KABUL: Signaling a thaw in the frozen Afghan peace process, the Taliban on Saturday confirmed reports that they had held talks with US’ newly-appointed envoy for the reconciliation process.
Zalmay Khalilzad met with representatives of the group to kickstart negotiations and address their concerns that the presence of US-led foreign troops was the main deterrent in achieving peace and stability in the country.
The meeting was the first of its kind since Khalilzad took office as the US’ special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation last month and marks the first time a high-ranking US official has held talks with the militant group after they were ousted from power in late 2001.
Last week, Khalilzad flew into Kabul to discuss measures that could set the wheels of negotiations in motion, by trying to bring President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban on the same table. He later visited Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and finally Qatar where he met with Taliban’s emissaries on Friday.
He returned to Kabul on Saturday to brief President Ghani and other authorities about his meetings. Palace officials in Kabul confirmed the meeting but did not provide further details on the discussions.
In a statement sent to the media, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said that both sides agreed to hold further talks, specifically on the issue of the “occupation” of Afghanistan and to work towards a peaceful solution to the war. “The representatives of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) called the presence of foreign troops as the main hindrance for solution of the problems and for restoration of genuine peace,” Mujahid said.
Terming the talks and Khalilzad’s return to Kabul “as progress”, Nazar Mohammad Mutmaen, an analyst familiar with Taliban leaders, said: “It is the first high-level meeting of US officials with the Taliban and shows that both sides are giving peace a priority,” he told Arab News.
He said Khalilzad’s meeting, set for last month, was delayed because US officials had insisted that President Ghani’s government be represented in the talks and the issue of occupation removed from the agenda – conditions that were opposed by the Taliban.
The meeting comes a week ahead of crucial parliamentary elections that have faced a delay of more than three years and in which President Ghani has vowed to get re-elected. During Khalilzad’s meeting with government leaders last week, the Taliban – breaking months of silence – had warned against the elections, with threats to derail it.
The talks took place more than a year after US President Donald Trump introduced his new South Asia strategy that saw increased air attacks against militants in Afghanistan. However, despite the move, the Taliban have continued to gain ground in the country, questioning the effectiveness of the strategy and US’ role in the process.