The U.S. envoy seeking a peace deal with the Taliban to end nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan is heading back to the region amid growing tensions between Washington and Kabul over the absence of the Afghan government from the talks.
"I'm on the road again to build on what was achieved earlier this month. Follow me here as we intensify efforts to bring Afghans together to discuss the future of their country," Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted late on March 26.
Khalilzad, the chief negotiator with the Taliban, has held several rounds of peace talks with the militant group in Qatar.
The Western-backed government in Kabul has complained it is being left out of the negotiations, with the Taliban refusing to negotiate with what they consider "a U.S. puppet."
The State Department said that Khalilzad's March 25-April 10 trip to Afghanistan, Britain, Belgium, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Jordan, and Qatar was "part of the overall effort to facilitate a peace process that brings all Afghan parties together in inclusive intra-Afghan negotiations."
In Kabul, the envoy will "consult with the Afghan government and other Afghans about the status of U.S. talks with the Taliban, encourage efforts to form an inclusive negotiating team, and discuss next steps in intra-Afghan discussions and negotiations," it added.
The statement did not say whether he would hold fresh talks with the Taliban while in Qatar, the usual location for negotiations with the militants.
The growing rift between Kabul and Washington over the talks with the Taliban erupted in public view on March 14, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's national-security adviser harshly criticized Khalilzad, a veteran, Afghan-born U.S. diplomat.
During a visit to Washington, Hamdullah Mohib accused the U.S. envoy of "delegitimizing" the government by excluding it from the negotiations, acting like a "viceroy," and harboring personal ambitions in Afghanistan.
Reuters news agency quoted an unidentified Afghan government official as saying that Khalilzad "wants to show that he is the champion of peace and President Ghani does not want to be the villain."
"The president believes he is being betrayed," the official added.
Khalilzad's tour also comes amid heightened tensions between Kabul and Islamabad over recent statements made by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that suggested that Afghanistan should set up an interim government.
Khan told Pakistani journalists on March 25 that such a move would help the talks between U.S. and Taliban negotiators, since the militant group refuses to speak to the current government.
Afghanistan has recalled its Islamabad ambassador and summoned Pakistan's deputy ambassador to Kabul to discuss what a Foreign Ministry spokesman called the "irresponsible" remarks by Khan.
Khalilzad weighed in on Kabul's side, tweeting that while Pakistan had made "constructive contributions" to the Afghan peace process, "Khan's comments did not."
"The future of Afghanistan is for Afghans, and only Afghans, to decide. The role of the international community is to encourage Afghans to come together so they can do so," he added.
In a statement on March 27, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said that Khan's comments had been "reported out of context in the media, leading to unwarranted reaction from various quarters."
With reporting by Reuters