Zalmay Khalilzad

U.S. Envoy Meets Taliban In Push for Afghan Peace Talks Share

Craig Nelson in Kabul and Saeed Shah in Islamabad

The U.S. envoy for Afghan peacemaking, Zalmay Khalilzad, is leading a a U.S. delegation to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: KEITH BEDFORD/REUTERS

Washington’s newly named point man for Afghan peacemaking met Taliban representatives in the Gulf nation of Qatar on Friday, a person familiar with the gathering said, as the Trump administration stepped up efforts to cobble together a road map for talks aimed at ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

It couldn’t immediately be determined what the American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, discussed with Taliban officials in Qatar’s capital Doha. But it was the second time in four months that U.S. officials have met face-to-face there with representatives of the insurgency, following a successful three-day cease-fire in June.

In July, Alice Wells, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, met members of the Taliban’s political commission for what were described by participants as “talks about talks.”

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The Taliban, who were forced from power by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, are seeking the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and a government in Kabul that more closely reflects their ultraconservative interpretation of Islam.

Afghan officials in Kabul had no immediate comment on Friday’s talks. In Washington, the State Department wouldn’t confirm that Mr. Khalilzad met with Taliban representatives. Officials had announced earlier this month that the envoy would lead a U.S. delegation to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia from Oct. 4 to Oct. 14.

A department spokesman said Friday that Mr. Khalilzad had “held a number of meetings with a wide range of stakeholders as part of his trip to explore how best to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Khalilzad was appointed special adviser on Afghanistan early last month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The secretary described the “singular mission statement” of the former American ambassador to Kabul and to Baghdad as “developing the opportunities to get the Afghans and the Taliban to come to a reconciliation.”

Mr. Khalilzad’s appointment has been seen in Washington and in the region as an attempt to boost the profile of Afghan peace efforts and to inject a sense of urgency into diplomacy aimed at reaching a negotiated settlement of America’s longest war. He has told other diplomats that he is seeking to make substantive progress in the next 6-12 months, according to a person regularly in contact with his staff.

A man jogs at Al Bidda park, in Doha, Qatar. The U.S. envoy for Afghan peacemaking met Taliban representatives in the Gulf nation of on Friday, according to a person familiar with the gathering. PHOTO: KAMRAN JEBREILI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In recent days, Mr. Khalilzad has visited the Afghan capital and the Pakistani capital Islamabad for talks with government and military officials. While the Taliban maintains a de facto political office in Doha, the majority of its top leadership is believed by Western intelligence agencies to be based in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s powerful military has long seen the Taliban as a proxy for its interests in Afghanistan, particularly to deter the influence of its archenemy India, experts say. At the same time, Pakistani authorities deny supporting the insurgency.

Islamabad views a U.S. and Afghan government military victory as next to impossible and has welcomed the American push for a peace deal. Still, diplomats in Islamabad say Pakistan may wish to see the Taliban get a larger share of power in any future Afghan government than American or Afghan leaders will accept.

Following his talks with the Taliban, Mr. Khalilzad was expected to return to Kabul on Saturday to brief Afghan government officials. The official Saudi Press Agency reported he met Thursday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh.

On Monday, Mr. Khalilzad told Afghan reporters that an interagency team comprising officials from the White House, State Department Pentagon officials and U.S. intelligence agencies had been formed to work on peace and reconciliation efforts. He also urged both the Afghan government and the Taliban to authorize teams of negotiators to conduct talks.

Afghan authorities are set to hold parliamentary elections next week in what the government of President Ashraf Ghani and the U.S. and other foreign allies view as an important step toward stabilizing the country and legitimating the central government in Kabul.

But both elections and the current push to the negotiating table are occurring amid continuing costs to Afghan civilians. The United Nations said this week that 8,050 Afghans had been killed or injured in the first nine months of this year, with most of the bloodshed inflicted by antigovernment groups. The toll reflected the “same extreme levels of harm to civilians” as the same period last year, it said.

— Courtney McBride in Washington contributed to this article.

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