This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan is meeting with Afghan leaders in Kabul as part of efforts to reach a peace deal to end the 17-year war with the Taliban.
Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Kabul and Iraq, was appointed in September to the U.S. State Department team that is leading the reconciliation effort and peace talks with the Taliban.
A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Khalilzad met with Ghani upon his arrival and was also set to hold talks with senior ministers and top diplomats in Kabul on October 8.
The State Department had earlier said Khalilzad would coordinate and lead U.S. efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. It said he would lead an interagency delegation to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia from October 4-14.
Khalilzad’s visit comes as the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) militant group have stepped up attacks across the country ahead of long-delayed parliamentary polls, expected to come in less than two weeks.
“Peace is a holy process, and the U.S. government and people are united with the Afghan government and people in this process,” Ghani’s office quoted Khalilzad, 67, as saying after their meeting.
The Kabul government has struggled to fend off a resurgent Taliban, IS, and Al-Qaeda militants nearly two decades after a U.S.-led coalition drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001.
The Taliban has repeatedly rejected offers to hold peace talks with the Afghan government or support the polls set for October 20.
IS and Al-Qaeda have not been included in previous cease-fires and are not expected to be part of any reconciliation talks between Kabul and the Taliban.
As Khalilzad met with Afghan leaders, the Taliban vowed to do everything in its power to block the upcoming parliamentary elections, calling them an “American conspiracy to further justify the foreign occupation.”
The militants said on October 8 that they will target anyone who tries to help the election process to succeed, especially the Afghan security forces.
“The real solution of the ongoing Afghan crisis lies in the complete withdrawal of all foreign occupying forces and the restoration of a pure Islamic sovereignty,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s main spokesman.
At least eight parliamentary candidates have been killed across the country in the past two months.
Last week in the eastern province of Nangarhar, at least 18 people were killed in a suicide bombing at an election rally. The IS group claimed responsibility for the attack.
Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) has said that some 54,000 members of Afghan security forces will be responsible for protecting 5,100 polling stations across the country on election day.
More than 2,000 polling stations will be closed for security reasons.