US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to meet Taliban in Qatar, visit Pakistan, India
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US Special Envoy for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad will meet Taliban negotiators in Doha and officials in Pakistan and India to support reduced violence, speeding up intra-Afghan peace talks and cooperating on the coronavirus pandemic during his upcoming visit, the State Department said on Wednesday. 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 that began on Tuesday. It is the second trip he has made since April 12 in the midst of the 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 America’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, the State Department said. 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 militants and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which was not a party to the deal, helped delay 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 Feb. 29 deal, according to data seen by Reuters. The provinces hardest hit are ones with the most COVID-19 infections. The group blame Kabul and the United States for the surge in violence.