WASHINGTON: For­mer US ambassador to Afgha­n­­is­tan Zalmay Khalilzad would join the State Department as an adviser on Afghanistan, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during his flight to Islamabad on Wednesday.

“Ambassador Khali­lzad is going to join the State Department team to assist us in the reconciliation effort; so he will come on and be the State Department’s lead person for that purpose,” Pompeo told reporters travelling with him.

President Donald Trump has expressed frustration at the lack of progress towards a US withdrawal from the Afghan conflict after 17 years. In a policy shift during a June ceasefire, Washington said it would “support, facilitate and participate” in any Kabul government-led peace talks with the Taliban.

The surge in recent Taliban attacks has, however, raised questions about its interest in talks.

Khalilzad’s appointment signals that the administration is serious about an Afghan peace process. In addition to his experience advising or working for four US administrations and his knowledge of Afghanistan’s main languages, culture and politics, he is from the ethnic Pashtun majority.

As an aide to President George W. Bush, Khalilzad helped plan the US invasion of Afghanistan that followed the Sept 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda, which had been based in that country. That invasion also ousted the Taliban, whose Islamist government ruled the country beginning in 1996.

Known by many in Washington as “King Zal”, the 67-year-old Khalilzad has decades of experience in the region. Now he has what Mr Pompeo has described as a “singular” mission to get the Taliban and the Afghan government to reconcile.

The mission marks Khalilzad’s return to focus on the country of his birth and childhood, and the place where he served as US ambassador from 2003 to 2005 under President Bush, helping to guide regime change in the messy aftermath of the fall of the Taliban.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2018