The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of South Asia has held talks with Pakistani military leaders about the possibility of postponing the withdrawal of foreign forces from neighboring Afghanistan amid stalled peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The visit of General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Army Central Command (Centcom), to Islamabad on February 19 came as the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden conducts a review of last year’s U.S.-Taliban deal aimed at ending decades of war in Afghanistan.
The February 2020 deal calls for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan by May this year in return for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which pledged to negotiate a cease-fire and a power-sharing deal with Kabul.
Biden is mulling whether to stick to the deadline, renegotiate the terms, or abandon the deal struck by his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Soaring violence in Afghanistan has raised concerns in the United States and among NATO allies about withdrawing too early and potentially allowing the militants to claim victory.
McKenzie held talks with Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who reaffirmed his country's commitment to "efforts for peace in Afghanistan as it is important for peace in Pakistan," according to a statement.
McKenzie thanked Pakistan for its "contributions to the Afghan peace negotiations" and pledged to explore "new areas for collaboration."
Pakistan is the Taliban’s main foreign sponsor and has been credited with bringing the militant group to the negotiating table.
The U.S. general has said that conditions have not been met for a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan by May, warning that an early pullout could risk the collapse of the Afghan government.
Speaking on the plane to Pakistan, he said the Taliban has failed to fulfil its pledge to reduce violence under its deal with Washington.
The militant group denies being behind the soaring violence in Afghanistan, saying those responsible are other insurgents.
But McKenzie has blamed them directly.
"Certainly [the Islamic State militant group] has launched some attacks,” he said. “It pales against what the Taliban is doing. It's a combination of their countrywide attacks against the Afghan forces, their targeted assassinations in some of the urban areas.
"This is clearly the Taliban,” he added. “There is no way it's anyone else. That's very clear."
McKenzie's remarks came as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated Washington's call for an immediate reduction of violence in Afghanistan.
"I urge all parties to choose the path towards peace. The violence must decrease, now," Austin told reporters in Washington.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Asad Majeed Khan, urged the United States to consult the Taliban on any extension of the May troop withdrawal deadline.
"The first party that needs to be consulted is the Taliban,” Khan told an online forum sponsored by the Stimson Center think tank on February 19. “That is where the process should start. To present this as a fait accompli, I think, will only create difficulty."
McKenzie’s visit to Pakistan came on the same day Russia's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, held talks with Pakistani officials in Islamabad, including Bajwa and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
Kabulov's one-day visit came after a Taliban delegation held talks with Russian officials in Moscow on January 28. The militant group has been on a diplomatic blitz as it awaits Washington's decision, also visiting Iran and Turkmenistan in recent weeks.
The Pakistani military's media wing said in a statement that Kabulov and Bajwa discussed “matters of mutual interest, regional security situation, particularly developments in Afghan peace process.”
Qureshi wrote in a tweet that he had a “constructive discussion” with the Russian envoy on the “advancement of the Afghan peace process based on an inclusive political settlement supported by regional consultations.”
According to the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, Kabulov’s visit was “part of Pakistan’s diplomatic outreach in support of the Afghan peace process.”
Moscow has said it had established contacts with the Taliban in recent years because of the common threat posed by the Islamic State extremist group in Afghanistan.
Washington has accused Russia of arming the Taliban, which it denies.
In the past two years, Moscow has hosted international conferences on the Afghan peace process, inviting Taliban leaders and Afghan opposition members to Russia.