KABUL/BAGHDAD - Direct talks between the Taliban and an Afghan negotiating team that will include top government officials will take place after the United States concludes its own “agreements” with the group, according to the US special envoy for Afghanistan.

The comments by Zalmay Khalilzad on Sunday came after Abdul Salam Rahimi, Afghanistan’s state minister for peace affairs, said that a 15-member government delegation would meet the Taliban within the next fortnight in Europe, without elaborating.

“We are preparing for direct talks. We are working with all sides and hope that in the next two weeks the first meeting will take place in a European country,” Rahimi said in a video message published on Saturday.

Khalilzad, who is currently visiting Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, said later on Twitter that the “intra-Afghan” talks would include the Taliban and “an inclusive and effective national negotiating team consisting of senior government officials, key political party representatives, civil society and women”.

Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman, confirmed Khalilzad’s comments, telling news agencies that any new talks would only begin after a deal had been forged with the US, and he reiterated the armed group’s long-held position that they would “not talk to the Kabul administration as a government”.

Gen Dunford welcomes higher degree of positive statements from Islamabad

“Intra-Afghan talks will start only after a foreign force withdrawal is announced,” said Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar.

GEN DUNFORD OPTIMISTIC

ABOUT AFGHAN PEACE

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Military Gen Joe Dunford has said higher degree of positive statements are coming out of Islamabad about the Afghan reconciliation process.

Gen Dunford made the remarks during an interaction with a small group of reporters in Baghdad.

He said there were several factors coming together that gave reason to believe that there might be a window of opportunity now for intra-Afghan dialogue and reconciliation. “There’s a higher degree of positive statements coming out of Islamabad about reconciliation than we have seen,” Gen Dunford was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Furthermore, Gen Dunford said “There is good momentum in Doha right now with follow-on schedules for intra-Afghan dialogue.”

He also added that “We’re all cautiously optimistic, in the sense that Ambassador Khalilzad is now doing something we haven’t seen in the entire time that we’ve been deployed to Afghanistan.”

The Taliban have been holding peace talks with the US for nearly a year, but refused to meet with the government, viewing it as a US puppet.

The eighth round of US-Taliban talks will take place next week in Qatar’s capital, Doha, aiming to end the near 18-year military involvement of the US in Afghanistan.

Washington has said it wants to see a deal inked by September 1, but any deal requires the Taliban to talk to Kabul.

Diplomatic sources told a foreign newswire that the talks were scheduled to begin in Norway’s capital Oslo on August 7. The sources also said the international community and the Afghan government were still awaiting word from the Taliban.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed in a telephone conversation on Wednesday that “now is the time to accelerate efforts to reach a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan”, according to a joint statement.

Habib Wardak, a lecturer of government and politics at Kardan University in Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera from Kabul that “the government feels left out” as the Taliban holds talks with the US. “As he seeks re-election for another five years, President Ghani wanted to show that peace has some level of priority, not just the elections. I think that was the whole point of it [the direct talks announcement],” he said.

VP OFFICE ATTACKED

The office of the second vice presidential candidate for President Ghani’s election campaign in Kabul came under attack by at least four attackers on Sunday evening, Tolo News reported.

The attack started with a car bombing followed by gunbattle by four attackers, Ministry of Interior’s spokesman Nusrat Rahimi confirmed.

The attackers targeted the Green Trend office, a political movement run by former NDS chief and vice-presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh.

Rahimi said that Saleh was “evacuated from the building and moved to a safe location.” He said that while the gunbattle was still ongoing, the first and second floors of the building had been cleared by security forces.

At least 40 people who were stuck inside the building were rescued during the clearance operation, Rahimi said.

At least three police officers were killed and a dozen more were wounded on Saturday when a Taliban suicide bomber drove an explosives-packed, US-made armoured vehicle into a compound in eastern Afghanistan, officials said.

On Thursday, three blasts rocked Kabul, killing at least 10 people and wounding scores more, even as US and Afghan officials pledged to speed up their efforts to reach a negotiated settlement.