(Reuters) – Senior Pakistani army, Afghan and diplomatic officials said on Thursday the Afghan Taliban had signalled they were willing to open peace talks with Kabul.
The reports raised hopes for a breakthrough in peace efforts following the withdrawal of most U.S.-led troops last year, and of a boost for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The renewed push for negotiations appeared to be driven by evolving relationships betweenAfghanistan, Pakistan and China, which recently offered to help broker talks.
On Thursday, a senior Pakistani military official said Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, told Ghani during a visit this week the Taliban were willing to begin negotiations as early as March.
“They have expressed their willingness and there will be progress in March. But these things are not so quick and easy,” the official, who is close to the army chief, told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“But there are very clear signals … and we have communicated it to the Afghans. Now many things are with the Afghans and they are serious.”
Taliban representatives including official spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid cast doubt on the possibility of talks, saying they still opposed negotiations. The group has repeatedly said it will talk to the United States but not the Kabul government.
A senior member of the Afghan Taliban said by telephone from Qatar their negotiators would hold a first round of talks with U.S. officials in Qatar on Thursday.
But U.S. officials in Washington denied the United States was holding talks, direct or indirect, with the Taliban. A White House spokeswoman said the United States remained supportive of an Afghan-led reconciliation process in which the Taliban and the Afghan government engaged in talks.