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A meeting between US officials and Taliban members in Qatar has raised hopes for peace in Afghanistan, but it also undermines the Afghan government's writ. Is the US willing to pay this price for Taliban talks?
Last week, a delegation led by Alice Wells, US deputy assistant secretary of state, held talks with representatives of the Afghan Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in a bid to kick-start peace negotiations and end the protracted Afghan conflict.
A Taliban official who participated in talks told Reuters news agency there were "very positive signs from the meeting," which, according to him, was conducted in a "friendly atmosphere."
The meeting, however, "could not be called peace talks," Taliban officials said, but admitted it could pave the way for future direct talks with Washington.
The Afghan government has repeatedly invited the Taliban to take part in peace negotiations, but the militant group has maintained it will only engage in direct talks with the US as it is Washington, not Kabul, that can take any decision on their demands.
Despite its willingness to talk to the Taliban, the US emphasizes that the Afghan peace process must be led by Afghans themselves.
More trouble for President Ghani
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has not left any stone unturned to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. He even offered to recognize the militant group as a political party and showed willingness to amend the Afghan constitution to make this happen. But his offers have been turned down by the Taliban. The militants only agreed to a three-day ceasefire last month during the Muslim festival of Eid, but did not extend the truce despite Kabul's request.
Ghani has repeatedly stated that only an Afghan-led peace process could bring stability to the war-ravaged country. But the US-Taliban talks in Qatar have put Afghan authorities in a difficult position.
Afghan officials say they were aware of the Doha meeting between Taliban and US diplomats.
"We have knowledge of the meeting but its purpose was not to start direct US-Taliban talks," said Ihsanullah Tahiri, spokesman for Afghan High Peace Council, a government body tasked with reaching out to the Taliban for peace negotiations.
"Our American allies are helping the process but peace talks will be led by the Afghan government," Tahiri added.
But some experts say Kabul is exaggerating its role in the ongoing efforts.
"In the past few weeks, many US officials visited Kabul and met former Taliban members. I was present in some of the meetings and we were told that the US was willing to talk directly to the Taliban without Kabul's involvement," Wahid Muzhdah, a Kabul-based defense analyst and a former Taliban member, told DW.
Experts say that if the Trump administration continues to directly purse the Taliban, it would further undermine the writ of the Afghan government.
"The US might be willing to compromise the credibility of the incumbent Afghan government to secure peace in Afghanistan," Sadiq Patman, a former Ghani aide, told DW.
A change in strategy
The Doha meeting marks a drastic shift in Washington's Afghan peace strategy. If preliminary talks continue, they could eventually lead to direct negotiations between the Taliban and the US. At the same time, it will push the Afghan government to the sidelines.
The policy shift, according to Muzhdah, came after US officials realized that President Donald Trump's Afghanistan strategy has not yielded the desired results.
After becoming president, Trump increased the number of US troops in Afghanistan, arguing that Taliban insurgents must be pressured into engaging in talks. But the Taliban have continued to expand their control over Afghan territories.
"The US wants to achieve something in Afghanistan. Also, US diplomats fear that President Trump could take drastic measures if peace initiatives fail," Muzhdah said.
A complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan is one of the Taliban's major preconditions for peace talks, but it seems the militants have softened their stance on that.
According to Muzhdah, the Taliban are now demanding that the US set a date for the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.
"The Taliban want the international community to guarantee that the US will pullout of Afghanistan once a peace agreement is reached," Muzhdah said.