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WASHINGTON: The US officials and Taliban representatives are likely to hold a second round of direct talks in Doha next month as American defence chief says, reconciliation is the most important part of the Trump administration’s Afghan strategy.

The head of the US State Department’s South Asian Bureau, Alice Wells met four Taliban officials at a hotel in Qatari capital on July 23 for the first face-to-face talks in seven years.

In an interview to the Guardian newspaper, a senior member of Taliban’s Quetta Shura said that the first round of basic contacts “were very helpful”. The next round, in September, “will be more specific and focused on key issues,” he said.

The Taliban leadership had long demanded direct talks with the US without involving the Afghan government, arguing that only Washington had the power to decide when to pullout foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Asked to explain the decision to hold direct talks with the Taliban, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis told a news briefing in Washington this week that the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy, released last summer, was based on four pillars.

“But the most important (of) the four … was to reconcile,” he said.

“We’ve watched how these kinds of situation have been resolved throughout history, whether it be South Africa, Northern Ireland.”

Secretary Mattis, however, insisted that this reconciliation effort too was “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led,” like similar efforts in the past and the US was “working very closely with them in everything we’re doing”.

At another news briefing at the Pentagon, Gen Joseph L. Votel, commander of US Central Command (CEENTCOM), said the United States believed the Taliban were different from other militant groups.

“While we apply military pressure against the Taliban to bring them to the table of reconciliation, we harbour no illusion about reconciliation with militant Islamic state group ISIS-K — an offshoot of ISIS operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan claiming responsibility for terror bombings in both nations.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2018