Zalmay Khalilzad visits Kabul en route to Doha for talks with Taliban
KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad arrived in Kabul on Wednesday in a bid to breathe a new life into efforts to end the war in Afghanistan, discussing with President Ashraf Ghani steps that could lead to a ceasefire and a peace deal, Washington and Kabul said. After his visit to Kabul, Khalilzad will to fly to Qatar to meet Taliban negotiators, the State Department said. The Qatar meeting appeared to be a continuation of several weeks of informal talks and not a resumption of the formal negotiations on a US troop withdrawal accord that US President Donald Trump terminated in September. “The two sides will rejoin the discussion on how to reduce violence,” said a State Department spokeswoman. Trump canceled the formal negotiations as the sides neared a deal for withdrawal of thousands of US troops in return for Taliban assurances that al Qaeda and other militant groups did not use Afghanistan as a base to attack the United States and its allies. The deal would have been followed by negotiations on a political settlement between the Taliban and a delegation of government officials, civil society leaders and others. Trump met Ghani during a surprise Thanksgiving visit to US forces at Bagram Airfield last week, raising hopes for resumption of efforts to end the insurgency the Taliban have waged since being ousted from power by the 2001 US-led invasion. The chances of reviving negotiations, however, remain doubtful. The Taliban has refused to engage with what they denounce as Ghani’s ‘illegitimate puppet regime,’ and rejected a ceasefire while talks are underway. Kabul says it is ready to revive talks. But it has rejected the previous format under which Khalilzad excluded Afghan officials from US troop withdrawal negotiations. Afghan officials also are pressing for a sequence that would see a ceasefire, direct talks with the Taliban and a security guarantee, and only then US troop withdrawals - a formula that Taliban leaders strongly reject. “We will not announce any ceasefire before a deal with the US, and secondly we will not agree to hold any meetings with the Afghan government before that,” a senior Taliban official told Reuters. A spokesman for the US Embassy in Kabul did not respond to a request for comment. Khalilzad and Ghani discussed issues ‘pertaining to a ceasefire as well as the issue of the Taliban’s sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan,’ a government statement said, referring to the insurgents’ safe haven in Pakistan. Khalilzad appeared to be seeking a ceasefire formula acceptable to the Taliban, who previously agreed only to a reduction in violence. He will discuss with the Taliban ‘steps that could lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and a peaceful settlement of the war, specifically a reduction in violence that leads to a ceasefire,’ the State Department said.