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Extended US-Taliban peace talks raise Afghan hopes

Taliban representatives during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, on November 9, 2018. Sergei Savostyanov\TASS via Getty Images
Talks between U.S. and Taliban officials in Qatar entered a fourth day on Thursday, with the two sides trying to establish a mechanism for a ceasefire in the 17-year Afghan war and open dialogue between the insurgents and the Afghan government.

U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad's meeting with Taliban representatives was originally slated to run over two days, and its unexpected extension was a positive sign, according to two senior Taliban leaders in Afghanistan who have been kept informed of the progress made in Qatar.

During the first two days, the talks focused on a roadmap for the withdrawal of the foreign forces and a guarantee that Afghanistan would not be used for hostile acts against the United States and its allies, according to one of Taliban leaders.

"The mechanism for a ceasefire and ways to enter into an intra-Afghan dialogue were the two other big topics that were supposed to be discussed on Thursday," he told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A third source based in the Gulf, who has close ties to the Taliban representatives, said the decision to extend the meeting in the Qatari capital Doha came after "positive progress" during the first two days.

Officials at the U.S. embassy in Kabul were not immediately available to comment on the diplomatic developments.

Members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (AHPC), a body which oversees peace efforts but does not represent the government said they were hoping that positive news would emerge from Doha.

"When talks take a long time it means the discussion is in a sensitive and important stage, and the participants are getting close to a positive result," said Sayed Ehsan Taheri, the spokesman for AHPC in Kabul.

"I hope this meeting opens a way for an intra-Afghan dialogue, he said.

The Taliban who are fighting to oust foreign troops have repeatedly rejected the offer to hold direct talks with President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which they consider an illegitimate foreign-imposed regime.

The U.S. and regional powers insist that the peace process should be "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned".

Diplomatic efforts to end the United State's longest running conflict intensified last year after the appointment of the Afghan-born Khalilzad to lead direct talks with the Taliban.

Khalilzad has held at least four meetings with the Taliban representatives. But there has been no let up in the violence, even as the two sides hold talks over meals in a hotel suite in Doha.

And abiding fears about how Afghan government forces would withstand the Taliban threat without U.S. military support have been heightened by reports that U.S. President Donald Trump wants to bring home almost half of the 14,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan.