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US moves to pacify Afghans as Taliban reject direct talks

By Anwar Iqbal 2019-07-29
WASHINGTON: US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said on Sunday that intra-Afghan talks will only start after certain agreements are reached and non-of ficial elements will be included in the officialAfghan team.

Earlier on Sunday, a Taliban spokesman told journalists in Doha, Qatar, that the militants would not hold direct talks with the Afghan government. The rejection followed a statement from an Afghan minister that a government team might meet senior Taliban leaders within the next two weeks.Ambassador Khalilzad responded to this claim and counterclaim in a tweet released in the evening, urging both sides to be patient.

`Lot of chatter in Kabul aboutintra-Afghan negotiations. To clarify, those negotiations will occur after we conclude our own agreements,` he wrote.

`And (talks) will take place between the Taliban and an inclusive and effective national negotiating team consisting of senior government officials, key political party representatives, civil society and women,` he added.

Mr Khalilzad, who leads theUS team in the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban, is also responsible for holding similar talks with the Afghan government and other elements that are neither in the government nor with the Taliban.

Last week, President Donald Trump dispatched Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and Ambassador Khalilzad to Kabul to `discuss in detail the next steps on the road to peace`, as an official statement said.

Washington felt the need to send these two powerful envoys to the Afghan capital after President Trump`s meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House last week. After the meeting, President Trump urged Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to hold direct talks with the Afghan government.

President Trump also said that US bombs could have ended the Afghan war in 10 days, but he opted for a negotiated settlement.

Both statements were heard with concern and fear in Afghanistan, forcing Washington to send two senior envoys to explain the US strategy for ending the war.

Prime Minister Khan, who stayed in Washington for two days af ter his July 22 meeting with President Trump, said at a Washington think-tank that he planned to meet Taliban soon after returning to Islamabad and would urge them to hold direct talks with the Afghan government.

Asked to comment on Mr Khan`s statement, a Taliban spokesman told journalists that Taliban leaders were willing to visit Islamabad for talks with the prime minister but did not say if they would also discuss the proposal for direct talks with the Afghan government.

But on Sunday evening, Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban`s political office in Qatar, told journalists that `intra-Afghan talks will start only af ter a foreign force withdrawal is announced`.

On Saturday, Afghanistan`s state minister for peace affairs Abdul Salam Rahimi said an intraAfghan meeting was being held in Qatar and Kabul would send a 15-member delegation to Doha `in the coming two weeks`.

The Taliban, who have been holding peace talks with the United States in Doha for nearly a year, rejected his suggestion, saying that first they wanted an agreement on the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Ambassador Khalilzad`s statement addresses concerns of both parties. The message for the Taliban is that the US too wants some agreements first. The United States wants a comprehensive ceasefire before any withdrawal.

The message for the Kabul government is that while Afghan of ficials will be included in an intraAfghan dialogue, but the team will include non-of ficials as well.

The Trump-Khan talks in Washington have created two huge challenges for Pakistan: Persuading the Taliban to talk to Kabul and to help prepare groundsfor alasdngceasebre.

Failing to achieve these targets could plunge Pakistan back into the diplomatic wilderness it found itself in before the meeting.