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WASHINGTON: US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has expressed disappointment over postponement of the first direct talks between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives, who were supposed to visit Qatar as part of a larger Afghan delegation.

“I’m disappointed Qatar’s intra-Afghan initiative has been delayed. We’re in touch with all parties and encouraged that everyone remains committed to dialogue and the Afghan Peace Process,” he wrote in a tweet.

“Dialogue is and always will be key to a political roadmap and lasting pea­ce. There is no alternative,” he wrote in another tweet. “I urge all sides to seize the moment and put things back on track by agreeing to a participant list that speaks for all Afghans.”

He offered to help resolve the issue but only “if our help is needed”.

Ambassador Khalilzad also relea­s­­ed the copy of a letter he received from Sultan Barakat, director of Qatar’s Centre for Conflict and Hum­anitarian Studies, informing him of the decision to postpone the meeting. The centre had sponsored the talks.

“This unfortunate postponement is necessary to further build consensus as to who should participate in the conference,” Mr Barakat said, insisting that all sides were committed to ending the war in Afghanistan.

Qatar announced on Thursday that it had received a list of 243 people from Kabul who were going to Doha to attend the conference. Even that list differed from a 250-member team that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had said he was sending to Doha. Both lists included around 50 women.

The Taliban appeared uncomfortable meeting such a large delegation.

Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan said on Friday he would continue to work with Mr Khalilzad to set the conditions for a political settlement in Afghanistan.

“Ambassador Khalilzad and I are aligned on a way forward to achieve the objectives of President Donald Trump’s South Asia Strategy,” he wrote in a tweet in which President Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo were also tagged.

Ambassador Khalilzad visited the Pentagon on Thursday, hours after the Taliban opted out of the Qatar talks.

“Always great to see Ambassador Khalilzad here in the Pentagon to discuss the ongoing talks for a lasting peace,” Mr Shanahan said in one of the two tweets released after the visit.

“We continue to work together to set the conditions for a political settlement that will end the war in Afghanistan,” he added.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2019