US envoy for Afghan peace in Pakistan for talks on Taleban

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The US special envoy tasked with finding a negotiated end to Afghanistan’s bloody 17-year-old war met on Tuesday with Pakistani officials, and a Taleban official said four members from the group’s political office in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar were also in the Pakistani capital.

But the visit by the Taleban leaders, which included a former Taleban ambassador and a former governor who is also on a United Nations sanctions list, is “private,” the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media.

Pakistan routinely tells a grumbling Washington that its influence over the Taleban is exaggerated, yet in the past has exhibited sufficient sway over the insurgent movement to summon its leaders to Pakistan for quiet talks.

On this occasion, the Taleban official told the AP, the group’s Qatar office sent Shaha-ud-din Dilawar, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Zia-ur-Rahman Madani, former governor of Logar province who is on the UN sanctions list for providing funding for the Taleban; Suhail Shaheen, a former diplomat, and Sala Hanafi.

There was no indication who the four might meet or how long they would stay in Pakistan, but it was expected their visit would be a prelude to further discussions in Qatar when US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad visits later this month.

US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. – AP

The resurgent Taleban, who ruled Afghanistan before US forces invaded in October 2001, carry out near-daily attacks on Afghan army and police forces. They view the US-backed government in Kabul as a dysfunctional Western puppet and have refused repeated offers to negotiate with it.

US and NATO troops formally concluded their combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, but still provide close support to Afghan forces and carry out counterterrorism operations. Some 15,000 American forces are currently serving in Afghanistan.

Since his appointment in September, Khalilzad has accelerated efforts to find an Afghan peace pact that would allow for the eventual withdrawal of the United States from its longest war, which has already cost Washington nearly USD1 trillion.

Khalilzad will also travel to Afghanistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belgium, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in stepped-up efforts to find a peaceful end to the war.

In November, Khalilzad held three days of talks with the Taleban in Qatar, according to the Taleban. The United States has neither confirmed nor denied direct talks with the Taleban. Khalilzad, however, has said he has held talks with all Afghans, a sideways reference to include the Taleban.

On the eve of Khalilzad’s visit to Pakistan, President Donald Trump a wrote a letter seeking Pakistani Prime Minister Imrah Khan’s cooperation, even though he has been a harsh and often belligerent critic of Pakistan and even engaged in a Twitter battle with Khan.

Khan told reporters on Monday that his government will do whatever was possible to ensure peace in Afghanistan. The US soldiers still in Afghanistan are mostly in support and advisory roles, yet their mission continues to be deadly. Last week in eastern Afghanistan, an improvised explosive device killed four US troops, the deadliest attack against US forces in Afghanistan since June 2017. The Taleban claimed responsibility.

Washington’s own Congress-appointed watchdog says the Taleban control or hold sway in nearly 50 per cent of the country.

Still, Khalilzad said earlier this month in Kabul that he held out hope that a peace agreement, which he referred to as a “roadmap for the future,” was possible between the Taleban and an Afghan government appointed team. Khalilzad even suggested it could be in place ahead of Afghanistan’s scheduled presidential elections on April 20.

The spokesman for Pakistan’s powerful military, General Asif Ghafoor, told a briefing of foreign journalists on Tuesday that Pakistan’s influence over the Taleban is overstated, yet he said Pakistan has repeatedly told the insurgent group to join the peace process.

He said the release of senior Taleban officials from Pakistani prisons, including a co-founder of the movement, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was part of the peace process.