First round of resurrected US-Taliban peace talks open in Qatar
The United States has resumed talks with the Taliban in Qatar, three months after President Donald Trump abruptly halted diplomatic efforts that could end the US's longest war.
US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on Saturday held the first official talks since September with the Afghan group in Qatar's capital, Doha, a US State Department spokesperson said.
The renewed talks were expected to pave the way for direct talks between the Taliban and the government in Kabul and, ultimately, a possible peace agreement after more than 18 years of war. "The US rejoined talks today in Doha. The focus of discussion will be reduction of violence that leads to intra-Afghan negotiations and a ceasefire," said the spokesperson.
The meetings in Doha, where the Taliban maintains a political office, follow several days of talks in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, where Khalilzad met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The Taliban has so far refused direct talks with Ghani, calling him a "US puppet".
During a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to a US military base in Afghanistan last month, Trump said the Taliban "wants to make a deal".
Even during the stall in talks, Khalilzad has in recent weeks made a whistle-stop tour of nations with a stake in Afghan peace, including Pakistan.
He recently arranged a captive swap in which the Taliban released an American and an Australian academic whom they had held hostage for three years.
Meanwhile, the US military in its daily report said overnight on Saturday that US air attacks killed 37 members of the armed group and operations by the Afghan National Security Forces killed 22 other rebels.
The Taliban, which now holds sway over nearly half of Afghanistan, has continued to carry out near-daily attacks against military outposts throughout the country.
Trump has expressed frustration with the US's longest war, repeatedly saying he wants to bring the estimated 12,000 American soldiers home and calling on Afghanistan's own police and military to step up.
Afghan election standoff
Meanwhile, the Afghan government is embroiled in a fresh election standoff. Presidential polls on September 28 ended in accusations of misconduct and corruption, with no results yet announced.
Repeat leading contender and Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah has challenged the recounting of several hundred thousand ballots, accusing his opponent Ghani of trying to manipulate the tally.
Ghani leads the Afghan government with Abdullah in a power-sharing agreement brokered by the US after the presidential election in 2014 was so deeply mired in corruption that a clear winner could not be determined
To head off a conflict, Washington stepped in and forced the two leading candidates - Ghani and Abdullah - to share power in a so-called Unity Government that has been largely paralysed because of the relentless bickering between the two leaders.