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Afghan Taliban, US Conclude Marathon Peace Talks Arranged by Pakistan

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In this photo released by Inter Services Public Relations of Pakistan's military, U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, talks with Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa during a meeting in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Dec. 19, 2018.

The United States and the Taliban have concluded two days of marathon peace talks in the United Arab Emirates, promising to meet again in the Gulf country for another round “to complete the Afghanistan reconciliation process.”

Pakistan took credit for bringing Taliban insurgents to the negotiating table to assist in the Washington-initiated bid aimed at ending the 17-year-old Afghan war.

The Afghan “reconciliation conference” in Abu Dhabi, "fructified in tangible results that are positive for all parties concerned,” said the state-run Emirates News Agency in a brief announcement Wednesday.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, led the U.S. team in the meeting, with officials of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates also in attendance.

In a message via his office’s official Twitter account, Khalilzad noted he held “productive” meetings with Afghan and international partners in Abu Dhabi “to promote intra-Afghan dialogue towards ending the conflict in Afghanistan.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a separate statement, said, “Future negotiation meetings shall continue after deliberations and consultations by both sides with their respective leaderships.”

The talks began on Monday and were supposed to last three days, as per earlier official announcements, but neither side explained what prompted them to abruptly end the process.

Afghan government peace negotiators were also present in the vicinity, hoping to join the meeting at some stage, but the Taliban refused to sit with them.

Mujahid said the Taliban's dialogue was exclusively with the U.S. and “the focal point” of discussions with U.S. interlocutors was the withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan.

The “biggest obstacle to peace is the occupation of Afghanistan and bringing it to an end,” the Taliban spokesman reiterated, while referring to the U.S.-led international military mission.

Mujahid again rejected as groundless reports that issues such as a temporary cease-fire, peace talks with the Kabul administration, installation of an interim Afghan government and future elections also came under discussions with Khalilzad’s team.

He described these issues as Afghanistan’s “internal matters” and went on to assert that Taliban envoys presented “documented information and proof to the participants about indiscriminate bombings against civilians and demanded its immediate halt.”

For their part, Afghan, U.S. and United Nations officials accuse the Taliban of causing a majority of Afghan civilian casualties during battlefield and other insurgent raids.

Mujahid said that Taliban officials also urged U.S. interlocutors to take into consideration “humane treatment of [insurgent] prisoners and their freedom” from Afghan jails.

Khalilzad is said to have urged the Taliban to release an American professor and his Australian colleague who were kidnapped more than two years ago. Kevin King, 60, and Timothy Weeks, 48, from Australia were teaching at Kabul's American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) before gunmen took them hostage near the campus in August 2016.

Ambassador Khalilzad later visited Pakistan to discuss “regional security" and the "Afghan peace process” with the country’s military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

An army spokesman said General Bajwa reiterated that peace in Afghanistan is important for Pakistan and assured continued efforts for bringing peace and stability in the region.

After his brief stopover in Pakistan, Khalilzad arrived in neighboring Afghanistan to update the Afghan leadership on his engagements with regional partners and other interested parties “to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict,” the U.S. embassy in Kabul said.

FILE - Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan addresses the groundbreaking ceremony for the Kartarpur Corridor in Kartarpur on Nov. 28, 2018.
FILE - Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan addresses the groundbreaking ceremony for the Kartarpur Corridor in Kartarpur on Nov. 28, 2018.

Pakistan's involvement

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who publicly took credit last Friday for facilitating the “peace talks,” reiterated Tuesday his country “will do everything within its power” to further the Afghan peace process.

“Pakistan has helped in the dialogue between Taliban and the U.S. in Abu Dhabi. Let us pray that this leads to peace and ends almost three decades of suffering of the brave Afghan people,” Khan said.

When asked about the talks in UAE, a State Department spokesperson told VOA Monday that the meetings were part of U.S. efforts to promote an intra-Afghan dialogue toward ending the conflict.

“We welcome any actions the Pakistani government takes to advance security, stability and cooperation in South Asia, including the fostering of negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government and other Afghans, the spokesperson said.

The U.S. spokesperson also said a recent letter from U.S. President Donald Trump to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan "emphasized that Pakistan’s assistance with the Afghan peace process is fundamental to building an enduring U.S.-Pakistan partnership.”

Islamabad reaction

Officials in Islamabad have issued a harsh response to the comments by the State Department, saying they believe Washington is trying to downplay Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table in UAE.

“(The) U.S. administration has to adopt a more respectful and duly appreciating attitude towards Pakistan if it wants the cooperation to continue with same goodwill. Western media efforts to brush aside Pakistan’s role in bringing authoritative Taliban to direct talks with U.S. must end,” a source in Islamabad told VOA.

The strong reaction underscored the fragile Islamabad-Washington relationship that has lately deteriorated further.

Trump administration officials have hardened the U.S. position on Pakistan in recent months, suspending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for what the U.S. says is Islamabad's unwillingness to act decisively against the Taliban. Pakistani authorities reject that charge, and point to the thousands of troops who have been killed fighting militants in the volatile Afghan border region.

Islamabad has long urged in talks with the United States that rival India’s growing influence in Afghanistan is a matter of concern for Pakistan. Security officials blame Indian intelligence operatives for supporting militants planning terrorist attacks in Pakistan from Afghan soil, charges both Kabul and New Delhi reject.

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