KABUL — U.S. diplomats held talks with Taliban delegates on Monday in the United Arab Emirates to discuss ways to end the war in Afghanistan, a Taliban spokesman and Afghan government officials said.
Saudi, Pakistani and UAE officials also were participating in the meeting, one of several held between U.S. diplomats and representatives of the Afghan insurgent group in recent months, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement emailed to reporters.
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE were the only nations that recognized the Taliban’s radical Islamist government when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until its ouster in late 2001.
There was no official confirmation from the presidential palace in Kabul of whether any government official participated in the meeting. But Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, said in a tweet that he met Sunday in the UAE with officials from the three countries and the United States.
Mohib said he discussed President Ashraf Ghani’s road map for peace, which allows Taliban representatives to take part in the political process and run for office. The plan also raises the prospect of constitutional changes while preserving what the government describes as the country’s achievements since the militants were driven from power in Kabul by Afghan resistance forces and U.S. airstrikes.
Mohib said he had discussed the “direct engagement of the Afghan government with the Taliban for an intra-Afghan dialogue.”
Shah Hussain Murtazawi, a spokesman for Ghani, said the U.S.-Taliban meeting was being coordinated with the Afghan government.
“The Afghan government supports any effort and action that paves the way for an Afghan-led peace process,” he said. Ultimately, “it is the Afghan government that signs and parliament that approves any peace agreement.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul described the meeting as “part of efforts by the United States and other international partners to promote an intra-Afghan dialogue aimed at ending the conflict in Afghanistan.”
The Taliban has repeatedly refused to deal directly with Ghani’s government, which the group considers a U.S. puppet that is inefficient and racked by internal divisions.
Ahead of the UAE talks, officials said Zalmay Khalilzad, the new U.S. envoy for Afghanistan, would lead the meeting. He has held at least two meetings with Taliban officials in Qatar, where the group maintains a political office. The Taliban said last month that its representatives met with Khalilzad for three days in Doha, the Qatari capital.
He has traveled to the region and spoken with a number of diplomats and leaders since he was appointed as a special envoy by President Trump in September.
The Afghan-born diplomat recently suggested the formation of an interim government instead of holding a presidential election as scheduled in April. The aim would be to allow the peace process to succeed and then hold the vote with the Taliban’s participation.
But members of Ghani’s administration have categorically rejected the idea, insisting on going ahead with the election in April despite widely mismanaged parliamentary polls in October that were held took place after more than three years of delay.
“At no time has Special Representative Khalilzad ever suggested the formation of an interim government in lieu of elections,” State Department spokeswoman Heidi Hattenbach said. “The timing of Afghan elections is for Afghans alone to decide.”
Ghani is set to run for reelection and has picked an advisory board on peace while Khalilzad pushes the U.S.-led efforts.
Some factional leaders, including his archrival for the presidency, former national security adviser Hanif Atmar, consider Ghani’s move a political maneuver aimed at bolstering his reelection bid. Some members of the advisory board have said they will not participate because they were selected without even being informed.
The main stumbling blocks in past rounds of talks between U.S. and Taliban representatives have been conditions set by the two sides on how to end the war.
The Taliban has insisted on a pullout date for U.S.-led troops before any talks with the Kabul government and has demanded that Washington not oppose the establishment of an Islamist government.
U.S. officials have been pushing to keep some troops and at least a couple of bases in the country.
This article has been updated to include a response from the State Department.