The Taliban say ongoing bilateral “serious discussions” with the United States are entirely focused on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and reports to the contrary are “propaganda.” 

The marathon three-day dialogue, being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, is due to conclude Wednesday. Pakistan says it has arranged the meeting with the insurgents to assist in the Washington-initiated bid to end the 17-year-old Afghan war.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, is leading the U.S. team in the talks, with officials of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also in attendance. 

“Serious discussions have been taking place over the past two days in the United Arab Emirates between representatives of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) and United States about ending the occupation,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, referring to U.S. and NATO troop presence in Afghanistan.

The insurgent group issued the statement Tuesday night in response to media reports that said Afghan government officials are also part of the ongoing meetings, where proposals for a six-month cease-fire and the establishment of an interim Afghan government, inclusive of the Taliban, have also come under discussion. 

“We once again reject these reports. Discussions are taking place with the representatives of the United States about ending the occupation, a matter that does not concern the Kabul administration whatsoever. The entire agenda is focused on issues concerning the occupiers and talks will exclusively be held with them,” Mujahid asserted. 

Taliban officials are the only source for whatever little information has been shared with the media until now about the discussions since they began on Monday in Abu Dhabi.

Pakistan hopes for Afghan peace 

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who publicly took credit last Friday for facilitating the “peace talks” reiterated Tuesday his country “will do everything within its power” to further the Afghan peace process. 

“Pakistan has helped in the dialogue between Taliban and the U.S. in Abu Dhabi. Let us pray that this leads to peace and ends almost three decades of suffering of the brave Afghan people,” Khan said.

When asked about the talks in UAE, a State Department spokesperson told VOA Monday that the meetings are part of U.S. efforts to promote an intra-Afghan dialogue toward ending the conflict.

“We welcome any actions the Pakistani government takes to advance security, stability and cooperation in South Asia, including the fostering of negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government and other Afghans, the spokesperson said.

The U.S. spokesperson also said a recent letter from U.S. President Donald Trump to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan “emphasized that Pakistan’s assistance with the Afghan peace process is fundamental to building an enduring U.S.-Pakistan partnership.”

Reaction in Islamabad

But officials in Islamabad have issued a harsh response to comments by the State Department, saying they believe Washington is trying to downplay Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table in UAE. 

“(The) U.S. administration has to adopt a more respectful and duly appreciating attitude towards Pakistan if it wants the cooperation to continue with same goodwill. Western media efforts to brush aside Pakistan’s role in bringing authoritative Taliban to direct talks with U.S. must end,” a source in Islamabad told VOA.

The strong reaction underscored the fragile relationship between Islamabad and Washington that has lately deteriorated further. 

Trump administration officials have hardened the U.S. position on Pakistan in recent months, suspending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for what officials say is Islamabad’s unwillingness to act decisively against the Taliban. Pakistani authorities reject that charge, and point to the thousands of troops who have been killed fighting militants in the volatile Afghan border region.

Islamabad has long urged in talks with the United States that rival India’s growing influence in Afghanistan is a matter of concern for Pakistan. Security officials blame Indian intelligence operatives for supporting militants planning terrorist attacks in Pakistan from Afghan soil, charges both Kabul and New Delhi reject. 

A next step after Moscow meeting

The meetings in Abu Dhabi follow peace talks last month in Moscow. Those talks did not include representatives from the Afghan government. 

A senior Pakistani government official, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity, said the Abu Dhabi round was the first time in three years that Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives both attended a peace talks meeting.

“This is a feat much more important in its impact than the Russians’ initial success to bring the Taliban to table without NUG (National Unity Government),” a Pakistani official told VOA after the first round of UAE talks on Monday. He also clarified at the time that the U.S.-Taliban meeting was never intended to be a direct talk with the Kabul government and insurgents “at this stage.”

In the run-up to Monday’s meetings, Pakistani officials told VOA in background interviews the U.S. has directly engaged the Taliban since July to promote a political settlement to the Afghan war but said Washington still has “no clear plan” on how to further the peace process.

Prior to his ongoing interaction, Khalilzad had held “preliminary” talks with the Taliban in Qatar, where the insurgent group maintains its so-called “political office.” Pakistan had played no role in brokering those talks, which Taliban officials described as “talks for the sake of talks.” 

Insurgents have consistently demanded “a date or timeframe” for all international troops to withdraw from Afghanistan before the Taliban decides to cease hostilities and participate in an intra-Afghan peace process.

The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and the war with the Taliban has since killed nearly 150,000 people, including Afghan civilians, security forces, insurgents and more than 2,400 American soldiers, according to an American University study released recently

The longest war effort in U.S. history has also cost Washington nearly $1 trillion. The Taliban instead has expanded its insurgent activities and currently controls or hotly contests about half of Afghanistan.

The conflict is said to have killed more Afghan civilians and security forces in 2018 than in any other year.