WASHINGTON: A senior US diplomat is set to lead a large delegation on a six-nation tour, including Afghanistan, to boost that country’s peace process and bring “all Afghan parties together in an intra-Afghan dialogue,” the State Department said Sunday.
The statement said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador to Afghanistan who has undertaken extensive recent talks with the Taliban, would head an inter-agency delegation from February 10 to 28.
It was unclear whether the group had already left at the time of the statement.
The itinerary will take the US delegation to Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the statement said, adding that Khalilzad would “consult with the Afghan government throughout the trip.”
The emphasis on bringing “all Afghan parties together” appeared crucial. US-Taliban peace talks have not included the Afghan government, which the Taliban considers US-backed puppets, and Khalilzad said recently that intra-Afghan negotiations were essential.
The US envoy has in recent months met several times with Taliban officials in Qatar, where the group’s leaders have an office in the capital Doha.
Khalilzad said Friday that he hoped to see a peace deal in place before Afghanistan´s July presidential elections.
President Donald Trump has been pushing to end US involvement in Afghanistan, where 14,000 American troops are still deployed. But Khalilzad emphasised that any troop withdrawal would depend on conditions on the ground.
He has held a series of meetings with the Pakistani leadership as part of Washington’s renewed push to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.
The latest push for peace came after President Donald Trump wrote a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, seeking Pakistan’s help for the negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict.
In the letter, the United States had sought PM Imran’s full support to advance the Afghan peace process. The correspondence came after Trump accused Pakistan of “doing nothing” despite receiving “billions of dollars” in aid.
Afghanistan has suffered nearly constant conflict since the Soviet invasion of 1979, which was followed by civil war, the Taliban regime, and a US invasion following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Acting Pentagon chief arrives in Afghanistan
Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan arrived in Afghanistan on a surprise visit Monday as the United States seeks to support the Kabul government while negotiating peace with the Taliban.
Shanahan will meet President Ashraf Ghani, whose government was not part of major talks between US and Taliban officials last month that negotiators hope could bring a breakthrough in the grinding 17-year conflict.
He reinforced US support for the Kabul government before touching down in the Afghan capital.
“It’s important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan,” Shanahan told reporters on the flight. “The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future. It’s not about the US, it’s about Afghanistan.”
Shanahan will meet General Scott Miller, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, during his visit.
“I have not been directed to step down our forces in Afghanistan,” Shanahan said. “I think the presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defence and supports regional stability.”
The US is expected to resume talks with Taliban officials in Doha, where the insurgents have their political office, on February 25.