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US special envoy in Kabul for peace talks

KABUL: The US special envoy leading negotiations with the Taliban was in Kabul on Saturday, an official confirmed, in an apparent renewed push for talks on an agreement with the militants.

Washington and the Taliban are still wrangling over a possible deal that would see American troops begin to leave Afghanistan in return for security guarantees.

However, in recent weeks, the US has been largely quiet on the exact status of the talks.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad held talks with President Ashraf Ghani, according to the Afghan leader’s spokesman.

Khalilzad’s trip to Afghanistan came a day after the envoy travelled to Pakistan where he met a host of officials, including the country’s foreign minister and army chief.

Islamabad has helped facilitate the talks between the militants and Washington in Qatar over the past year.

Khalilzad “welcomed Pakistan’s ongoing efforts to support a reduction in violence that will pave the way for a US-Taliban agreement, intra-Afghan negotiations, and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire in support of a sustainable peace”, read a statement released by US officials in Pakistan.

The US and Taliban had been negotiating the deal for a year and were on the brink of an announcement in September 2019 when President Donald Trump abruptly declared the process “dead”, citing Taliban violence.

Talks were later restarted in December in Qatar, but paused again following an attack near the US-run Bagram military base in Afghanistan.

Taliban sources said last month they had offered to initiate a brief ceasefire of seven to 10 days to help secure a deal, but there was no announcement of the details of the proposal by either party.

Earlier on Saturday, the US Embassy in Islamabad said Khalilzad was in Pakistan to rally support for getting an agreement with the Taliban to reduce their attacks, as a first step toward a peace agreement to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said it supported a quick peace deal with the Taliban and repeated Washington’s call for a reduction in violence. But the violence on the side of Afghan government forces and its US allies has also raised concerns.

Stepped up bombings by the United States and operations by CIA-trained Afghan special forces — several of which have resulted in civilian casualties — have been sharply criticised by human rights groups, some Afghan officials and even resulted in the sacking of Afghanistan’s intelligence chief. Increasing US air attacks began in 2018 and have led to higher death tolls in the conflict. In 2019, the US Air Force dropped 7,423 bombs on Afghanistan, up slightly from 2018 when it dropped 7,362 bombs on the war-shattered country, according to statistics from the US Central Command Combined Air Operations Centre.

This compares to a far lower 4,361 bombs dropped in 2017 and 1,337 in 2016, according to their statistics.

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