KABUL — The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan peace efforts arrived in Kabul on Saturday after meeting Taliban leaders in Qatar, in an effort to find a way to end the 17-year-old war in the country.
Zalmay Khalilzad’s visit comes as a campaign of pre-election violence continued with 14 people killed, when a motorcycle rigged with explosives detonated at an election rally in north-eastern Afghanistan on Saturday.
Khalilzad, the Afghan-born U.S. adviser, met with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday and briefed him about his 10-day tour of four countries conducted in a bid to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that Khalilzad met the Taliban leadership on Friday in Doha.
The meeting with Khalilzad and other American officials took place in Doha on Friday, he said in a statement sent to journalists.
U.S. officials in Kabul were not immediately available for a comment on Khalilzad’s visit.
Last month, Khalilzad was appointed as U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, as President Donald Trump’s administration launched fresh efforts to hold peace talks with the Taliban.
Khalilzad’s trip started out from Afghanistan. He traveled to Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar before returning to Kabul.
A senior official working with President Ghani said Khalilzad briefed Ghani about his meetings with senior ministers and top diplomats in four countries who could play a key role in peace talks with the Taliban.
Western and Asian diplomats in Kabul said Khalilzad, 67, has knowledge of the country’s main languages, culture and politics that could help him engage with all stakeholders in the peace process.
“The Trump administration and Ghani’s government are now banking on Khalilzad to find a diplomatic way to end the war with the Taliban,” said a top Western diplomat in Kabul. But ongoing fighting has raised questions about the viability of the U.S. strategy to end the war, which for the past year has focused on forcing the militants, largely with more air strikes, to the negotiating table.
Last week the Taliban demanded a complete withdrawal of foreign forces as the only solution to end the war as they ramped up attacks in strategic provinces. They also directed Afghans to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled for Oct. 20.
The attack on Saturday wounded 32 others when the explosives-laden motorbike blew up near the rally in Rustaq district, Khalil Aser, spokesman for the provincial police chief in Takhar province, said.
“There are a number of wounded people in critical condition,” he said.
The attack took place at about noon before Nazefa Yusoufi Beg, a female candidate running for a seat in parliament, arrived at the rally, Aser said.
Jawad Hajri, spokesman for the provincial governor, said Rustaq is a remote district where insurgent attacks have not occurred in the past and the candidate’s supporters had gathered for the rally confident they would be safe.
Adeb Hamra, a local resident, said the district government hospital has only four doctors and was overwhelmed with dead and wounded, most of them in critical condition.
In a separate attack Saturday that targeted the office of a candidate in western Herat province, at least two people including a security guard and a child were killed, said Gelani Farhad, spokesman for the provincial governor.
On Tuesday, eight people including candidate Saleh Mohammad Achekzai, were killed when a suicide bomber struck Achekzai’s home In Helmand province. He was holding a meeting at the time of the attack in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.
On Oct. 2, just days after official campaigning began, a suicide bomber struck an election rally in eastern Nangarhar province, killing at least 14 people and wounding around 40.
Last week, Taliban insurgents issued a statement condemning the elections and warning candidates and Afghan Security Forces that they would be targets if they participate. The Taliban called the polls a U.S.-manipulated event to further their hold on the country.
There are 2,565 candidates vying for seats in the 249-member chamber, including 417 women candidates.
In the run-up to campaigning, five candidates have been killed in separate attacks. Officials from the country’s Independent Election Commission said another two candidates have been abducted, with their fates unknown, and three others have been wounded in violence. Afghan security forces accidentally killed three bodyguards of an independent candidate during a raid on a house near his residence in the eastern Kunar province.
In a separate report from eastern Logar province Saturday, at least five civilians were killed when a bomb exploded during a wedding ceremony, said Shah Poor Ahmadzai, the provincial police chief’s spokesman.
At least 8,050 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of 2018, almost half of them targeted by suicide bomb attacks and other improvised devices that may amount to war crimes, the United Nations said last week.
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