ISLAMABAD - U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke Wednesday by phone with Pakistan's top military official to discuss regional security and the foreign troop drawdown in neighboring Afghanistan.
Austin's conversation with General Qamar Javed Bajwa came as the last remaining 2,500 or so U.S. troops were preparing to begin pulling out of Afghanistan. The withdrawal, which starts Saturday and is to end by September 11, is intended to conclude America's longest war.
The Pentagon said Austin "expressed appreciation" for Pakistan's support for Afghan peace negotiations and "reaffirmed the importance" of Washington's relationship with Islamabad.
A readout of the conversation said the two leaders talked about the importance of regional stability and the desire for the United States and Pakistan to continue working together on "shared goals and objectives in the region."
The Pakistani military's media wing quoted Bajwa as telling Austin that peace in Afghanistan "means peace in Pakistan."
The general reiterated that his country would "always support [an] Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process based on mutual consensus of all stakeholders."
The withdrawal of American forces and around 7,000 NATO troops is in line with a year-old agreement Washington negotiated with the Taliban.
Key role in talks
Pakistan, which has been accused of harboring insurgent sanctuaries, is credited with arranging the U.S.-Taliban talks that culminated in the signing of the agreement on February 29, 2020.
The deal encouraged the Taliban to open peace talks last September in Qatar with Afghan government negotiators, though the process has long been deadlocked and has largely failed to reduce deadly violence.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the American chief peace negotiator, told lawmakers in Washington on Tuesday that the U.S. administration had urged Pakistani leaders to exercise their "considerable leverage" over the Taliban to reduce violence and support a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
"Pakistan has a special responsibility given its influence over the Taliban, so we appreciate what Pakistan has done so far," Khalilzad told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"But we are not there yet, and of course we look forward to working with them to get to a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government in the coming weeks and months," the U.S. envoy said.
The troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was supposed to be completed by May 1, as stipulated in the U.S.-Taliban deal. But U.S. President Joe Biden, while announcing the final drawdown plans earlier this month, cited logistical reasons for not meeting the deadline.
His decision upset the Taliban, and they have threatened to resume attacks on foreign troops for violating the pact. The insurgents also refused to attend any future peace-related meetings until all international forces leave Afghanistan.
Reviving the dialogue
Islamabad has lately stepped up diplomatic efforts to help in advancing the stalled intra-Afghan peace dialogue.
Pakistan's special envoy for Afghanistan, Mohammad Sadiq, is due to travel to Doha on Thursday to meet with Taliban peace negotiators based in the Qatari capital.
Sadiq has reportedly been tasked to urge the insurgents to ease battlefield violence and return to the table for talks with Afghan government interlocutors.
Sources said the Pakistani envoy would also press the Taliban to attend a U.S.-proposed multination conference that Turkey plans to host in coordination with the United Nations and Qatar to accelerate the Afghan peace process.
The 10-day Istanbul conference was supposed to start on April 24, but the Taliban's refusal forced the organizers to postpone it.
Meanwhile, senior officials from Russia, the U.S., China and Pakistan will reportedly meet on Friday to discuss ways to advance intra-Afghan peace talks.
"We will be discussing solutions to the current situation in the intra-Afghan negotiations. We will be trying to work out a common position to give an impetus for the talks to take place," Zamir Kabulov, Russian presidential envoy for Afghanistan, told the Tass news agency.
Kabulov did not say where the huddle would take place, but last month Moscow hosted envoys from the four nations, together with delegates of the Taliban and the Afghan government. They pressed the two warring parties to restart their stalled talks but were unsuccessful.