DOHA -- US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad Monday (February 25) met with the Taliban's top political leader in Doha, in what is believed to be the highest level engagement between the US and the Taliban since the months-long peace push began.
Khalilzad tweeted that he and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, had held a "working lunch" ahead of a fresh round of talks with the insurgent group as the United States seeks a way out of its longest war.
"Now the work begins in earnest," tweeted Khalilzad before his talks with Baradar.
The latest round of negotiations follows six days of talks in Doha last month that sparked hopes of a breakthrough.
Then, the two sides walked away with a "draft framework" that included a Taliban vow to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for international terror groups.
Baradar arrived in Qatar late Sunday (February 24), according to a Taliban spokesman.
It remained unclear what role Baradar will have during the talks, but the presence of the influential leader widely believed to carry popular support across the Taliban's myriad factions set expectations high.
"The fact that Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar is attending the talks shows both sides are serious this time," Kabul-based analyst Ahmad Sayeedi told AFP.
Afghan special envoy for peace Mohammad Umer Daudzai also lauded Baradar's participation, saying the insurgent leader was known for being "independent" and making "tough decisions".
"[I] hope he uses his independence to decide on peace as soon as possible," Daudzai told a news conference in Kabul.
Baradar was arrested in Pakistan in 2010 but was released last October and became head of the Taliban's political office in Doha.
He was long considered the number two to Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar, who died in 2013.
Meanwhile, the government in Kabul reiterated its calls for direct talks with the Taliban.
"The Taliban are still not ready to talk to the Afghan government, but we are ready. We think that the Taliban's dishonesty is the only obstacle," said Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive, in a televised address Monday.
"We are flexible and ready to make a team that is acceptable to all."