US envoy meets with Taliban kingpin ahead of new talks

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met with one of the founders of the Taliban for the first time on Monday ahead of the latest round of talks with the insurgents aimed at ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the movement, was released last year from a Pakistani prison where he had been held since his arrest in a joint Pakistani-CIA operation in 2010. His release was seen as a first concession to the Taliban after Khalilzad’s appointment in September and the start of his talks with the insurgents.

Baradar arrived on Sunday in Doha, the capital of Qatar, from Pakistan. His presence in Doha, where the Taliban maintain a political office, and his lead role in the talks with Khalilzad is considered significant because of his stature within the Taliban, who control over nearly half of Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid raised expectations ahead of talks with Khalilzad, telling The Associated Press “there is a possibility we will reach some results.”

The U.S. and the Taliban have made “significant progress” but there are still roadblocks to a full agreement.

Following his release, Baradar had circulated an audio tape promising Taliban fighters he would have a greater presence within the movement.

Khalilzad described the Taliban interlocutors in this round of talks as “more authoritative” — an apparent reference to Baradar — and tweeted that this could be “a significant moment” in the talks. He also gave a shoutout to Qatar for hosting the talks and to Pakistan for facilitating some of the Taliban delegation’s travel.

Khalilzad also tweeted about his luncheon meeting with Baradar, saying it was his first meeting with the Taliban co-founder.

The Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent Kabul-based research organization, notes “Baradar is a highly experienced military commander and keen political strategist and played a major role in organizing the insurgency in its formative years.”

Past rounds of talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban have focused on the withdrawal of American troops in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan will not be used again as a staging area for attacks on the United States. The U.S. envoy is also expected to pressure the Taliban to hold direct talks with the Kabul government.