ISLAMABAD - The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has set off on another regional trip that will also take him to Qatar for a new round of negotiations with the Taliban, aimed at finding a political end to the Afghan war.
The insurgent group was quick to welcome the announcement, saying it remains committed to the Afghan peace process with the United States and anticipates further progress when the two sides reconvene.
'In Doha, he will continue to press forward on negotiations with the Taliban to reach a consensus on core national security issues, and urge their participation in an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue,' the State Department said Monday while announcing details of Khalilzad's plans.
The visit comes amid Washington's disappointment over the cancellation of much-awaited Afghan talks with the Taliban that were to have been hosted by the Qatari capital on April 20. The two-day meeting was called off at the last minute after insurgent officials objected to the unusually large size of the 250-member Afghan delegation.
Khalilzad, however, has attempted to play down concerns the collapse of the much-touted dialogue has dealt a blow to the U.S.-led peace mission. 'A bump in the road isn't reason to slow down,' the Afghan-born U.S. chief negotiator tweeted Monday.
The Taliban's Doha-based political spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, told VOA his group welcomes and is keen to resume the dialogue with the U.S. in the coming days, but he would not say when.
Shaheen echoed Khalilzad's optimism, saying the canceled intra-Afghan meeting had nothing to do with the U.S.-Taliban peace process.
'They are two different processes. The collapse of [the] intra-Afghan conference last week has no negative impact on the process of negotiations with the U.S. side,' Shaheen said.
The conference, he stressed, was the second round of a dialogue the Taliban initiated last February in Moscow with politicians, civil society representatives and tribal elders outside of the Afghan government. The Taliban rejects the Kabul administration as illegal and a product of the American 'occupation' of Afghanistan.
Khalilzad's team has held five rounds of direct talks with the Taliban since last year and both sides say they have drafted a preliminary agreement toward ending Washington's longest overseas military intervention.
The deal, if finalized, would bind the Taliban to stop Afghan soil from again becoming a hub for transnational terrorists, and Washington in return would agree to a timetable for total withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. The Afghan government has been excluded from the U.S.-Taliban talks.
Khalilzad, however, has repeatedly said that a comprehensive Taliban cease-fire and the rebel group's participation in intra-Afghan peace discussions would be key to concluding any deal with the insurgents.
Shaheen, however, reiterated the Taliban has made it clear from the outset it will not take part in any formal internal Afghan peace discussions until Washington agrees and announces a troop withdrawal timeline.
The Taliban has already given assurances in the last round of talks that it will prevent Afghanistan from being used to harm other countries, including the United States, said Shaheen, who noted that 'some details' still have to be fleshed out. He did not elaborate.
After finalizing the delegation for the now-canceled conference in Doha, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his reconciliation adviser had declared it would be representative of the state of Afghanistan. That statement apparently angered the Taliban and prompted its representatives to pull out of the event.
Ghani, critics say, is trying to remain in charge of any prospective peace deal with the Taliban, ignoring strong opposition from the insurgent group.
Ghani's constitutional term was due to expire next month and concerns have been raised about an impending constitutional crisis. The Afghan Supreme Court on Sunday ended the political uncertainty by allowing Ghani to remain in office until Sept. 28, when the country is set to hold twice-delayed presidential elections.