KABUL -- The Afghan government sent a peace negotiations team to Abu Dhabi on Tuesday (December 18), a day after US and Taliban representatives held talks there aimed at ending the 17-year conflict.
"The Afghan negotiating team (@AFGNEGTeam), led by chief negotiator Abdul Salam Rahimi, arrived in Abu Dhabi to begin proximity dialogue with the Taliban delegation and to prepare for a face-to-face meeting between the two sides," Afghan presidential spokesman Haroon Chakhansuri tweeted.
Rahimi met with US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and will meet with representatives from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week, he said.
The Afghan government's 12-person negotiation team was first announced November 28 by President Ashraf Ghani as part of a diplomatic effort to bring the Taliban to the table for peace talks with the government in Kabul.
Taliban, US representatives meet
The Taliban issued a statement Tuesday saying talks were strictly between Taliban and US representatives "about ending the occupation", denying that Taliban officials would meet with representatives from the Afghan government.
"We once again reject these reports," the statement said, calling such reports "propaganda" and "unfounded".
"Our countrymen should not pay any heed to the rumours and speculations of various Kabul administration officials and organs," the statement said.
The US government did not confirm direct meetings between Khalilzad and the Taliban in Abu Dhabi, AFP reported.
Late Monday (December 17), Washington said meetings were ongoing in the UAE "to promote an intra-Afghan dialogue toward ending the conflict" and that Khalilzad was in the region.
Khalilzad "has in the past met and will continue to meet with all interested parties, including the Taliban, to support a negotiated settlement to the conflict", the statement said.
Khalilzad, who has expressed hopes for a deal to be in place before Afghanistan's presidential election scheduled for April next year, has made several trips to the region since his appointment in September.
On this trip, the State Department said he was also visiting Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Qatar and Belgium, where he tweeted that he had met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Optimistic for peace
The international community has been optimistic about the possibility of talks.
"The potential for peace is greater now than it has been in many years," Stoltenberg said during a joint news conference with Ghani November 6 in Kabul. "The Taliban must understand that continuing the fight is pointless and counterproductive."
Tadamichi Yamamoto, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said a negotiated end to the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan "has never been more real…than it is now".
"The key next step would be for representatives of the [Afghan] government and the Taliban to meet, or at least to formally initiate what in mediation is referred to as talks about talks," he told the UN Security Council in New York December 17.
"All international efforts, including those by regional actors and neighbours, need to be in concert and aligned with the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace efforts," he said.
The Abu Dhabi talks included envoys from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Voice of America (VOA) reported.
"Along with with international community and other stakeholders, Pakistan is committed to peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan," Mohammed Faisal, spokesperson for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, tweeted December 16. "We hope this will end bloodshed in Afghanistan and bring peace to the region."
"We welcome any actions the Pakistani government takes to advance security, stability and co-operation in South Asia, including the fostering of negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government and other Afghans," a US State Department spokesperson told VOA.
The Abu Dhabi talks follow failed peace talks in Moscow last month, which did not include representatives from Afghanistan's National Unity Government (NUG) or the United States.
It is the first time in three years that Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives both attended a meeting about negotiations, a senior Pakistani government official told VOA on condition of anonymity.
"This is a feat much more important in its impact than the Russians' initial success to bring the Taliban to table without NUG," the official said.