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Khalilzad holds direct talks with Afghan Taliban in Qatar

Updated October 14, 2018

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ZALMAY Khalilzad has been recently appointed US envoy to find a way to end the Afghan war.
ZALMAY Khalilzad has been recently appointed US envoy to find a way to end the Afghan war.

WASHINGTON: The Trump administration held their second direct talks with the Afghan Taliban in Qatar this week as the US State Department underlined the desire to push forward the Afghan peace process.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a top American diplomat appointed recently to find a way to end the Afghan war, led the US team at the talks with six Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, on Friday.

Mr Khalilzad left Washington earlier this week on a mission to promote the Afghan peace process. Diplomatic sources in Washington said the talks in Doha were a part of his itinerary, which included visits to South Asia and the Middle East. He has already visited Islamabad, Kabul and Riyadh.

Militants’ spokesman says end of occupation and peaceful solution of conflict discussed

“The purpose of this entire trip is to talk about the peace and reconciliation progress,” US State Department’s spokesperson Heather Nauert told a news briefing in Washington. “Any time we’re there on the ground we’re making headway.”

She noted that the US administration had appointed Mr Khalilzad a special envoy for Afghanistan whose main job was “to fight for this issue every single day” and to “work hard on this issue with his team”.

Taliban officials confirmed the meeting in an email sent to various media outlets, adding that the talks would continue. The Wall Street Journal reported that “a personal familiar with the gathering” also confirmed the meeting independently.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The New York Times (NYT) on Saturday that six Taliban representatives and Mr Khalilzad “talked about the end of occupation and a peaceful resolution for the Afghan issue”.

He said, “Both sides agreed to continue their meetings in the future”.

Qatar has served as a meeting place for US-Taliban talks since 2011.

The Trump administration also held its first talks with the Taliban in Qatar, when Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells met them in Doha in July.

NYT noted that the White House ordered direct talks with the Taliban this summer to jump-start the peace process and Mr Khalilzad was “seeking to inject new energy into the long-stalled Afghan peace process”.

On Saturday, Mr Khalilzad flew to Kabul to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for fulfilling a US pledge of keeping the Kabul government involved.

The Taliban have long demanded direct talks with Americans, instead of coming via Kabul but the Trump administration has assured the Afghan government that they will not be sidelined.

“This is something that will be Afghan led, Afghan owned, but supported by the US government,” Ms Nauert clarified. She said that before returning to Washington, Mr Khalilzad “will give the Afghan government a complete readout of his entire travels”.

She also noted that the US special envoy was meeting a wide range of people in Afghanistan — from President Ghani to Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, political groups, the High Peace Council, Afghan media, and civil society.

The US media noted that Mr Khalilzad, an Afghanistan-born former US ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations, will have to perform a difficult balancing act between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The New York Times noted that the Taliban “have long stipulated that an agreement to withdraw remaining American troops from Afghanistan is essential to negotiating an end to the war”. Other media outlets speculated that Washington may not accept this demand.

A Taliban source told NYT that Friday’s meeting was exploratory and that the discussion had included an “end to the occupation” as well as removing Taliban leaders from sanctions lists.

The meeting in Doha came days after the Taliban put out a statement calling on Afghans to boycott parliamentary elections next week.

Before meeting the Taliban representatives, Mr Khalilzad stopped in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Afghan officials have long appealed to Saudi Arabia to persuade the Taliban to enter into talks.

The US State Department also said that Mr Khalilzad has had “a number of meetings with a wide range of stakeholders as part of his trip to explore how best to reach a negotiated settlement” to the war in Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2018