A Taliban delegation traveled to Uzbekistan earlier this month to discuss the Afghan peace process and withdrawal of foreign forces, officials said on Sunday, as fighting between insurgents and security forces raged near Kabul.
The meetings in Afghanistan’s northern neighbor follow recent reports that the Taliban sent similar delegations to China, illustrating the group’s rising ambitions to engage in independent talks with foreign governments as momentum for a peace settlement in the country builds.
The head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai met with Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdul Aziz Kamilov over a four-day period from Aug. 6, and discussed the “prospects of the peace process in Afghanistan,” the Uzbek foreign ministry said in a statement.
The Taliban said in a separate statement they discussed the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, peace and “future national projects such as security for railroad and power lines.”
Uzbekistan’s special envoy for Afghanistan Ismatulla Irgashev also attended the meetings, officials said.
The talks follow an earlier trip to Uzbekistan by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in late March. The move was welcomed by some in Kabul, where pressure is mounting to engage the insurgents and end the nearly 17-year-old war.
The Taliban have continued to push for direct negotiations with the U.S.—rather than the government in Kabul, which the insurgents see as illegitimate—but have also attempted to build independent contacts with other governments.
“These kind of meetings are going to continue until the real talks begin,” Sayed Ehsan Taheri, a spokesman for the Afghanistan High Peace Council, told AFP.
The Taliban have repeatedly rejected overtures from the Afghan government to join a peace process, as they intensify attacks across the country.
Late Thursday Taliban fighters launched a major assault on the provincial capital of Ghazni, just a two-hour drive south of Kabul.
Anticipation had been mounting about the possibility of a government ceasefire announcement for the Islamic holiday of Eid-ul Azha later this month.
An unprecedented truce in June brought fighting between security forces and the Taliban to a temporary halt, giving war-weary Afghans some welcome relief from violence.
The June ceasefire sparked hopes that an opportunity for peace talks between the government and Taliban may be opening. Later in the month Washington indicated a change in its longstanding policy when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was prepared to “support, facilitate and participate” in talks, opening the way to militants to meet U.S. officials in Qatar.
Pompeo also said the role of foreign forces in Afghanistan would be on the table.