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US officials due today for talks on Afghan peace process

WASHINGTON: Two key US officials — special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Deputy Assistant to the US president Lisa Curtis — are expected in Islamabad on Tuesday for talks aimed at ensuring the success of a US-backed peace initiative for Afghanistan.

The US Department of State announced last week that Mr Khalilzad is visiting India, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan from Jan 8 for talks to “facilitate an intra-Afghan political settlement”.

The announcement did not name Ms Curtis, who looks after South and Central Asian affairs for the White House National Security Council and has been involved in the Afghan peace process since she joined the Trump administration almost two years ago.

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Speaking at a Washington think-tank in June, Ms Curtis said that an important component to catalysing a peace process in “Afghanistan is ensuring that Pakistan plays a constructive role”.

Media reports claimed that US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells is also likely to visit Islamabad soon, although it’s not clear if she will join the US delegation.

The US delegation is likely to spend five days in Islamabad, meeting senior civil and military leaders. The delegation was in Beijing this weekend where Mr Khalilzad discussed with senior Chinese officials the US initiative for a new set-up in Kabul that includes the Kabul government as well as the Taliban.

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On Friday, Mr Khalilzad met India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi and the Indians insisted that any reconciliation process in the Afghanistan “must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled,” the media reported.

On Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in Doha and pledged to work with Qatar for resolving the Afghan conflict. Qatar hosts a Taliban diplomatic post and also hosted two of the three rounds of US-Taliban talks held so far.

This week, Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib also visited China, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to discuss US-Taliban talks with those governments, Afghan officials said.

While the United States wants the Afghan government to participate in these talks, the Taliban have refused to sit with Kabul officials. The US now wants Pakistan to use its influence to persuade the Taliban to recognise the Afghan government.

Also, the Afghan media reported on Monday that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the co-founder of Taliban movement was now in Qatar “to participate in Taliban’s political processes and moves”.

Mullah Baradar, a deputy of the founding Taliban leader Mullah Omar, was in Pakistan’s custody but was released in October on US requests to allow him to play his part in the Afghan peace process.

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