WASHINGTON: Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy negotiating with the Taliban, returned to the region on Monday to start a marathon trip despite disappointment after the militants refused to meet the Afghan government.

According to the State Department, Mr Khalilzad left on Sunday on a journey that will run through May 11 and take him both to Afghanistan and Qatar, the usual venue for talks with the Taliban.

In the Qatari capital Doha, “he will continue to press forward on negotiations with the Taliban to reach a consensus on core national security issues, and urge their participation in an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue”, a State Department statement said, without directly confirming he would meet the Taliban again.

Hopes for a breakthrough last weekend were dashed when a dialogue planned between the Taliban and Afghan officials in Doha collapsed at the last minute.

Ghani had announced a delegation of some 250 people from all walks of Afghan life but the Taliban rejected the lengthy list, saying the meeting was “not an invitation to some wedding or other party at a hotel in Kabul”.

Best chance for peace

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced disappointment over the impasse during a call on Saturday with President Ghani.

Pompeo “encouraged all sides to seize the moment and reach an understanding on participants, so that an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue can be convened in Doha as soon as possible”, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

The Taliban’s political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the coming talks would focus on a timetable for pulling all foreign forces from Afghanistan.

Khalilzad will also visit Pakistan and three other countries with deep interests in Afghanistan — India, Russia and Britain.

The State Department said Pompeo called the Afghan president over the weekend to express Washington’s disappointment over the indefinite postponement of Afghan talks with the Taliban and to condemn the insurgent’s latest “spring offensive”, according to the statement.

In his phone call with Mr Ghani, Pompeo encouraged both sides to agree on participants, saying the talks are Afghanistan’s best chance for peace.

On the ground, Afghan government forces face not only a resurgent Taliban who now hold sway over nearly half the country, but also fighters from the militant Islamic State group.

According to a prominent figure on the Kabul list for talks in Qatar, several senior participants on the list had received a call from the president’s office warning them they should not express personal opinions at the talks with the Taliban, only speak on behalf of the state.

The Taliban for their part have said they would consider all Afghans at the table only as individuals and not government representatives.

Meanwhile, President Ghani is organising a Loya Jirga (a council of elders) that has a voice in Afghan policy for next week in Kabul.

Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah has refused to attend the grand council, along with several other prominent Afghans who claim it has been hand-picked by the president who is seeking another term in elections in September.

Abdullah has also announced he is running in the elections.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2019