US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Afghan government and Taliban negotiators in Doha Saturday, but there was no announcement of any breakthrough as Washington accelerates its military withdrawal.
Pompeo's visit came in the wake of a rocket attack which struck densely populated areas of Kabul, killing at least eight people in the latest outbreak of violence in the Afghan capital. The Taliban denied responsibility and the Islamic State group claimed the deadly strike.
Pompeo met separately with the Afghan government and Taliban negotiation teams in a luxury hotel in the Qatari capital with his encounter with the radical Islamist insurgents lasting over an hour.
"I would be most interested in getting your thoughts on how we can increase the probability of a successful outcome", Pompeo said as he met the Afghan government side, noting the shared interest in such a scenario.
He also met Qatar's ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, and Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, the foreign minister, on his stop in Doha, which is the Taliban's base for diplomacy.
But there was no announcement of any breakthrough in talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, ahead of Pompeo's departure.
He flew on to Abu Dhabi for the next leg of his seven-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East, as President Donald Trump shores up late-term priorities.
Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation, told AFP the government and the Taliban were "very close" to breaking a deadlock in talks.
"We are close, we are very close. Hopefully we pass this phase and get to the substantial issues" including security, he said during a visit to Turkey.
Earlier this week, the Pentagon said it would soon pull some 2,000 troops out of Afghanistan, speeding up the timeline established in a February agreement between Washington and the Taliban that envisions a full US withdrawal in mid-2021.
Trump has repeatedly vowed to end "forever wars", including in Afghanistan, America's longest-ever conflict that began with an invasion to dislodge the Taliban following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
President-elect Joe Biden, in a rare point of agreement with Trump, also advocates winding down the Afghanistan war, although analysts believe he will not be as wedded to a rapid withdrawal.
The Taliban are speaking to Afghanistan's government for the first time.
The talks started on September 12 in Doha but almost immediately faltered over disagreements about the agenda, the basic framework of discussions and religious interpretations.
Several sources told AFP on Friday that the two sides appear to have resolved some of the issues, however.
Among the sticking points so far, the Taliban and the Afghan government have struggled to agree on common language on two main issues.
The Taliban, who are Sunni hardliners, are insisting on adherence to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, but government negotiators say this could be used to discriminate against Hazaras, who are predominantly Shiite, and other minorities.
Another contentious topic is how the US-Taliban deal will shape a future Afghan peace deal and how it will be referred to.
The Doha peace talks opened after the Taliban and Washington signed a deal in February, with the US agreeing to withdraw all foreign forces in exchange for security guarantees and a Taliban promise to start talks.
Despite the talks, violence has surged across Afghanistan, with the Taliban stepping up daily attacks against Afghan security forces.
Trump's plan to slash troops by January 15 — less than a week before his successor Joe Biden is to be sworn in to office — has been criticised in Afghanistan.
Saturday's strike on the Afghan capital saw a barrage of rockets slam into various parts of central and north Kabul — including in and around the heavily fortified Green Zone that houses embassies and international firms.
The Islamic State group said in a statement that 28 Katyusha rockets had been fired by "soldiers of the caliphate".
Afghanistan's Interior ministry spokesman Tariq Arian had earlier blamed the Taliban, saying "terrorists" had fired a total of 23 rockets. However, the Taliban denied responsibility, saying they "do not blindly fire on public places.