Kabul:Representatives of Afghanistan's warring factions met here Thursday for two days of landmark talks that diplomats hope will bolster a fledgling peace process in the war-torn country.
For the first time since a US-led bombing campaign drove the Taliban from power in 2001, senior figures in the Islamist movement sat down with officials from the government and other opposition forces for a round table discussion on the country's future that was brokered by a French think tank.
The organisers, the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), confirmed the closed-door talks had got underway at an undisclosed location near Paris but would not divulge the agenda or other details for fear of compromising a potentially significant confidence-building exercise.
The talks come against a background of accelerating efforts to draw the Taliban and other opponents of President Hamid Karzai into negotiations on how Afghanistan will be run after Western troops withdraw at the end of 2014.
The alternative, diplomats fear, is a multi-sided civil war that will make more than a decade of Western intervention in the country look like a colossal waste of human life and hundreds of billions of dollars.
Karzai's government has drawn up a roadmap for peace which involves persuading the Taliban and other insurgent groups to agree a ceasefire as a prelude to becoming peaceful players in the country's nascent democracy.
As a first step in that direction, Karzai's administration has been attempting to secure the release of top Taliban prisoners held by neighbouring Pakistan.
Progress on the prisoner issue is seen as vital if the Taliban is to be drawn into direct negotiations with the government. Karzai's roadmap envisages these taking place in Saudi Arabia next year with both Pakistani and US involvement.
To date the Taliban has refused to negotiate with the government, which it regards as a puppet of the United States, and initial discussions with American officials were suspended in March.
But the presence here of senior figures Shahabuddin Dilawar and Naeem Wardak has been seen as a sign that the Islamist group is contemplating going beyond exploratory discussions.
Dilawar is a former deputy head of the Taliban's Supreme Court who had to be granted a UN special exemption to come to France because he is usually subject to a travel ban under international sanctions on the organisation.
Karzai's roadmap for peace explicitly envisages Taliban leaders being brought into a power-sharing government and/or being appointed to posts such as provincial governors in their ethnic Pashtun strongholds in the south and east of the country.
Such steps would be fraught with difficulty given inevitable concern that Taliban control of huge swathes of the country would roll back the advances made in terms of democracy, human rights and the rights of women over the last decade.
As well as offering assurances on these issues, the Taliban, which ran Afghanistan as an Islamic Emirate from 1996-2001, would be expected to definitively sever ties any lingering ties to Al Qaeda.
It was the presence in Afghanistan of Al-Qaeda's late leader, Osama bin Laden, that triggered Western intervention in the country in reaction to the September 11 attacks on the United States