ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Taliban emissary sat face-to-face this week with a senior Afghan government official responsible for peace talks in a rare high-level gathering between the adversaries, an official said Saturday.
The encounter at a peace and reconciliation conference in Kyoto, Japan, was a rare positive sign in faltering attempts to find a peaceful end to the conflict in Afghanistan. It also provided an unusual opportunity for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government to sit down with its enemies — the Taliban and the Hezb-e-Islami insurgent group.
Hezb-e-Islami is a radical Islamist militia with thousands of fighters and followers.
Siddiq Mansour Ansari, a peace activist who was invited to attend the meeting this week at Kyoto's Doshisha University, said it was the third peace and reconciliation conference organized by the school but the first time the Taliban had sent an emissary.
The Taliban's former planning minister, Qari Din Mohammed Hanif, took part in the conference "to explain the policies of the Islamic Emirate," Taliban spokesman Zabilullah Mujahed told the Associated Press by phone.
Taliban officials rarely travel abroad for public meetings, and Mujahed didn't say how Hanif, from Afghanistan's northeastern Badakhshan province, made the trip to Japan. He is not on any wanted lists.
The Afghan government was represented by Mohammed Masoon Stanikzai, a senior member of the government's High Peace Council, which is responsible for talks with the insurgency.
Ansari said the conference goal was not to find a peace settlement but to air ideas and differences.
Karzai and U.S. officials are trying to draw the Taliban to negotiate toward a peace deal that would end a war that American commanders have said cannot be won with military power alone.
The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Karzai government, saying the U.S. holds effective control in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has set a 2014 deadline to withdraw forces and is trying to set talks among the Afghans beforehand.
But the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, despite reports of infighting in Afghanistan, found common ground at the Kyoto conference in their demand that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan by 2014.