ISLAMABAD - U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, visited Pakistan Sunday at the beginning of his 16-day multi-nation trip that will also take him to Qatar for another round of peace negotiations with the Taliban.
Officials said Khalilzad held delegation-level talks at the Foreign Ministry before meeting with other senior Pakistani civilian and military leaders during his day-long stay in Islamabad.
The Pakistani government takes credit for arranging the U.S.-Taliban peace dialogue by using its contacts with the Afghan insurgent group.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal said that in the talks with Khalilzad’s team its delegation reiterated Pakistan’s commitment for Afghan peace.
“It encouraged all sides to agree to seize the moment to end the prolonged conflict through a political settlement,” Faisal added.
Afghan-born chief American negotiator Khalilzad has held six rounds of direct talks with Taliban envoys in the Qatari capital of Doha since the process began last fall in a bid to bring an end to what has now become the longest U.S. overseas military intervention.
At the end of their latest round of discussions in early May, insurgent officials and Khalilzad noted the two sides have reached a preliminary draft agreement that would see foreign troops leave Afghanistan in exchange for assurances the Taliban would disallow transnational terrorists from using Afghan soil for attacks against other countries.
Khalilzad tweeted on Saturday he would “try to bring the first two parts of our peace framework to closure” during the engagement with the Taliban later this month.
“We've made substantial progress over the last month. On this trip, I want to take that momentum and accelerate the Afghan peace process,” he noted.
The American envoy in previous statements repeatedly explained that a final agreement must also cover a Taliban cease-fire and the insurgent group’s participation in internal peace talks in post-withdrawal Afghanistan.
For its part, the insurgent group has refused to discuss issues related to a cease-fire and intra-Afghan peace talks until all American and other foreign troops leave the country.
The differences have slowed down, if not stalemated, further progress in U.S.-Taliban meetings.
Skeptics continue to caution Washington against concluding a deal without seeking political reconciliation and other pledges from the Taliban.
"Pushing process forward is good, but “closure” of US-Taliban deal on troop withdrawal in exchange for counter-terrorism promises before peace talks among Afghans have even begun is a dangerous concession. Balance of leverage would shift even more to Taliban," tweeted Laurel Miller, a former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Taliban chief rejects cease-fire calls
On Saturday, Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada again rejected cease-fire calls and stopped just short of saying his group’s demand for foreign troop withdrawal must be met for ending the current stalemate in the dialogue process.
”The Islamic Emirate [Taliban] with its peaceful policy invites America to adopt a policy of reason and understanding, to remain a sincere partner in the negotiations process and accept the logical proposals of the Islamic Emirate for advancement of this process,” emphasized Akhundzada in his annual message ahead of this week’s Muslim festival of Eid in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad in his response, tweeted Sunday that the Taliban leader’s statement provides “some welcome support” for the Afghan peace process.
“At the same time, the statement’s bombastic tone is unnecessary and only serves to complicate and disrupt as we advance peace talks, lamented the American envoy. The Taliban statement, he noted, suggests the United States seeks violence.
“We do not. The level of violence in Afghanistan is unacceptable and we have no desire to perpetuate it,” Khalilzad stressed.