US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met with the Taliban's top political leader in Doha Monday, in what is believed to be the highest level engagement between the US and the Taliban since the months-long peace push began.
Khalilzad tweeted that he and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a cofounder of the Islamist movement, had held a "working lunch" ahead of a fresh round of talks with the insurgent group as the US seeks a way out of its longest war.
The arrival in Qatar late Sunday of Baradar, seen as close to Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, has helped fuel speculation of a breakthrough.
Marathon talks last month saw the two sides walk away with a "draft framework" that included a Taliban vow to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for international terror groups.
There was no accord on a US withdrawal or a ceasefire, however, issues which have derailed attempts at peace talks in the past, while the government in Kabul has voiced increasingly loud fears it was being sidelined from the talks.
"Arrived in #Doha to meet with a more authoritative Taliban delegation. This could be a significant moment. Appreciate #Qatar for hosting & #Pakistan in facilitating travel. Now the work begins in earnest," Khalilzad had tweeted.
He later posted: "Just finished a working lunch with Mullah Beradar and his team. First time we've met. Now moving on to talks."
It remained unclear what role Baradar would have during the talks, but the presence of the influential leader widely believed to carry popular support across the Taliban's myriad factions set expectations high.
"The fact that Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar is attending the talks, shows both sides are serious this time," Kabul-based analyst Ahmad Sayeedi told AFP.
We are ready
Afghan special envoy for peace Mohammad Omar Daudzai also lauded Baradar's participation, saying the insurgent leader was known for being "independent" and making "tough decisions".
"[I] hope he uses his independence to decide on peace as soon as possible," Daudzai told a press conference in the Afghan capital.
Baradar was arrested in Pakistan in 2010, but was released in October and named as head of the Taliban's political office in Doha.
He was long considered the number two to Taliban chief Mullah Omar, who died in 2013. Now he is one of several deputies to Akhundzada, along with Omar's son and the head of the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Meanwhile the government in Kabul continued to voice concerns Monday over being sidelined in the negotiations.
The Taliban have steadfastly refused to negotiate with the Kabul government, whom they dismiss as "puppets".
"The Taliban are still not ready to talk to Afghan government, but we are ready. We think that Taliban's dishonesty is the only obstacle," said Abdullah Abdullah, the country's de-facto prime minister, in a televised address Monday.
"We are flexible and ready to make a team that is acceptable to all."
The latest negotiations come as violence soars in Afghanistan, with the UN reporting Sunday that more civilians were killed in 2018 than any other year since records began in 2009.
US President Donald Trump has signalled his eagerness to end his country's involvement in Afghanistan, where 14,000 American troops are still deployed.
Afghanistan has suffered nearly constant conflict since the Soviet invasion of 1979, which was followed by civil war, the Taliban regime, and the US invasion in late 2001.