US Afghan envoy to meet Taliban in Qatar in new efforts for peace

Zalmay Khalilzad will press Taliban, India and Pakistan to support a reduction in violence amid surging Taliban attacks.

Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy Afghanistan
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Zalmay Khalilzad shake hands after signing an agreement in Doha to reduce violence in Afghanistan [File: Ibraheem al Omari/Reuters]

The US special envoy to Afghanistan is on a mission to press Taliban negotiators in Doha and officials in India and Pakistan to support a reduction in violence, acceleration of intra-Afghan peace talks and cooperation on handling the coronavirus pandemic, the US Department of State said on Wednesday.

Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad’s trip comes amid concerns that surging Taliban attacks and the coronavirus pandemic could deal potentially fatal blows to his stalled efforts to end decades of strife in Afghanistan.

At each stop, Khalilzad “will urge support for an immediate reduction in violence, accelerated timeline for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, and cooperation among all sides in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan,” the State Department said.

The statement did not disclose the exact schedule of Khalilzad’s trip, which began on Tuesday.

It is the second trip he has made since April 12 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic to salvage a February 29 accord that he and the Taliban’s second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, signed for a phased withdrawal of US troops from the US’s longest war.

A successful initiative could help US President Donald Trump as he seeks re-election in November.

Khalilzad, the State Department said, would press Taliban officials “for full implementation” of the February 29 agreement.

In New Delhi, a key supporter of the Afghan government, Khalilzad will discuss India’s role in sustaining peace, and he will hold talks on the peace process in Islamabad, according to the State Department.

Pakistan has provided sanctuary and other support to the Taliban for decades as part of a strategy to blunt the influence in Kabul of India, Islamabad’s longtime foe, according to US officials. Pakistan denies backing the armed groups.

The US-Taliban deal called for the Taliban to release up to 1,000 government prisoners and Kabul to free up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners before peace talks that were to begin on March 10.

But a dispute over the pace and scale of the releases between the armed group and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which was not a party to the deal, delayed the talks.

The negotiations also have been stalled by a feud between Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who both claimed victory in a disputed September election, and by escalating Taliban attacks.

The Taliban have mounted more than 4,500 attacks since signing the February 29 deal, according to data seen by Reuters. The provinces hardest hit are also the ones that have the most cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The armed group blames Kabul and the US for the surge in violence.

Source: Reuters