WASHINGTON/KABUL - The United States and the Taliban have begun a new round of negotiations in Doha, Qatar, in a bid to advance peace efforts in Afghanistan and to urge the insurgent group to participate in an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue.

US special reconciliation envoy Zalmay Khalilzad led the US team Wednesday in talks with insurgent leaders based in the Qatari capital, officials said.

A Taliban official told VOA the discussions would focus on fleshing out “some remaining details” of a preliminary agreement the two sides had reached in their last meeting in early March. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, anticipated further progress in the talks, but would not speculate how long this meeting might last.

“Today Wednesday 1st of May 2019, 6th round of talks will take place between the Negotiation Team of Islamic Emirate [Taliban] & US in Doha,” Zabihullah Mujahed, the group’s spokesman tweeted. “There will be no other side except the US and Taliban representatives in the meeting, but some Qatari officials will remain present as hosts,” said the Taliban spokesman.

The Afghan government has not commented on this short announcement by the insurgent group that has already held five rounds of talks with the US.

Khalilzad meets Mullah Baradar ahead of 6th round of parleys

Khalilzad also confirmed fresh Doha meeting with the Taliban. “Ahead of talks in Doha today, had morning meeting with Indonesian FM Marsudi. Very much appreciate her support for the #AfghanPeaceProcess and compelling offer of assistance. #Indonesia is uniquely poised to contribute,” he tweeted on Wednesday after meeting Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Lestari.

The Indonesian foreign minister also met head of Taliban’s Qatar office Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. “The Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs assured assistance and playing a positive role in resolving the Afghan issue if needed and expressed hope that the Afghan issue finds a speedy logical resolution,” the Taliban spokesman said in a statement.

The insurgent group has underscored the need for finalising an agreement on the withdrawal of US-led foreign troops before it discusses other issues.

Prior to Wednesday’s formal negotiations, Khalilzad met with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy Taliban leader for political affairs and head of the group’s informal office in Doha.

“It is absolutely vital that the two key agenda points of the previous meeting (full withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and preventing Afghanistan from harming others) be finalised,” a Taliban statement quoted Baradar as telling the US chief negotiator. “This will open the way for resolving other aspects of the issue and we cannot enter into other topics before this,” he stressed.

If finalised, the US-Taliban agreement would bind the insurgent group to prevent transnational terrorist networks from using Afghan soil to harm other countries, and Washington in return would agree to a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Khalilzad, however, has repeatedly stated a comprehensive Taliban ceasefire and the rebel group’s participation in intra-Afghan peace discussions would be key to concluding the deal. The Afghan government has been excluded from the dialogue because the insurgent group has maintained from the outset it will not participate in any formal internal Afghan peace discussions until Washington agrees and announces a foreign troop withdrawal timeline.

Wednesday’s talks came as a four-day “Consultative Peace Loya Jirga” is underway in Kabul to debate the framework for negotiations with the Taliban. The assembly, which began Monday, was convened by President Ashraf Ghani, but most of the candidates contesting upcoming presidential elections have boycotted the meeting. They called it electioneering by Ghani, who is also seeking election in the September 28 polls.

Afghan presidential envoy, Umer Daudzai, Wednesday dismissed the criticism, saying the peace process is the focus of what he described as “the biggest” and “the most inclusive” Loya Jirga of the history of Afghanistan.

Daudzai explained US-led peace efforts had generated a debate inside the country and those widespread debates needed to be provided with a national “direction and platform” to help the peace process.

“There was no other mechanism than Loya Jirga to bring all those debates together to turn it into one grand debate that will transform into a list of recommendations to the Afghan state and to international community, and perhaps to the Taliban,” the presidential envoy noted.

The Taliban have already rejected the assembly as a ploy to help Ghani extend his rule and damage the group’s ongoing peace talks with America.

Prior to his arrival in Qatar, Ambassador Khalilzad held talks with leaders in Pakistan and sought their help to convince the Taliban to participate in intra-Afghan talks. The Doha meetings mark the highest level of negotiations between the two sides since the US ramped up peace efforts last year as the Trump administration is eager to end the war.

Last week, Khalilzad went to Moscow, where Russia and China voiced support for the US plan for a peace deal and stressed the need for an “intra-Afghan dialogue” that would see all sides in Afghanistan at a negotiating table.