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West remains ‘committed to achieving peace’ in Afghanistan as Taliban says talks to be held in China

Zalmay Khalilzad at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United Nations and the European Union have joined the United Sates and five European countries in reiterating their commitment to reaching a “sustainable peace agreement” that ends the 18-year war in Afghanistan.

A joint statement was released on October 22 in Brussels, where U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad met with representatives from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the EU, and UN during a two-day visit.

The text calls on Afghan leaders to focus on preparing Afghanistan for formal “intra-Afghan negotiations with the Taliban, including the naming of an inclusive, national negotiating team.”

The Brussels meeting came as Taliban chief negotiator and co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar held talks with Chinese diplomats in the Qatari capital.

After the gathering, Suhail Shaheen, spokesman of the Taliban office in Doha, told RFE/RL that a delegation of the militant group will attend “intra-Afghan” talks in Beijing on October 28-29 as part of efforts to put an end to the Afghan conflict.

Beijing has not confirmed the talks, but a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said it was “willing to facilitate and help” the Afghan peace process “on the basis of respecting the wishes of all parties.”

There was no immediate comment from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration.

Shaheen told AFP that “it is not yet clear” whether Afghan government officials would participate, but said that only lower-level officials should be allowed to attend.

Khalilzad and Taliban representatives have spent nearly a year negotiating a peace agreement that would have seen the United States withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in return for security guarantees.

The sides were poised to reach a final deal last month before President Donald Trump declared the peace process “dead” as violence continued unabated in the Afghan war.

In their joint communique, the UN, EU, and six Western countries stated that they are willing to work with the Afghan government, the Taliban, and other Afghan political civil-society leaders “to reach a comprehensive and sustainable peace agreement.”

All sides in the Afghan conflict were urged to “observe a cease-fire” for the duration of the upcoming “intra-Afghan negotiations” so that “a political road map for Afghanistan’s future” can be reached.

The statement reaffirmed that the Taliban and other Afghan groups must not let the country be a haven for “Al-Qaeda…or other international terrorist groups” and that the Taliban must cut ties with and not support them.

Khalilzad is next scheduled to meet with Russian and Chinese representatives in Moscow “to discuss shared interests in seeing the war in Afghanistan come to an end,” the U.S. State Department has said.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters last weekend while making a surprise visit to Afghanistan that he believed the United States could reduce its force in the country to 8,600 without adversely affecting counterterrorism efforts.

However, he emphasized that any troop withdrawal would happen as part of a peace deal with the Taliban.

Signs that peace talks would start anew emerged earlier this month when Khalilzad met Baradar in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad — their first meeting since the U.S.-Taliban peace process collapsed last month.

The State Department afterward insisted that the envoy’s trip to Pakistani wasn’t related to resetting talks with the Taliban.