ISLAMABAD - The newly appointed American special representative for Afghan peace and reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, met Tuesday with top officials in Pakistan to seek the neighboring country's help in bringing the Taliban to the table for talks with the Kabul government. The increasingly deadly Afghan war marked its 17th anniversary last Sunday.
Khalilzad, an ex-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, held delegation level talks with Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua.
Pakistan Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua receives US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad at the Foreign Office for official delegation-level talks between the two countries in Islamabad, Oct. 09, 2018.
Security, defense and diplomatic officials made up both teams, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal. He added that the U.S. delegation later called on Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. The "foreign minister reiterated Pakistan's efforts for achieving peace in Afghanistan," Faisal said.
Afghan-born American diplomat Khalilzad visited Kabul before arriving in Islamabad. He will also travel to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where the Afghan Taliban operate their so-called "political office."
The Islamist insurgency announced in late July that a senior U.S. diplomat, Alice Wells, visited its Doha office and held "preliminary" talks with Taliban political envoys. That meeting took place after repeated demands by the Taliban for direct talks with the U.S. because the insurgents dismiss the Afghan leadership as "stooges of America."
The Taliban reportedly has hinted at meeting Khalilzad when he visits Qatar but neither side has officially confirmed whether a meeting is scheduled.
During his two days of meetings in Kabul with political leaders both in and outside of government as well as key civil society groups, the U.S. envoy asked for cooperation from all sides to bring an end to the conflict.
"He called on the parties to facilitate dialogue by forming inclusive negotiating teams," according to a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul Tuesday.
"We, in cooperation with the Afghan people and government, want to make a peaceful Afghanistan where all Afghans see themselves included. All citizens of Afghanistan must be a part of the reconciliation process," it added.
Washington maintains it is ready to act as a facilitator or be present on the negotiating table but Afghans themselves would have to lead any peace process to find a sustainable solution to the war.
Khalilzad arrived in Afghanistan amid stepped up Taliban battlefield attacks in several provinces of the country, killing dozens of pro-government soldiers. Retaliatory counterinsurgency operations by Afghan forces are said to have also killed scores of insurgents and civilians in recent days.
The spike in violence comes as the Taliban has vowed to disrupt October 20 Afghan parliamentary elections with attacks on officials and security forces engaged to conduct and protect the democratic process.
The insurgent threat has raised fears of more civilian casualties, which have already reached new highs this year. Militant attacks on election-related activities have already killed candidates and their supporters.
Khalilzad's appointment has raised hackles in Pakistan because of his unfriendly statements in the past in his individual capacity, including calls for declaring the country a terrorist state for allegedly harboring Taliban and other insurgent leaders.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, meets Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi at the State Department in Washington, Oct. 2, 2018.
Last week Foreign Minister Qureshi, during his official visit to Washington, also acknowledged there was widespread criticism in Pakistani media of Khalilzada's appointment. In a rare and surprising move for critics, Qureshi advised the U.S. diplomat to conduct himself differently in his role.
"I would urge him to be more sensitive to the opinion in Pakistan. Obviously as individuals we can say what we want to, but once you have an official position, then you have to be more restrained and you have to be more sensitive, because then only can you be an honest broker," said the Pakistani foreign minister.
Pakistani officials deny the Taliban is operating out of their country and point to the vast "ungoverned" Afghan territory being used as a sanctuary by both the insurgents and terrorists linked to Islamic State. Islamabad says its intelligence agencies have traced most of the recent terrorist attacks to sanctuaries on the Afghan side of the largely porous border between the two countries.