WASHINGTON: US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad is coming to Islamabad for consultations to encourage direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, diplomatic sources told Dawn on Wednesday.

Ambassador Khalilzad confirmed the visit in a Twitter posting on Wednesday, saying: “I’m off to Doha (Qatar), with a stop in Islamabad.”

He did not say what would be the focus of his talks in Islamabad but did hope that this trip would lead to an agreement with the Taliban.

“In Doha, if the Taliban do their part, we will do ours, and conclude the agreement we have been working on,” he wrote.

Ambassador Khalilzad also leads the US team in the Doha talks with the Taliban, which have continued for almost a year without a breakthrough. Both sides, however, claim making small but concrete gains which, they say, is helping them understand each other better and hope that this understanding will ultimately lead to an agreement.

At a White House meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan last week, US President Donald Trump said he hoped “Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves” from Afghanistan.

The prime minister responded to Mr Trump’s sentiments by offering to invite senior Taliban leaders to Islamabad for talks on including the Afghan government in the peace process. So far, the Taliban have refused to hold direct talks with the Afghan government.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi informed the National Assembly that the next round of the intra-Afghan dialogue would be held in Norwegian capital Oslo.

In Islamabad, Ambassador Khalilzad is likely to focus on the role Pakistan can play to persuade the Taliban to hold direct talks with the Afghan government.

The Taliban now control more territory than at any point since their ouster nearly 18 years ago.

Ambassador Khalilzad arrived in Kabul last week for yet another round of talks with President Ashraf Ghani, top security officials, senior opposition leaders, diplomats, and civil society members on a possible deal with the Taliban.

“Wrapping up my most productive visit to Afghanistan since I took this job as Special Rep. The US and Afghanistan have agreed on next steps,” he said on Twitter, adding that a negotiating team and technical support group were being finalised.

Diplomatic sources in Washington say the United States wants the latest peace move to lead to an agreement on the withdrawal of foreign forces in exchange for security guarantees by the Taliban.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told journalists in Doha on Wednesday senior militant leaders were now in Jakarta and the next round of peace talks would resume after they returned to Qatar.

Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2019