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Pakistan, Afghan Taliban call for resumption of peace talks

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Senior Afghan Taliban leaders and Pakistani officials on Thursday called for the resumption of talks on a peaceful resolution to the war in Afghanistan. The appeal, made during a rare Taliban visit to Islamabad, comes after months-long U.S.-Taliban negotiations collapsed in September and President Donald Trump announced the talks with the insurgents were "dead."

The timing of the Taliban visit _ which coincided with that of Washington's special peace envoy for Afghanistan, who was also in Islamabad on Thursday for "consultations" with Pakistani officials _ appears to indicate Pakistan is seeking to help restart the talks.

In a statement, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said both sides agreed Thursday that the peace process should be resumed as soon as possible. Also on Thursday, Trump was asked at the White House about Pakistani officials calling for the talks to resume. The president was noncommittal about whether they would, saying the Taliban's standing with him had not yet been restored from when he called off the talks amid a surge in violence that he claimed the Taliban had orchestrated to increase their leverage at the negotiating table.

“We have a real problem," Trump said, without elaborating. "We've been hitting the Taliban very, very hard. As far as I am concerned, they still haven't recovered from killing 12 people _ one who happened to be a great American soldier from Puerto Rico. They still have not recovered (their standing) and they probably never will."

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi met with the 12-member Taliban team, headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban and head of their political office in Qatar. The Pakistani side also included intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, foreign secretary Sohail Mahmood and others.

TV footage showed Hameed hugging members of the Taliban delegation, including Baradar, who was released in 2018, years after he was detained in a joint operation carried out by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the CIA. He was released to facilitate the peace process in Afghanistan.

Earlier, in a Foreign Ministry statement, Qureshi “reiterated Pakistan’s commitment and continued strong support” for all efforts aimed at resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. It said that during the talks, it was “emphasized that reduction of violence by all parties to the conflict was necessary to provide an enabling environment for resumption of the peace process at an early date.”

Qureshi told reporters the Taliban would meet with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who was also in Islamabad, though he didn’t say when such a meeting would take place. “Khalilzad is here and he has been in talks with them. He is fully aware of each and everything (being said) and has played a positive role in this process. God willing, he will also meet with (the Taliban),” he said.

A State Department spokesperson said Khalilzad has spent several days in Islamabad this week for consultations with authorities in Pakistan, which follow up on discussions held between Trump and Pakistan President Imran Khan on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last week. The spokesperson, who spoke only on condition of anonymity according to department guidelines, said these meetings do not represent a re-start of the Afghan peace process.

Later, Qureshi told a gathering at a seminary in the central city of Multan that Pakistan was eager to see the resumption of U.S.-Taliban talks but without naming anyone, warned “there are and there will be spoilers” who prefer unrest and chaos.

Before coming to Pakistan, the Taliban delegation traveled to Russia, China and Iran. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the delegation arrived in Islamabad late Wednesday. Shahbudin Dilawar, an ex-Taliban ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said in a post on the official Taliban website that the talks with Pakistan “will be focused on political issues.”

Those issues include education and health care for millions of Afghans living in Pakistan, as well as Taliban demands that an unspecified number of Afghans arrested in Pakistan “whose crimes are not serious” be released.

Khalilzad spent the last year negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban, which seemed imminent until Sept. 7, when the talks collapsed amid a surge in deadly Taliban attacks across Afghanistan _ including one that killed a U.S. soldier _ and Trump declared the talks were over.

Since then, Pakistan has urged both sides to resume the talks. Qureshi on Thursday also vowed that Pakistan would continue to support all efforts to achieve a permanent peace in Afghanistan, which the foreign minister described as essential for Pakistan’s own development and progress.

The Taliban-U.S. talks, which Pakistan sincerely backed, had “laid a firm ground for achieving a sustainable peace deal in Afghanistan,” Qureshi said, urging their speedy resumption for the good of “peace, stability and prosperity for future generations of Afghanistan”.

Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Kabul, Afghanistan, Deb Riechmann in Washington and Asim Tanveer in Multan, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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