Senior Pakistani army and diplomatic officials said on Thursday the Afghan Taliban have signaled through the Pakistani military that they are willing to open peace talks, which could begin later in the day.
Sources in the Afghan Taliban told Reuters their negotiators would hold a first round of talks with U.S. officials in Qatar on Thursday, but the United States and a Taliban central spokesman subsequently denied that such talks had been arranged.
"The United States currently has no meetings with the Taliban scheduled in Doha," said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council. "We remain supportive of an Afghan-led reconciliation process whereby the Taliban and the Afghans engage in talks toward a settlement to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan."
Previous efforts to negotiate an end to a war that began in late 2001 have proved fruitless, but the latest signals raised hopes of a much-needed boost for new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
"The first session will take place today in Qatar and then there would be another session on Friday. Let us see what happens as talks before did not yield any results," a senior member of the Afghan Taliban said by telephone from Qatar.
Bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table would be a major breakthrough in Afghan efforts to end more than a decade of war. Exactly what pushed some Taliban toward talks was not clear, but the Afghan war is grinding on with no clear winner.
With the departure of most U.S. and other foreign troops at the end of last year, Afghan security forces are struggling to defeat the insurgency, while the Taliban have been unable to hold much territory.
Earlier on Thursday, a senior Pakistani military official said Pakistan's army chief, General Raheel Sharif, told Ghani during a visit this week that the Taliban were willing to begin negotiations as early as March.
"They have expressed their willingness and there will be progress in March. But these things are not so quick and easy," the official, who is close to the army chief, told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"But there are very clear signals ... and we have communicated it to the Afghans. Now many things are with the Afghans and they are serious," the official said.
The official said, however, there was no firm timetable for talks. Other Taliban representatives had earlier denied they were willing to hold direct negotiations.
Three senior diplomats in the region confirmed the account of imminent talks based on briefings from people who were at the Tuesday meeting between Ghani and Sharif.
"The venue is still to be decided. Preferably Islamabad, Kabul, Beijing or Dubai," said one diplomat in Kabul. He and other diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Ghani's office did not directly refer to any talks in a statement it issued but promised transparency.
"I will not conduct any negotiation in secret from my people and they will be informed of any development,” he was quoted as saying.
Attempts to get talks going in Qatar in 2013 came to nothing after the Afghan government objected to fanfare surrounding the opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state, complete with flag and official plaques.
Al Jazeera and wire services