Zalmay Khalilzad meets Taliban leader

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The presence of Mullah Baradar will add extra heft to the dialogue process

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met with the Taliban’s top political leader in Doha on Monday, in what is believed to be the highest level engagement between the U.S. and the Taliban since the months-long peace push began.

Mr. Khalilzad tweeted that he and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Islamist movement, had held a “working lunch” ahead of a fresh round of talks with the insurgent group as the U.S. seeks a way out of its longest war.

Close to chief

The arrival in Qatar late on Sunday of Mr. Baradar, seen as close to Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, has helped fuel speculation of a breakthrough.

Marathon talks last month saw the two sides walk away with a “draft framework” that included a Taliban vow to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for international terror groups.

There was no accord on a U.S. withdrawal or a ceasefire, however, issues which have derailed attempts at peace talks in the past, while the government in Kabul has voiced increasingly loud fears it was being sidelined from the talks. “Arrived in #Doha to meet with a more authoritative Taliban delegation. This could be a significant moment. Appreciate #Qatar for hosting & #Pakistan in facilitating travel. Now the work begins in earnest,” Khalilzad had tweeted.

He later posted: “Just finished a working lunch with Mullah Baradar and his team. First time we’ve met. Now moving on to talks.”

It remained unclear what role Mr. Baradar would have during the talks, but the presence of the influential leader widely believed to carry popular support across the Taliban’s myriad factions set expectations high.

Afghan special envoy for peace Mohammad Omar Daudzai also lauded Mr. Baradar’s participation, saying the insurgent leader was known for being “independent” and making “tough decisions”.

Mr. Baradar was long considered the number two to Taliban chief Mullah Omar, who died in 2013. Now he is one of several deputies to Mr. Akhundzada.

Meanwhile the government in Kabul continued to voice concerns on Monday over being sidelined in the negotiations. “The Taliban are still not ready to talk to Afghan government, but we are ready. We think that Taliban’s dishonesty is the only obstacle,” said Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s de-facto Prime Minister, in a televised address on Monday. “We are flexible and ready to make a team that is acceptable to all.”

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