US spearheads bid to strike accord with Taliban

          By Aamir Latif</p>  <p>KARACHI, Pakistan (AA) - The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan on Tuesday launched a fresh tour to the region with a series of meetings with top Pakistani leadership in yet another attempt to court Islamabad to help in finding a negotiated end to the 17-year conflict in the war-wrecked country.</p>  <p>Zalmay Khalilzad, who arrived in Islamabad on a day-long visit in the first leg of his trip, met Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and reiterated U.S. President Donald Trump’s “desire to seek Pakistan’s cooperation for peace and stability in Afghanistan.”</p>  <p>Qureshi, according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry, assured the U.S. side of its steadfast support for a negotiated settlement.</p>  <p>He also called on the Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua to discuss “peace and political settlement” in Afghanistan.</p>  <p>His visit --  third one since his selection as a special representative in September last -- came a day after Trump dispatched a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan seeking Pakistan’s help in achieving a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war.</p>  <p>Khalilzad will also travel to Afghanistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belgium, the UAE and Qatar that underlines Washington’s desire to push forward the Afghan reconciliation process.</p>  <p>In October this year, a U.S delegation led by Khalilzad, held rare direct talks with Taliban in Doha bowing to a longtime demand by the warring militia.</p>  <p>Pakistan had brokered the landmark first round of direct talks between the fragile Afghan government, and the Taliban in Islamabad in July 2015, but the process broke down after Taliban announced the death of their long-term leader Mullah Omer triggering a bitter power struggle within the militia.</p>  <p>Chance for resumption of the stalled process went further dim following death of Mullah Omer’s successor, Mullah Mansur, in a U.S. drone strike last year on Pakistan’s side near Afghanistan border.</p>  <p>Since then, several attempts to resume the stalled peace process have been made by a four-nation group comprised of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the U.S. and China.</p> <p>Until now, however, these attempts have failed to bear fruit except for a couple of rounds of direct talks between the U.S and the Taliban.</p>  <p>Taliban have opened new battle fronts across the war-torn nation in recent months as Afghan security forces -- suffering casualties and desertions -- struggle to beat back a revitalized insurgency.</p> <p><br></p> <p>- ‘Reconciliatory tone’

A senior Foreign Ministry official, who wished not to be named, told Anadolu Agency that the “tone” of Khalilzad, who often accuses Islamabad of patronizing the Afghan Taliban, was “reconciliatory”.

“Pakistan has reciprocated in the same spirit to Washington’s desire for our facilitation and assistance vis-à-vis reconciliation in Afghanistan. Khalilzad was also assured that we will use whatever influence we have (over Taliban) for a peaceful end to the Afghan war,” the official said.

Tahir Khan, an Islamabad-based expert on Afghan affairs, reckons that an unexpected change in Trump’s hawkish attitude towards Pakistan reflects the failure of his arm-twisting policy.

“Trump administration seems to have realized that it cannot jump start the Afghan peace process without Pakistan’s help. Cornering Pakistan through suspension of military and economic cooperation has failed to yield anything significant vis-à-vis Afghanistan”, Khan told Anadolu Agency.

He opines that Khalilzad’s ongoing trip might bear some fruits.

“Things are different this time. The U.S has already accepted Taliban’s two major demands — release of top Taliban commander and direct talks with Washington,” he observed, adding: “Pakistan too seems to be in a more serious mood to use its degree of influence over Taliban to resume the long-stalled peace process.”

Khan, however, appears to be skeptical about Taliban’s mood.

“Taliban should show some flexibility this time because of the recent developments, mainly the acceptance of their demand for the direct talks and release of their leaders. But it’s hard to assess what they are considering at this point”, he maintained.

Pakistan released two top Taliban commanders, including the former deputy chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in October this year on the U.S. demand to help facilitate the Afghan peace process.

Meanwhile, Russia has been in contact with the Taliban, based on the moderate, political wing of the movement since 2007. The more Russia came at odds with the U.S., the more common cause it found with its opponents.

A recent fruit of this contact was the Taliban’s agreement to sit publicly with the Afghan government at the same table at the Nov. 9 Moscow conference on Afghanistan.

Moscow hailed the second round of Moscow format consultations on Afghanistan as a “unique” public and open event of this kind. Russian Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov characterized it as “a modest step towards full-fledged negotiations.”

* Elena Teslova from Moscow contributed to this story.