US of­fi­cials: diplo­mat has met with Tal­iban

Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - Local - BY MUJIB MASHAL

Seek­ing to in­ject new en­ergy into the longstalled Afghan peace process, the top U.S. diplo­mat charged with help­ing find a way to end the war has met with Tal­iban rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Doha, Qatar, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials and a Tal­iban state­ment Sat­ur­day.

The meet­ing Fri­day be­tween the U.S. diplo­mat, Zal­may Khalilzad, and the Tal­iban was the sec­ond that se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials have had with Tal­iban rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Qatar since the White House or­dered di­rect talks this sum­mer in the hopes of jump­start­ing the peace process. On Sat­ur­day, Khalilzad flew to Kabul to meet with the Afghan pres­i­dent, Ashraf Ghani.

The Tal­iban have long de­manded that they meet with Amer­i­cans di­rectly in­stead of the Afghan gov­ern­ment, which has made Afghan lead­ers wary of be­ing side­lined. Western diplo­mats have de­scribed the Amer­i­cans’ di­rect con­tact with the Tal­iban as “talks be­fore talks” that could then grow into ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the Tal­iban and the Afghan gov­ern­ment.

The Tal­iban, in a state­ment is­sued through spokesman Zabi­hul­lah Mu­jahid, said six of their rep­re­sen­ta­tives met with Khalilzad.

“They talked about the end of oc­cu­pa­tion and a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion for the Afghan is­sue,” the Tal­iban said. “Both sides agreed to con­tinue their meet­ings in the fu­ture.”

Khalilzad, a for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Iraq and the United Na­tions who was born in Afghanistan, is on his first trip to the re­gion since be­ing ap­pointed by the State De­part­ment last month as spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Afghan rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

“The United States shares the as­pi­ra­tions of all Afghans for a peace­ful Afghanistan where all Afghans see them­selves in­cluded,” Khalilzad said in a state­ment, which did not ac­knowl­edge the meet­ing. He did not re­spond to re­quests for fur­ther com­ment.

The Tal­iban have long stip­u­lated that an agree­ment to with­draw re­main­ing U.S. troops from Afghanistan is es­sen­tial to ne­go­ti­at­ing an end to the war.

A Tal­iban source, who like oth­ers spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the is­sue, said the meet­ing was ex­ploratory and the dis­cus­sion had in­cluded an “end to the oc­cu­pa­tion” as well as re­mov­ing Tal­iban lead­ers from sanc­tions lists. A se­nior of­fi­cial aware of the dis­cus­sions said the Tal­iban also said that the pres­ence of for­eign troops in the coun­try would fore­stall any deal.

De­spite a sense of ur­gency by the United States, prompted by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s frus­tra­tion with the lack of progress in the war, sev­eral Afghan of­fi­cials ex­pressed cau­tion, say­ing that the con­flict was too com­pli­cated to yield quick break­throughs. On Sat­ur­day, Ghani’s of­fice said that it had dis­cussed Khalilzad’s trips to var­i­ous coun­tries, but it did not men­tion a meet­ing with the Tal­iban.

Nazar Mo­ham­mad Mut­maeen, an Afghan an­a­lyst who served as an of­fi­cial dur­ing the Tal­iban gov­ern­ment and still main­tains con­tacts, said the meet­ing was a pos­i­tive step to­ward a peace process even if the Amer­i­cans did not get what they wanted.

“The United States was try­ing to make a meet­ing be­tween the Tal­iban and Afghan gov­ern­ment hap­pen, but the Tal­iban did not ac­cept that,” Mut­maeen said. “This was the first meet­ing where high-rank­ing of­fi­cials from both sides met, and the sec­ond meet­ing be­tween Amer­i­cans and the Tal­iban. Such meet­ings have a pos­i­tive im­pact in the peace process and should con­tinue.”

The meet­ing in Doha comes days af­ter the Tal­iban called on Afghans to boy­cott par­lia­men­tary elec­tions next week.

Zal­may Khalilzad

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