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US Afghan envoy says new date for intra-Afghan talks sought

Doctor Zalmay Khalilzad, then U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. George Casey, then Commanding General, Multi-National Force - Iraq, attend a transfer of security responsibility ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq, Sept. 21, 2006. (Department of Defense photo by Spc. Michael Pfaff)

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

U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad says a new date for intra-Afghan peace talks is under discussion and it would be best if the discussions began while a significant number of American troops were still in Afghanistan.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call on May 15, Khalilzad also said that he will travel soon to push for a de-escalation in violence and for the release of prisoners.

He added that the United States has heard positive things about the formation of an inclusive Afghan government.

Disagreements over the composition of the government and the pace of prisoner releases have delayed talks between Kabul and the Taliban to end more than 18 years of war. The talks were to begin on March 10 under a landmark deal signed in February between the United States and the militant group.

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

Khalilzad acknowledged that the U.S.-Taliban agreement does not specifically bar attacks on Afghan government forces. The Western-backed government in Kabul was not a party to the deal.

Khalilzad’s comments came three days after attacks on a maternity hospital in Kabul and a funeral ceremony in Nangarhar Province that killed at least 56 people.

No group has claimed responsibility for the hospital attack, which killed 24 people, including two babies, and the Taliban have denied it was behind the incident. Extremist IS militants claimed credit for the other attack.

Khalilzad reiterated that the current U.S. view is that IS militants carried out the attacks, but Afghan officials say they see it differently.

Though he did not mention Khalilzad by name, Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh said some people were naive for accepting Taliban lies and blaming the “fictional” IS faction in Afghanistan for the hospital attack.

“Neither the Taliban hands nor their stained consciousness can be washed of the blood of women, babies & other innocent in the latest senseless carnage,” Saleh, a former intelligence chief, said on Twitter.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered the military to go on the offensive against the Taliban and other militant groups following the two attacks on May 12. He accused all militant groups of ignoring repeated calls to reduce violence.

Khalilzad said earlier on Twitter that IS opposes peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban and “seeks to encourage sectarian war as in Iraq and Syria.”

“Rather than falling into the [Islamic State’s] trap and delay peace or create obstacles, Afghans must come together to crush this menace and pursue a historic peace opportunity,” the U.S. envoy said.

It was unclear whether the U.S. position would help revive peace efforts or alter Ghani’s calculation to start an offensive.

The Taliban, which has denied involvement in either attack, reacted to Ghani’s statement on May 13 by saying it was “fully prepared” to repel any military offensive.

In the first attack, three gunmen stormed a maternity hospital in Kabul’s mostly Shi’ite neighborhood of Dasht-e Barchi before security forces killed them. At least 24 people, including babies, women, and nurses, were killed.

The area where the clinic, run by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), is located has been frequently targeted by IS militants.

“What I saw in the maternity hospital demonstrates it was a systematic shooting of the mothers,” said Frederic Bonnot, MSF’s head in Afghanistan, who visited the facility after the attack.

“They went through the rooms in the maternity [ward], shooting women in their beds. It was methodical,” he added.

The same day, a suicide bomber targeted a funeral for a police commander in the eastern province of Nangarhar, killing at least 32 people.

The core peace plan is 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 and Al-Qaeda aiming to strike abroad.