was focusing on both military and diplomatic means for resolving the Afghan conflict.

“If we only focus on objective aspects, you will miss something. There is something to the fact that people are tired and saw something in the ceasefire that got them excited,” he said.

NYT noted that the Taliban have long maintained an informal “political office” in Doha for the purpose of restarting the long-dormant peace process.

This week’s meeting involved several members of the Taliban political commission, Ms Wells and other unidentified American diplomats, the report added.

NBC News reported that both sides had decided not to publicise the meetings.

NYT, WSJ and VOA reported that the State Department refused to comment when contacted by their correspondents but did not deny the Taliban claim that senior US diplomats had met their representatives.

Last week, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert confirmed that Ms Wells was in Qatar last week where she met the deputy prime minister and other Qatari officials to “talk about their contributions to the situation in Afghanistan.”

Ms Nauert also praised Qatar’s efforts for promoting peace and stability in Afghanistan, adding that Ms Wells went there to “commend the government for their ongoing support for peace in Afghanistan.”

Earlier, a State Department official told Dawn that Washington was exploring “all avenues” to advance the Afghan peace process, and was doing so “in close consultation” with the Afghan government.

The United States and Afghanistan are also trying to arrange a second ceasefire with the Taliban over Eidul Azha. They were doing so because they believed that the Eidul Fitr ceasefire had brought the Taliban closer to the Afghan peace process.

“If you can get a ceasefire that lasts a few days, perhaps you could get another one that lasts a little bit longer, and that gives the people of Afghanistan hope,” Ms Nauert said.

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2018