Kabul: Afghanistan’s most prominent peace envoy held secret talks with former Taliban officials in China last week, accelerating regional efforts to bring the insurgency to the negotiating table, according to individuals briefed on the matter by the warring parties.

The two-day meeting, which took place in the northwestern Chinese city of Urumqi, was aimed at discussing preconditions for a possible peace process, those people said.

“These were talks about talks,” one diplomat said.

The meeting was significant for another reason: It was facilitated by Pakistan’s intelligence agency in an apparent show of goodwill aimed at a negotiated solution to the insurgency.

People familiar with the meeting said Chinese officials and representatives of Pakistan’s spy agency—the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI—also attended the talks on May 19 and 20 in Urumqi, the capital of China’s western Xinjiang region. Chinese and Pakistani officials weren’t immediately reachable for comment.

Members of Afghanistan’s peace-negotiating body frequently hold informal meetings with the Taliban, but such high-level interactions are unusual.

The meetings come after a months long diplomatic outreach led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to reset ties with Pakistan after years of frosty relations in a bid to revive talks aimed at ending Afghanistan’s 13-year war.

Pakistan’s support is widely seen as critical for a peace process to work. Much of the Taliban leadership has been based in Pakistan since 2001, and its fighters have used the lawless border areas between the two countries as an operational base.

Afghan and Western officials have long accused Pakistan of effectively controlling the Taliban insurgency, an allegation Islamabad has repeatedly denied even as it acknowledges it has some influence over the movement.

The location of the meeting is also key. In recent months, China has moved closer to the role of mediator in the Afghan conflict, interacting more with the Kabul government and the Taliban insurgency to discuss the possibility of starting peace talks. The Urumqi meeting signals the Chinese diplomatic outreach may be gaining traction.

Past efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table have failed. In June 2013, the Taliban opened a political office in the Gulf emirate of Qatar as part of a U.S.-backed effort to start formal talks. That effort collapsed after the Taliban opened an office with the trappings of a government-in-exile, infuriating then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The Afghan delegation in China was led by Mohammad Masoom Stanikzai, who until last week was the most prominent member of the High Peace Council, the country’s peace-negotiating body. Mr. Stanikzai was nominated on Thursday as minister of defense, a position that needs parliamentary approval. He wasn’t immediately available to comment on the meeting in China.

Mohammad Asem, a former lawmaker and associate of Mr. Ghani’s coalition partner, Abdullah Abdullah, also participated in the Urumqi meeting.

The three former senior Taliban officials who attended—Mullah Abdul Jalil, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Rahmani and Mullah Abdul Razaq— are based in Pakistan and they are close to the Taliban’s Quetta-based leadership council.

Maulvi Qalamuddin, a former top Taliban official, said the meeting represented a very-high level effort to discuss peace.

“These people are more important than those in Qatar,” said Mr. Qalamuddin, who is now a member of the High Peace Council. “These talks are held secretly, and only a few people know about it.”

It is far from clear, however, whether the talks in Urumqi could lead to formal negotiations. In an official communication on Sunday evening, the Taliban denied the meeting took place. But the group frequently makes public denials about peace overtures, while privately confirming outreach.

People familiar with the movement said the three Taliban who attended the China talks have strong ties to Pakistan’s spy agency, and that they are not authorized to speak on behalf on the insurgency about reconciliation.

“They are all very close to the ISI and they have no mandate from the leadership to talk about peace,” said a person briefed on the meeting.

The Taliban have previously said that only the members of the group’s Qatar-based political commission are allowed to participate in peace-related efforts. Earlier this month, members of the commission held informal discussions with Afghan officials and civic activists in Qatar, an effort that participants said could eventually pave the way to a formal peace process.

A peace deal is still distant, however. The Taliban are pressing a countrywide offensive that is causing high casualties on both sides, and the fighting is unlikely to end soon. The insurgency still insists that all foreign troops should leave Afghanistan as a precondition for negotiations to begin.

The Urumqi meeting took place days after the ISI signed an agreement aimed at improving intelligence cooperation with Afghanistan’s spy agency, the National Directorate of Security.

But Pakistan—and its intelligence apparatus in particular—is viewed with deep mistrust by Afghans.

News of the deal provoked a dramatic backlash in Afghanistan, dividing the country’s political leadership and leading to accusations the Kabul government had sold out Afghanistan’s national interest to an enemy.

Courtesy Wall Street Journal