KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban held talks with the U.S. special envoy tasked with finding a negotiated end to Afghanistan’s protracted and increasingly bloody war, a Taliban official said Saturday.
In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the meeting with Zalmay Khalilzad was held Friday in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office.
Taliban political chief Abbas Stanikzai led the five-member delegation that discussed with Khalilzad “ways of finding a peaceful end to the occupation of Afghanistan,” the statement said.
It went on to say that the presence of “foreign forces” in Afghanistan was the biggest concern of the Taliban. Mujahid said the two sides discussed “finding a good way for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said only that Khalilzad was in the Afghan capital Saturday meeting with President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Khalilzad arrived in Kabul from Qatar, winding up his first official trip since being named special envoy. He also visited Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
In a statement Saturday, Ghani said simply that Khalilzad briefed a meeting of Afghanistan’s top officials on the series of meetings he has held in the region since beginning his sojourn on Oct. 4. There was no mention of a meeting with the Taliban.
When he was appointed earlier this month, the U.S. State Department said Khalilzad’s job was to find a peaceful end to a war that began more than 17 years ago and that has cost Washington in the neighborhood of $900 billion, according to a report earlier this year from a U.S Congress appointed watchdog.
Of that $900 billion, John Sopko, the special inspector general on Afghan reconstruction, said $720 billion was spent on U.S. military operations.
“During this time, the human cost of the struggle against Afghan insurgents and terrorist groups has led to more than 2,400 American military fatalities, about 1,100 among other members of the NATO-led Coalition, and tens of thousands of Afghan deaths,” Sopko said in a statement earlier this year.
U.S. President Donald Trump bemoaned the extraordinary cost of the war in Afghanistan while campaigning for president, when he advocated an end to U.S. involvement in the conflict.
Since then, the U.S. president announced an Afghan strategy that called on Pakistan to do more to push the Taliban to the negotiating table and to end safe havens for insurgents, an allegation Islamabad denies.
Trump also handed greater decision-making powers to U.S. generals on the ground in Afghanistan.
But the strategy has so far failed to stop Taliban aggression and even the U.S.- appointed watchdog says nearly 50 percent of the countryside is either under Taliban influence or in their control. In many areas of the country, the government’s writ is restricted to the cities and district centers.
Relentless Taliban attacks on Afghan military outposts have killed hundreds of Afghan National Security Force personnel in recent months.
The Taliban have been persistent in their demand for direct talks with the United States. In July they said they held talks with Alice Wells, the most senior U.S. diplomat in the region at the time, also in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Washington has neither confirmed nor denied direct talks with the Taliban.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report