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U.S. Officials Meet With Taliban Again as Trump Pushes Afghan Peace Process

Category: Diplomatic Relations,Politics

KABUL, Afghanistan — Seeking to inject new energy into the long-stalled Afghan peace process, the top American diplomat charged with helping find a way to end the war has met with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, officials and a Taliban source said on Saturday.

The Friday meeting between the American diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban was the second time that senior American officials have met with Taliban representatives in Qatar since the White House ordered direct talks this summer in the hopes of jump-starting the peace process. On Saturday, Mr. Khalilzad flew to Kabul to meet with the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani.

The Taliban have long demanded that they meet with Americans directly instead of the Afghan government, which has made Afghan leaders wary of being sidelined in the process. Western diplomats have described the Americans’ direct contact with the Taliban as “talks before talks” that could then grow into negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Mr. Khalilzad, a former American ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations who was born in Afghanistan, is on his first trip to the region since being appointed by the State Department last month as special representative for Afghan reconciliation. On Saturday, Mr. Ghani’s office said in a statement that they had discussed his trips to various countries. It did not mention a meeting with the Taliban.

It was not entirely clear what Mr. Khalilzad had talked about with the Taliban, who have long stipulated that an agreement to withdraw remaining American troops from Afghanistan is essential to negotiating an end to the war. The Taliban source, who like the rest of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the meeting was exploratory and that the discussion had included an “end to the occupation” as well as removing Taliban leaders from sanctions lists. A senior official aware of the discussions also said that the Taliban had affirmed that the presence of the foreign troops would forestall any deal.

Despite a sense of urgency from the United States efforts, prompted by President Trump’s frustration with the lack of progress in the war, several Afghan officials expressed caution, saying that the conflict was too complicated to yield quick breakthroughs.

Mr. Khalilzad did not respond to requests for comment. The official spokesman for the Taliban said he was looking into the matter.

Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, an Afghan analyst who served as an official during the Taliban government and still maintains contacts, said that the meeting was a positive step toward a peace process even if the Americans did not get what they wanted out of it.

“The United States was trying to make a meeting between the Taliban and Afghan government happen, but the Taliban did not accept that,” Mr. Mutmaeen said. “This was the first meeting where high-ranking officials from both side met, and the second meeting between Americans and the Taliban. Such meetings have a positive impact in peace process and should continue.”

The meeting in Doha comes days after the Taliban put out a statement calling on Afghans to boycott parliamentary elections next week. The insurgent group also said that its fighters would do everything possible to stall the voting, already delayed three years.

Mr. Khalilzad began his tour in Kabul last week, before heading to Pakistan with the top American military commander here in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Scott Miller. What Pakistan does is seen as crucial to ending the conflict, because Taliban leaders who wage war in Afghanistan have long enjoyed sanctuaries there, putting them out of reach of Afghan forces and American drone strikes. The Trump administration has increased pressure on Pakistan to limit the freedom of the Taliban leaders, forcing them to the table for talks.

Before meeting the Taliban representatives on Friday, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Khalilzad stopped in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he reportedly met with the embattled Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Afghan officials have long appealed to Saudi Arabia to use its clout as the leader of Sunni Muslims, its government the custodian of the holiest places of Islam, to try to persuade the Taliban to enter into talks. Saudi Arabia has shown more interest in playing a role after Trump officials echoed the Afghan government’s call, and national security advisers of the three countries have met to discuss ways the Saudis could help.

Fahim Abed contributed reporting.

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