Afghan and Pakistani refugee girls play on the outskirts of Islamabad. Peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan leaders were called off Friday. (Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images)

The sudden cancellation of eagerly awaited talks between Taliban officials and Afghan leaders, planned to begin last Friday in Qatar, seemed a stunning reversal in slow-going efforts to bring a peaceful negotiated end to the 17-year Afghan war.

As it turned out, the moment did not go entirely to waste.

On Saturday, about 20 Afghan emigres from Europe and the United States, including three women, privately met Taliban representatives in Doha, the Qatari capital. They said they spoke for more than six hours with the group’s chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, and a dozen other insurgent representatives.

The result, or at least the vibe, was unexpectedly positive. Several participants said there was not much detailed discussion, but they described a willingness by Taliban representatives to explore issues of importance to Afghans and to keep open a dialogue that could lead to the end of the conflict.

“This was the cracking open of the door,” said Masuda Sultan, 46, an Afghan American activist and board member of the nonprofit organization Women for Afghan Women, which has offices in Washington and Kabul. She said her organization had been excluded from the Afghan delegation to the formal talks, but she flew to Doha anyway.

“The Taliban were warm and cordial,” Sultan said Sunday by phone from Doha. “They said they wanted peace and that they were disappointed the talks had fallen apart.”

The formal meeting was canceled after Afghan, Taliban and Qatari organizers could not agree on the size and membership of the Kabul delegation. 

Sultan said the Islamist militia leaders did not lay out their specific views on women’s rights, other than to say they would be “respected within Islam” — a vague position the extremist group has previously stated. Many Afghan women have expressed concern the Taliban would restrict women’s rights if they returned to power.

“I know some people will say we were naive” to meet with the insurgents after formal talks were called off, Sultan said. “But they asked for our advice, they said they had made some mistakes and they said they were serious about wanting peace. They spoke with us for more than six hours. If we don’t engage with them in dialogue, we will just be continuing the same war that has gone on for 17 years.”

Another female participant was Khatol Momand, an Afghan-born teacher who lives in Norway. “Our presence here says a lot,” she said before the Saturday meeting. “We are told the Taliban have changed, that they don’t just want women to be a symbolic presence, they want them to play a role in society. But it is still too early to judge.”

Several of the men who came from Western countries for the canceled meeting and met the Taliban are members of an international movement for Afghan peace. They blamed the Afghan government for derailing the talks, saying it had given too large a role to former militia leaders who had fought the Taliban. 

“For peace to take root in Afghanistan, the traditional reliance on warlords to form governing coalitions and ensure stability must end,” said Daud Azimi, 37, a technology consultant in Germany. “Afghanistan’s silent majority — refugees, those who live abroad, those with no money, no weapons, no government officials in their back pockets — must be given a voice.” 

In Kabul on Sunday, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani said the government had no comment on the private talks, noting only that the participants “went in their own capacity, and they are entitled to do their own thing.” 

The spokesman, Samimullah Arif, said the government hopes to revive the canceled talks but wants to move them to Uzbekistan because the Doha organizers did not respect the “sovereignty” of the Afghan delegate list. The Taliban maintains a political office in Doha, and peace talks have been held there between Taliban representatives and U.S. officials. 

Friday’s talks were called off after Taliban officials objected to the unwieldy size of the 250-member Kabul delegation, which they ridiculed as an Afghan wedding party, and to the dominant role the Afghan government played in organizing it. The Taliban does not recognize the Ghani government, and its leaders insisted that any officials in the group speak only for themselves. 

“They had asked people to come as individuals, and they felt that was not respected,” said Sultan Barakat, a scholar at the Doha Institute who organized the aborted talks. “The Taliban were receptive, but they had red lines and psychological limitations. They are in a war, and there is a lot at risk for them, too.”

His institute invited the Western-based Afghans to come to Doha. 

It was not clear when talks between Taliban and U.S. officials would resume. The last round ended in February with no concrete progress. The Taliban later agreed to a preliminary meeting with a cross-section of Afghan leaders, but it also launched its annual spring offensive, with a rash of attacks across the country.

One problem hindering the peace process — the interference of electoral politics — was partially resolved Sunday when Afghanistan’s Supreme Court legally extended Ghani’s presidency until September. Presidential elections are scheduled to be held then, after being postponed twice. The ruling is likely to ease the competition among potential candidates that roiled efforts to choose delegates to come to Doha.