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By F. Brinley Bruton and Fazul Rahim

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government confirmed Thursday that it held its first direct talks with the Taliban earlier this week, a symbolic sign of progress for those trying to end the country's 15-year insurgency.

"It was the first step and a big one," Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai told reporters.

Afghan officials said previous negotiation attempts had been indirect and on the sidelines of conferences. If these talks are successful, they will be a major boost to President Ashraf Ghani who has staked his political future on convincing the militants to lay down their arms.

Related: Issues, Players and Challenges in Afghan Peace Talks

"This time it was direct peace talks," another member of the delegation, Mohammad Nateqi, told reporters. "This is the beginning of a process which is going to be long. I hope it will lead to peace."

On Wednesday, Afghan officials met Taliban representatives in the capital of neighboring Pakistan. A senior State Department official confirmed to NBC News that American representatives officially observed the meeting.

Taliban officials did not confirm or deny that talks had occurred, although earlier in the week two militant commanders told NBC News on condition of anonymity that a delegation had been sent to them.

Another senior Taliban member downplayed the importance of the talks, however. "Pakistan wanted to fulfill the promise they had made with Kabul administration that they would make Taliban take part in peace talks," the senior commander told NBC News on condition of anonymity.

"'No peace talks with Afghan gov.' is the slogan of Taliban," he said.

Abigail Williams and Mushtaq Yusufzai contributed.