Kabul, Afghanistan – The United States and the Taliban sat down for the highest level of negotiations yet in the Qatari capital Doha aimed at finding a solution to the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was appointed head of the Taliban political office in Qatar last month, arrived late on Sunday from Pakistan, where he had been held for years, a Taliban source in Doha told Al Jazeera ahead of the four-day talks.
The former number two of the Taliban group joined the fifth round of talks between Taliban representatives and US envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who has expressed hope for a peace agreement.
Just finished a working lunch with Mullah Beradar and his team. First time we’ve met. Now moving on to talks.
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) February 25, 2019
The talks have gained momentum in recent months as the US has decided to engage with the Taliban, which has been waging a deadly armed rebellion since the group was removed from power.
The administration of US President Donald Trump seeks to end the 17-year war that has left thousands dead. According to the United Nations, at least 32,000 civilians have been killed and another 60,000 wounded in the last decade, when the organisation began compiling the data.
Peace talks raise hopes
Baradar helped Mullah Omar, who died in 2013, to form the Taliban movement in Afghanistan in 1994.
He fled to Pakistan after the Taliban was toppled by the US-led invasion in 2001. He was arrested during a Pakistani security operation in 2010.
“The talks will pick up from where it was left last time, mainly focusing on US withdrawal of troops,” the Taliban source who is part of the meeting told Al Jazeera.
Previous rounds of peace talks in Doha have raised hopes after the two sides hailed significant progress and agreed on a “draft framework” that included discussions of a Taliban commitment that the Afghan territory would not be used by international “terror” groups.
“We also agreed that any final agreement must guarantee that Afghan soil is never used by international terrorists against any country,” Khalilzad said in a tweet on Friday, referring to a meeting with Russian counterpart in the Turkish capital for talks on efforts to end the war.
There is no timetable for the US withdrawal or ceasefire by the Taliban, both issues that make Afghans concerned about their future.
“We don’t know what will happen once the US troops leave,” Nizar Rehmani, a Kabul resident, told Al Jazeera.
“We have come very far and any discussion or agreements should be aimed at bringing peace to all communities of Afghanistan.”
The Afghan government has been excluded from Doha talks but President Ashraf Ghani said last month that US negotiator has kept him informed of the progress.
Khalilzad is expected to push the Taliban to hold direct talks with the Afghan government in the meeting on Monday.
The Taliban refuses to hold formal talks with the Afghan government, calling it a “US puppet”.
Some 14,000 US troops are based in Afghanistan as part of a US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces.
The move towards peace has picked up in recent months after the Taliban staged near-daily attacks in the country taking a heavy toll on civilians as well as Afghan security forces. The armed group is in control of nearly half the country.
“We have had enough, we want the war to end. We cannot see innocent Afghans dying every day,” Shafiqullah, a Kabul resident who works in a barber shop, told Al Jazeera.
“We want to make Afghanistan a better place, work hard and build the country.”