Taliban and US officials are due to begin a new round of negotiations in the Qatari capital Doha, a Taliban spokesman confirmed on Wednesday, as the two sides meet in a renewed bid to restore peace.
Zabiullah Mujahid told AFP news agency that “the sixth round of talks between Islamic Emirate and the US will start in Doha today”.
While the US embassy in Kabul did not immediately comment, the US Department of State has already said its peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, will visit Doha this month to meet the Taliban as the US seeks to end America’s longest war.
Qatar hosts the Taliban’s political office at the request of the US.
The fifth round of peace talks, which continued for 11 days between February and March, ended without any breakthrough.
In the previous rounds of talks, the two sides agreed on a “draft framework” that included a withdrawal of US troops and discussions of a Taliban commitment that the Afghan territory would not be used by international “terror” groups.
Currently, 14,000 US troops are stationed in the country.
None of the talks, which began in July last year, thus far have included the Afghan government, which the Taliban views as a puppet regime.
That means that even if the US and the Taliban can agree a deal to end the 17-year-old war and a timetable for an eventual troop withdrawal, the rebels must still forge some kind of accord with Afghan politicians and tribal elders before an enduring ceasefire could kick in.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking a second term, seems to have been sidelined from the peace process ahead of the key July presidential elections.
On Monday, Ghani opened a grand council with politicians, tribal, ethnic and religious leaders meeting in Kabul to discuss negotiations with the Taliban.
The four-day gathering, called a Loya Jirga, aims to build consensus among various ethnic groups and tribal factions and is traditionally convened under extraordinary circumstances.
Rising human cost of war
The Doha meetings mark the highest level of negotiations between the two sides since the US ramped up peace efforts last year as the Trump administration is eager to end the war.
Last week, Khalilzad went to Moscow, where Russia and China voiced support for the US plan for a peace deal and stressed the need for an “intra-Afghan dialogue” that would see all sides in Afghanistan at a negotiating table.
The US forces overthrew the Taliban from power in a 2001 invasion for hosting al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US.
Since then, the Taliban has conducted an armed rebellion exacting a heavy toll on Afghan security forces, civilians and US-led NATO forces, with 3,804 civilian killed last year – the deadliest since 2001.
The UN says at least 32,000 civilians have been killed and another 60,000 wounded in the past decade, when it began compiling the data.
In January, the Afghanistan president said that about 45,000 security forces have been killed since 2014.
As the talks continue, the US military stopped tracking the amount of territory controlled or influenced by the Afghan government and rebels, a US watchdog said on Tuesday.