ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A fresh effort by the Trump administration this week to seek Pakistan’s help in arranging Afghan peace talks has produced no signs of progress but suggests that the chill between the longtime security allies may be starting to thaw.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan met here Wednesday with the U.S. special representative for the Afghanistan peace process, Zalmay Khalilzad; Khan’s office later said the prime minister had assured his visitor that Pakistan had “always wanted a peaceful end to the Afghan conflict” and that “reconciliation is the only solution.”
There was no public statement from U.S. officials on the meeting, and Khan’s words were carefully vague, making no mention of the U.S. request that Pakistan use its influence with the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan to help bring them to the negotiating table.
But there were numerous reports that a delegation of four Taliban officials from the group’s political office in Qatar arrived here several days ago to hold meetings. Several Pakistani news outlets, citing unnamed Taliban officials, reported that the private visit was likely an effort to coordinate a response among insurgent leaders for future meetings with Khalilzad, who is expected to visit Qatar this month.
The senior Taliban leadership is widely believed to be based inside Pakistan, whose government backed the former Taliban government in Kabul and whose security agencies reportedly maintain close but complicated relations with the insurgents. Five weeks ago, Pakistan released Abdul Ghani Baradar, a former top Taliban official, after he spent eight years in prison, in an apparent gesture of support for peace talks.
The Taliban has been publicly contemptuous of the Afghan government’s peace outreach and has repeatedly said it will negotiate only with U.S. officials. But it has continued to insist that if all foreign troops and bases are not removed from Afghanistan, it will continue fighting.
Khalilzad’s arrival in Pakistan on Tuesday came just after Khan said he had received a letter from President Trump, written in sincere and cordial language, asking for the prime minister’s help in arranging peace talks. Its tone contrasted sharply with past actions and exchanges. Trump last year suspended $300 million in military aid to Pakistan, accusing it of failing to take sufficient action against Taliban militants operating from its side of the border with Afghanistan.
Last week, Trump publicly accused Pakistan of “not doing a damn thing” to help the United States despite huge amounts of American aid. Khan responded with an indignant tweet saying that the “record needs to be put straight on Mr. Trump’s tirade against Pakistan,” which he said had suffered more than 75,000 casualties in the fight against terrorism. The United States, he said, should “stop making Pakistan a scapegoat” for its failure to win the war in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Pakistan’s top military spokesman declared that after years of Pakistani forces targeting violent extremist groups, “not a single militant organization” is operating or being protected inside Pakistan today.
The spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, told a group of foreign journalists that Pakistan strongly supports ending the Afghan conflict, in large part because it has had a destabilizing effect on Pakistan. He noted that Pakistan has been building a high fence along the 1,800-mile border with Afghanistan to disrupt the movement of militants.
“We want peace to come. . . . An unstable Afghanistan is not good for anyone,” Ghafoor said, adding that Pakistan’s greatest worry is that U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan, potentially creating a vacuum and causing “chaos” in the impoverished and ethnically divided nation.
Pakistani analysts and officials welcomed the change in tone from the White House, although some speculated that it stemmed from Trump’s mounting desperation to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and his belated recognition that the United States needs Pakistan’s help to accomplish that.
“Perhaps this is a reality check,” Khurshid Kasuri, a former foreign minister of Pakistan, said in an interview. “President Trump’s letter clearly shows he is keen to bring the Afghan war to an end and that the Americans have realized that Pakistan’s role is very important.”
Some Pakistani officials criticized Khalilzad, saying he had been impatient and highhanded in his previous two visits here to promote the talks. They said they welcomed what appeared to be a fresh, more respectful approach by Washington.
Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s federal minister for human rights and a longtime critic of U.S. policy in the region, tweeted Tuesday that she hoped Khalilzad would bring a “less arrogant and hostile mind-set” during his latest visit to Islamabad. The U.S. special representative is scheduled to visit eight countries on his current mission, including Afghanistan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.