KABUL - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Afghanistan's president over the weekend to express Washington's disappointment over the indefinite postponement of Afghan talks with the Taliban and to condemn the insurgent's latest "spring offensive,'' according to a statement Monday.
The Afghan-to-Afghan talks were scheduled to start on Friday in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an office, but were scuttled after a falling out over who should attend.
The gathering would have marked the first time that Taliban and Kabul government officials sat together. It was considered a significant first step toward finding a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan, America's longest conflict, and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.
The State Department said Pompeo called President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday over the postponement and also condemned the recent Taliban announcement of starting another offensive this spring.
The announcement itself was just a show of strength since the Taliban have kept up relentless near-daily attacks even during the harsh winter months, inflicting staggering losses on the embattled Afghan military and security forces. Many civilians have also lost their lives in the cross-fire.
In his phone call with Ghani, Pompeo encouraged both sides to agree on participants, saying the talks are Afghanistan's best chance for peace.
Before the postponement, Washington's special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has met on several occasions with the Taliban and has pressed for Afghan-to-Afghan talks, had hoped the Qatar meeting would bring the sides closer to a "roadmap" for a future Afghanistan.
Kabul, which had been sidelined for months from U.S-Taliban talks because the insurgents refuse to talk directly with government officials, had offered a massive delegation of 250 participants, including prominent Afghan figures, government and opposition representatives, as well as others to travel to Qatar.
But the hosts in Doha came back with what they said was a revised acceptable list that drastically reduced the number of women and eliminated all government ministers from the list.
Each side blamed the other for scuttling the talks as violence continued. On the ground, Afghan government forces face not only a resurgent Taliban — who now hold sway over nearly half the country — but also militants from the Islamic State group.
IS on Saturday targeted the Telecommunications Ministry in Kabul, with a suicide bomber striking outside the ministry and clearing the way for gunmen to enter the heavily-guarded compound. At least seven people were killed.
According to a prominent figure on the Kabul list for talks in Qatar, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media, several senior participants on the list had received a call from the president's office warning them they should not express personal opinions at the talks with the Taliban, only speak on behalf of the state.
The Taliban for their part have said they would consider all Afghans at the table only as individuals and not government representatives.
Meanwhile, Ghani is organizing a Loya Jirga — a council of elders that has a voice in Afghan policy — for next week in Kabul.
Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah has refused to attend the grand council, along with several other prominent Afghans who claim it's been hand-picked by the president who is seeking another term in elections in September. Abdullah has also announced he is running in the elections.
Ghani's envoy, Omar Daudzai, said the council would lay out the government's negotiating position for future talks with the Taliban.
The council will be asked to formulate its position on women's rights to education, work and political participation, Daudzai told The Associated Press on Monday.
What the council decides, "that will be our position in negotiations with the Taliban," he said.
Some 2,500 people are to attend the Loya Jirga, many chosen by district and provincial councils. Also attending will be members of Parliament and also representatives from the upper chamber, the Senate, he said.
The elections are non-negotiable and will be held in September, Daudzai said, even though Washington may be worried the vote could further undermine chances of a peace deal with the Taliban.
"A sustainable peace deal after presidential elections is very much possible, but it is close to impossible before presidential elections," said Daudzai.