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U.S. Envoy Set To Press Taliban, Afghan Officials On Peace Talks

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, shake hands after signing a peace agreement between the Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha on February 29.

The U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is due to meet representatives of the Taliban and Afghan government to discuss the start of peace talks under an agreement signed February 29 between the United States and the Taliban.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement on May 18 that Khalilzad will meet in Doha with the Taliban representatives to discuss implementation of the agreement “and press for steps necessary to commence intra-Afghan negotiations, including a significant reduction of violence.”

He will meet with senior government officials in Kabul “to explore steps the Afghan government needs to take to make intra-Afghan negotiations begin as soon as possible,” the statement said.

Khalilzad left on May 17 for Doha and Kabul, the statement said, but it did not provide details about when the meetings would take place.

During the meetings, Khalilzad will continue to reinforce the U.S. view that “the best path to end the conflict is for all parties to sit together and negotiate an agreement on the political future of Afghanistan,” the statement said.

Khalilzad’s departure came after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, reached a power-sharing agreement under which Abdullah will lead the government's efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban.

The power struggle had been one of the main impediments to the start of intra-Afghan negotiations to end more than 18 years of war.

The talks were to begin on March 10 under the February agreement, which calls for U.S. and foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan following an intra-Afghan deal in exchange for guarantees from the Taliban not to allow the country to become a haven for transnational terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda.

The Taliban has ramped up attacks in recent weeks despite a pledge to reduce violence, a tactic that it may have employed to strengthen its negotiating position. Meanwhile, IS militants also continue to conduct deadly attacks Afghan security forces and civilians.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for a car-bomb attack on May 18 targeting an intelligence base in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least nine people and wounding dozens.

Last week, the Taliban detonated a truck close to a military building in Gardez city in southeastern Paktia Province, leaving five dead and 20 injured, including military personnel and civilians.

The militant group last week also attacked a military checkpoint in the Alishang district of eastern Laghman Province that left dozens dead or wounded.

The Taliban has said the attacks are a response to Ghani ordering Afghan forces to go on the offensive against the militant group.

Ghani gave the order on May 12 after a violent day in which gunmen stormed at a maternity hospital in Kabul and a suicide bomber targeted a funeral in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

The Taliban denied involvement in the attacks, which killed more than 50 people.

Ghani blamed the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) group for the two attacks and ordered Afghan security forces to “switch from an active defense mode to an offensive one and to start their operations against the enemies.”

With reporting by Reuters
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