Washington's new envoy tasked with pursuing a peaceful settlement of Afghanistan's 17-year war is visiting Pakistan to seek help from Islamabad's new government in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, the U.S. Embassy said.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, arrived in Pakistan on October 9 from neighboring Afghanistan. His tour of the region will also include stops in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
Khalilzad was met by Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, who led a delegation that included "security, defense, and diplomatic officials," according to a tweet from the foreign office spokesman. There were no further details.
Pakistan's new Prime Minister Imran Khan promised after winning election in July that his government would be "partners in peace," and Pakistan has supported Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's peace overtures to the Taliban this year.
Pakistan's cooperation in the peace process is believed to be key to its success. The country's powerful military is believed to have kept close ties to the Afghan Taliban since using it to blunt Indian influence in the region in the 1990s.
In Afghanistan, Khalilzad met with Ghani, a longtime friend. Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, first served in Kabul as a special envoy for President George W. Bush following the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, and then later as Washington's ambassador.
But Khalilzad has had a prickly relationship with Pakistan, and has often accused Islamabad of fomenting violence in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban. He has even said the United States should declare Pakistan a terrorist state.
Washington and Kabul have both repeatedly accused Pakistan of providing safe havens for Taliban insurgents, a claim Islamabad has denied and countered with charges that Pakistani insurgents have found sanctuary in Afghanistan.
Both South Asian countries have been the target of brutal militant attacks by both Taliban and Islamic State militants.
Khalilzad's tour of the region has been shrouded in secrecy. One of his stops is Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office. In July, the Taliban said it met there with Alice Wells, Washington's then-top diplomat in the region.
Washington has neither denied nor confirmed the meeting, though Wells was in Qatar at the time. It is not known whether there would be a similar meeting with Khalilzad on his visit.
Direct talks with the United States have been a persistent demand of the Taliban, which accuses Ghani and his government of being U.S. "puppets."
The Afghan Taliban is currently waging a violent campaign against Afghanistan's parliamentary elections on October 20, which it has denounced as a U.S. ploy to further Washington's interests in Afghanistan.
In a statement on October 8, the Taliban urged Afghan candidates to withdraw their names from the ballot lists. The Islamic State extremist group affiliate in Afghanistan has also been staging attacks on election campaigns.
On October 9, a blast at a campaign rally in Helmand province killed eight people and injured 11 others, including the candidate holding the rally. No group immediately claimed responsibility.
With reporting by AP and Reuters