ISLAMABAD - There are signs of progress in the ongoing peace talks between the United States and the Taliban in Qatar, leading some to think they could set the stage for a politically negotiated settlement to the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan.
The talks opened Monday with the U.S. team led by Washington's special representative for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. Pakistani and Qatari envoys also are present.
As the discussions entered a fourth day Thursday, highly placed sources told VOA the two sides have covered "significant" ground in their bid to reach an understanding on the two most difficult issues being negotiated in Doha, the capital of the Gulf state, where the Afghan insurgent group operates its political office.
The Taliban announced at the outset that its representatives would be seeking a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. and NATO-led foreign troops from Afghanistan, while the Taliban side would give assurances that Afghan soil would not be used to threaten the United States or any other country.
Sources anticipate the Taliban could announce a temporary cease-fire in the event of progress on its key demand of a foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The peace dialogue started last summer and Pakistan reiterated Thursday it has brought the two sides to the table to help find a peaceful end to the increasingly bloody Afghan war. Islamabad insists it has convinced the Taliban to engage in a productive dialogue with the U.S. and the two negotiating teams would be solely responsible for its "success or failure."
A Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed Pakistan is represented at the talks but gave no further details about any possible breakthrough.
"Pakistan, as part of its shared responsibility, is facilitating the ongoing round of talks between [the] U.S. and the Taliban in Doha. Negotiations are between the two parties, that is the U.S. and the Taliban. Pakistan and Qatar are providing the necessary support and are facilitating the talks," Mohammad Faisal noted.
Faisal insisted that “taking the Afghan peace process forward remained a shared responsibility.” He went on to say that “ultimately the intra-Afghan dialogue would be vital to agree upon the contours of a future Afghan policy where Afghanistan becomes a stable and prosperous country and at peace with its neighbors.”
It remains unclear whether U.S. negotiators have persuaded Taliban representatives to engage in direct talks with the government. The militants have long opposed recognizing the elected government, insisting it is illegitimate.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also have played their role in influencing the insurgents, and their representatives were present in the last round of U,S.-Taliban talks hosted by Abu Dhabi in December.
Diplomatic sources privy to the current negotiations tell VOA that because the U.S. has already shown willingness to draw down troops from Afghanistan, they believe "the Taliban will also have to concede something for an agreement" to move the process forward. If the Doha dialogue secures "even a limited conditional cease-fire," the sources say, it would be a major development because it will "practically make a political reconciliation process irreversible."
New head of Qatar office
Meanwhile, in what some observers call a significant development to win support of military commanders on the ground, the Taliban appointed its co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as the new head of the Qatar political office conducting the meetings with Khalilzad.
A spokesman for the insurgent group, Zabihullah Mujahid, announced late Thursday that the induction of Baradar is meant to "strengthen and properly handle the ongoing negotiations" with the American side. Additionally, Baradar will also serve as the deputy political affairs to Taliban chief Hibatullah Akundzada, Mujahid wrote in a statement released to media.
"With the appointment of the esteemed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the negotiation team of the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban) will continue their talks with the United States and will not bring about any change," noted the Taliban spokesman.
Baradar hails from southern Afghanistan and he is still believed to be highly respected among the Taliban. He had been under United Nations financial and travel sanctions since February 2001.
The Taliban spokesman claimed that besides Baradar's appointment, the Taliban leadership has made “multiple changes” in its military and civilian departments “so that the ongoing jihadi process and political efforts can develop positively.”
Baradar, a former Taliban military commander and close associate of the Islamist group's founding leader Mullah Omar, had been in Pakistan's custody for more than eight years before he was set free last October at Washington's request, hoping his involvement in direct peace talks with the insurgent group would boost the peace process.
The senior Afghan insurgent leader was captured in 2010 in a joint raid by Pakistani and American security operatives against his hideout in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. He was the group's second-in-command at the time of his arrest.