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US Envoy for Afghan Peace in Pakistan for Talks on Taliban

FILE - U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, talks with local reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 18, 2018.

Washington's special envoy tasked with finding a negotiated end to Afghanistan's bloody 17-year-old war met Tuesday with Pakistani officials, and a Taliban official said four members from the group's political office in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar were also in the Pakistani capital.

But the visit by the Taliban leaders, which included a former Taliban ambassador and a former governor who is also on a United Nations sanctions list, is "private," the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Pakistan routinely tells a grumbling Washington that its influence over the Taliban is exaggerated, yet in the past have exhibited sufficient sway over the insurgent movement to summon their leaders to Pakistan for quiet talks.

On this occasion, the Taliban official told the AP, the group's Qatar office sent Shaha-ud-din Dilawar, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Zia-ur-Rahman Madani, former governor of Logar province who is on the U.N. sanctions list for providing funding for the Taliban; Suhail Shaheen, a former diplomat and Sala Hanafi.

There was no indication who the four might meet or how long they would stay in Pakistan but it was expected their visit would be a prelude to further discussions in Qatar when Zalmay Khalilzad visits later this month.

The resurgent Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan before U.S. forces invaded in October 2001, carry out near-daily attacks on Afghan army and police forces. They view the U.S.-backed government in Kabul as a dysfunctional Western puppet and have refused repeated offers to negotiate with it.

U.S. and NATO troops formally concluded their combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, but still provide close support to Afghan forces and carry out counterterrorism operations. Some 15,000 American forces are currently serving in Afghanistan.

Since his appointment in September, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has accelerated efforts to find an Afghan peace pact that would allow for the eventual withdrawal of the United States from its longest war, which has already cost Washington nearly $1 trillion.

Khalilzad will also travel to Afghanistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belgium, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in stepped-up efforts to find a peaceful end to the war.

In November, Khalilzad held three days of talks with the Taliban in Qatar, according to the Taliban. The United States has neither confirmed nor denied direct talks with the Taliban, a longstanding demand of the radical religious movement. Khalilzad, however, has said he has held talks with all Afghans, a sideways reference to include the Taliban.

On the eve of Khalilzad's visit to Pakistan, U.S. President Donald Trump a wrote a letter seeking Prime Minister Imrah Khan's his cooperation, even though he has been a harsh and often belligerent critic of Pakistan and even engaged in a twitter battle with Khan. Khan told reporters Monday that his government will do whatever was possible to ensure peace in Afghanistan.

The U.S. still has about 14,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, mostly in support and advisory roles, yet their mission continues to be deadly. Last week in eastern Afghanistan an improvised explosive device killed four U.S. troops, the deadliest attack against U.S. forces in Afghanistan since June 2017. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

Washington's own Congress-appointed watchdog says the Taliban control or hold sway in nearly 50 percent of the country.

Still, Khalilzad said earlier this month in Kabul that he held out hope that a peace agreement, which he referred to as a "roadmap for the future," was possible between the Taliban and an Afghan government appointed team. Khalilzad even suggested it could be in place ahead of Afghanistan's scheduled presidential elections on April 20.

The spokesman for Pakistan's powerful military, Gen. Asif Ghafoor, told a briefing of foreign journalists Tuesday that Pakistan's influence over the Taliban is overstated, yet he said Pakistan has repeatedly told the insurgent group to join the peace process.

He said the release of senior Taliban officials from Pakistani prisons, including a co-founder of the movement, Mullah Ghani Baradar, was part of the peace process. Prisoner releases were also long standing demands of the Taliban.

Ghafoor also cautioned against a hurried U.S. retreat from Afghanistan that leaves behind a vacuum, warning it would result in chaos. He said a peaceful Afghanistan was in the interest of Pakistan, saying Afghanistan is one of the few countries with which Pakistan has a trade surplus.

Ghafoor also said that until 2014 the Pakistan military, which has lost more soldiers than NATO and the United States combined fighting the anti-terror war, was focused on battling its own insurgents, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and ignored demands to widen the war to include Afghan insurgents, including the Haqqani network.

But after 2014, he said the Pakistan army launched its operation in the North Waziristan tribal area to rid the area of foreign insurgents, including Afghan Taliban and Uzbek insurgents, but when they fled across the border into Afghanistan the U.S. and Afghan forces failed to corral them.

Pakistan has begun construction on a 2,611-kilometer (1,622-mile) fence along its border with Afghanistan, a move that has infuriated Afghans, who still dispute the border known as the Durand line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan.