Negotiations between the Taliban and US officials in Qatar entered a fourth straight day Thursday, the militants said, with the "unprecedented" discussions raising expectations as both sides seek a way out of the 17-year Afghan conflict.
The extended talks come more than a month after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of half the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan, in a push to extricate Washington from its longest-ever war, launched in 2001 after the September 11 attacks.
For months the US has been stepping up efforts for a peace deal that could pave the way for the Taliban\’s participation in the next government.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed to AFP Thursday that "discussions are still ongoing". A senior Taliban commander based in Pakistan said they were discussing various aspects of a US withdrawal, and that a statement could be released later Thursday or Friday.
The Pakistan foreign ministry also confirmed that talks were ongoing between the two sides.
There was no confirmation from US officials or NATO in Kabul. The US last confirmed talks on Tuesday, when it said special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was meeting Taliban representatives in Doha.
Discussions could continue for a fifth day Friday, reported Afghan television channel Tolo News.
However President Ashraf Ghani was reserved when asked at the World Economic Forum in Davos if there had been any breakthrough in Doha. "Not in that sense," he replied, without elaborating.
"There\’s discussion. But this discussion needs to be shared back (with the Afghan government)", he continued, adding that if not it "will not last".
Afghan officials in Kabul, who have complained previously about being cut out of the process, said they would have to wait and see if any statement was made before reacting to the talks.
Afghanistan\’s de facto prime minister Abdullah Abdullah voiced frustration at Davos on Wednesday that the Taliban are persisting in excluding his government from negotiations. The insurgents have long branded Kabul authorities "puppets" of Washington.
"(A) peace process cannot take place by proxy," he said.
– \’Unprecedented\’ –
The continuation of the talks in Doha this week represented "unprecedented" progress, Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on the Taliban, said earlier Thursday.
"I have never seen anything like this before," he said.
"This is the first serious effort. And it has continued since July… they have agreed to disagree and continued to meet. That\’s why it\’s unprecedented."
Talks have primarily focused on three major points: the withdrawal of US troops, a vow to prevent Afghan soil from being a base for attacks on other countries, and a potential ceasefire, according to Yusufzai.
Initial progress could come in the form of prisoners\’ release and the removal of Taliban officials from the UN blacklist, he said.
On Thursday the Wall Street Journal cited an anonymous source as saying the Taliban had agreed to oppose Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan\’s Tolo News also reported that the insurgents had pledged not to use Afghanistan\’s soil against the US.
There was no immediate confirmation from the militants or US officials. The US invasion of 2001 was driven by the Taliban\’s harbouring of Al Qaeda, but more than 17 years later the group appears diminished in the region.
Islamic State, however, is a growing and potent presence in Afghanistan, where it is fighting a fierce turf war with the Taliban in some areas.
The talks come after Khalilzad spent the weekend in Pakistan, where he met with Prime Minister Imran Khan as part of a regional tour that saw him shuttling between India, China and Afghanistan.
Russia and Iran have also held meetings with the Taliban in recent months, while China has also made overtures. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan are all participating in the US efforts.