US envoy meets with Taliban officials in Qatar: report
The top US envoy for South Asia has met with Taliban officials for peace talks in Qatar, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.
Alice Wells, the senior official for the State Department's Bureau of South and Central Asia Affairs, met with the Taliban this week to try to find a new path toward ending Afghanistan's 17-year conflict, the Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
A member of the Taliban's leadership council -- the Quetta Shura -- confirmed to AFP that members of the militant group had met with US officials in Doha on Monday.
The Taliban leader did not name Wells but said "a woman" was in the US delegation.
The first round of talks was aimed at building trust between the two sides, he told AFP. The next meeting, which could happen as early at July 31, would be "more important."
The State Department did not directly confirm the Journal report, but noted Wells had been in Doha this week, where she met with Qatari government officials "to discuss recent progress towards an Afghan-owned, and Afghan-led peace process."
Officials noted they did not have any other meetings to describe "at this time" and said the US "is exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government."
"Ambassador Wells welcomed the Qatari government's constructive partnership and dedication to Afghanistan, and expressed the deep US appreciation for efforts to reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict," a State Department statement read.
An unprecedented three-day ceasefire involving Afghan security forces and the Taliban last month had raised hopes that peace was possible in the war-torn country.
But fighting resumed and Western and Afghan observers in Kabul have said the United States needs to speak directly to the Taliban to keep momentum going.
The Taliban have long insisted on direct talks with the United States, which Washington has repeatedly refused, saying negotiations must be Afghan-led.
The group refuses to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they see as illegitimate.
But Washington indicated a change in its long-standing policy in June when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was prepared to "support, facilitate and participate" in talks.
Pompeo also said the role of foreign forces in Afghanistan would be on the table.
The Journal, citing US officials, said the Doha talks fully included the Afghan government.
As recently as last week, US officials were denying reports they were ready to speak directly to the Taliban.
The Taliban has established a political office in Qatar that serves as a de-facto embassy.