24 April 2019

Taliban announce surprise talks with US in Pakistan capital

KONFRONTASI-The Taliban said it will meet envoys from the United States for talks next week in Pakistan even as another round of negotiations is scheduled in Qatar by the end of this month.

The unexpected announcement, not yet confirmed by Washington or Islamabad, came as US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad tours the globe, shoring up support for a peace process to end America's longest war.

Khalilzad, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and now US special peace envoy, held extensive talks with the Taliban last month in Qatar's capital, Doha, where the Taliban have an office.

In a statement on Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said his side would also meet Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan to hold "comprehensive discussions about Pakistan-Afghanistan relations".

Talks in Doha would follow a week later on February 25, the statement said.

While Mujahid said the Taliban delegation would meet the US team, he did not specify any meeting with Khalilzad.

Khalilzad is due in Pakistan as part of a six-country swing through Europe and the Middle East as he tries to build support for efforts to end the 17-year-war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is one of just three countries that recognised the Taliban regime before their ousting by US-led forces in 2001.

Both the Taliban and the US hailed progress in the peace process after the end of the last round of negotiations in Qatar last month.

But many hurdles still lie ahead. Taliban officials say they want all foreign troops out before a ceasefire is agreed upon.

The US is also pushing hard for the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government, which the group has so far refused to engage with, branding it "a puppet of Washington".

US President Donald Trump used his State of the Union address last week to say progress in negotiations with the Taliban would allow a reduction in approximately 14,000 American troops currently posted in Afghanistan.[mr/aje]

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