U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met with one of the Afghan Taliban's co-founders in Qatar, in what was said to be the highest-level engagement between the two sides as part of Afghanistan's peace process.
"Just finished a working lunch with Mullah [Abdul Ghani Baradar] and his team. First time we'’ve met. Now moving on to talks" aimed at finding a negotiated solution to Afghanistan's 17-year war, Khalilzad tweeted on February 25.
Baradar was released in October after spending eight years in Pakistani custody, but until now has remained in Pakistan and has not made any public appearances.
His appointment as the Taliban’s political chief was widely seen as marking a new push by the militant group to achieve political and diplomatic legitimacy.
"Arrived in Doha to meet with a more authoritative Taliban delegation. This could be a significant moment," Khalilzad wrote on Twitter earlier in the day.
A statement released by the Taliban late February 25 said their negotiating team would continue to be led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, while Baradar would provide "instructions" when needed.
Meanwhile, Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the militants' political office, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that Taliban and U.S. negotiators held “introductory talks” on February 25.
Shaheen said official talks will begin on February 26.
Meanwhile, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the Associated Press that there was "a possibility we will reach some results" during the planned four-day talks.
The BBC quoted an unidentified senior Taliban figure as saying that Baradar's authority within the group to make decisions could help "speed up the peace process."
The Taliban, which now reportedly controls nearly half of Afghanistan, has held a series of direct talks with Khalilzad in recent months.
However, the militant group has so far refused to hold direct talks with Afghan officials, calling them "puppets."
During their previous round of talks in Doha in January, U.S. and Taliban negotiators reached the basic framework of a possible peace deal.
The agreement calls for the Taliban to prevent international terrorist groups from basing themselves in Afghanistan and for the United States to withdraw its forces from the country.
U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since an October 2001 invasion that brought down the Taliban government after it refused to hand over Al-Qaeda extremists, including Osama bin Laden, blamed for launching the September 11 attacks in the United States.