ISLAMABAD (AP) — Four countries __ Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States __ were cloistered away late into the night Monday trying to lay a foundation they hope will eventually lead to peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban fighters. But in the end, the biggest decision that appeared to be reached was to meet again.
Still an Afghan official, who was in the meeting but did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said, "some good progress" was made during what turned out to be a marathon session.
The Taliban were not invited to the talks and a Taliban official, in a rare face-to-face meeting with The Associated Press, said there would be no direct talks with the Afghan government without first talking to the United States.
The final communique, however, seemed to rule that out.
"The participants emphasized the immediate need for direct talks between representatives of the Government of Afghanistan and representatives from Taliban groups in a peace process that aims to preserve Afghanistan's unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity," said the communique.
A small breakaway Taliban group said Monday it was ready for talks. The faction, which emerged following the revelation last year that the Taliban leader and founder Mullah Mohammed Omar had died two years ago, is believed to be relatively small and its absence from the battlefield is unlikely to be a game changer.
The Taliban have stepped up attacks across the country and while they have been unable to hold urban centers, the religious militia has operated in rural areas, often dispensing justice and challenging the government's authority. Afghan security forces have taken heavy casualties, particularly since the withdrawal of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan last year. They complain bitterly about inadequate supplies and still rely heavily on U.S. airpower.
The presence of the U.S. and China together at the table reflects the urgency of getting talks started. China has historically close ties with Pakistan and while there were four countries represented at Monday's talks, Pakistan — which is often accused of harboring Taliban leaders, including the fierce Haqqani group, a U.S.-declared terrorist group — is seen as the key to getting the largest contingent of Taliban fighters to the table.
Imtiaz Gul, whose Center for Research and Security Studies has delved deeply into the Afghan conflict and Pakistan's decades-old involvement, says Pakistan has significant leverage with the Taliban, led by Omar's replacement Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
Militants in both countries are allied, and getting rid of the Haqqanis, for example, could unleash a violent backlash inside Pakistan where the army has been fighting for several years to defeat a coalition of militant groups largely based in its border areas with Afghanistan, Gul said.
That battle has been brutal with thousands of Pakistani soldiers killed and wounded and thousands more Pakistani civilians killed in deadly retaliatory suicide attacks by the militants.
Gul said last month's trip by Pakistan's army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif, who travelled to Afghanistan unaccompanied by the country's powerful ISI intelligence agency, long considered the force behind the Taliban, was a signal the military was ready to move away from past practices and center future policy decisions only at the army headquarters.
Changes won't come quickly, says Gul, "but important for us is to turn the page (from supporting militants) and I think Gen. Raheel Sharif has turned that page."
Though the Taliban were not invited to Monday's talks, a senior Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing exposure and capture, told the AP that two Taliban delegates, currently headquartered in Qatar, will meet "soon" with China's representatives. The meeting, which will also include Pakistan, is to be held in Islamabad, said the official.
Still, there seems little to no chance for early peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The Taliban, struggling to consolidate their leadership council following Omar's death, have drawn their line in the sand: no official talks with Kabul on a peaceful end to their protracted and bloody war until direct talks can be held with the United States.
"We want talks with the Americans first because we consider them a direct party," the Taliban official said in a face-to-face interview with the AP.
The Taliban want recognition of their Qatar office under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name they used when they ruled Afghanistan until they were ousted by the U.S.-led coalition in 2001. They also want the United Nations to remove the Taliban from its wanted list and they want their prisoners released from Afghan jails.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants no part in giving the Taliban official recognition.
Maulvi Shazada Shaeid, a representative on Afghanistan's High Peace Council, tasked with seeking peace with the Taliban, said the distance between the two sides is vast, holding out little hope for peace.
"In the current situation, it is not possible to bring peace," he said.
Associated Press writer Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan contributed to this report.