Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar was due in Pakistan Wednesday as US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad also visited, officials said, though it was unclear if they would meet for the first time since Donald Trump scuttled talks between Washington and the Islamist extremists.
Insurgent spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that the Pakistan visit would be the fourth leg of a tour that included Russia, China and Iran. Militant sources said the insurgents were set to arrive late Wednesday.
A State Department spokesperson said Khalilzad had spent several days in Islamabad to follow up on conversations between the US President and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan during the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week.
"These meetings do not represent a restart of the Afghan peace process," she said.
Baradar is head of the Taliban\’s political wing and usually based in Qatar, where for nearly a year the insurgents held face-to-face meetings with a US delegation led by Khalilzad.
The two sides were on the brink of a deal that would have seen Washington begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in return for various security promises from the Taliban.
Trump abruptly declared the talks "dead" last month, however, citing a Taliban attack which had killed a US soldier just days earlier.
The Taliban threatened more violence, but both the insurgents and the US left the door open for negotiations to resume — with most experts agreeing Washington will have to return to the table eventually.
The Taliban\’s Doha-based spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, told AFP that the simultaneous visits to Pakistan were a "coincidence".
But when asked whether there was any possibility of the insurgents meeting with Khalilzad, he replied: "Why not? It depends on the Americans."
The Taliban are still ready to sign the agreement which Khalilzad and Baradar had hashed out in Doha, he said.
"We have not backtracked from the agreement, we stand for it. The Americans have backtracked and they will have to take the initiative."
Talks were the only way forward because "there is no military solution to Afghanistan," Shaheen added.
"Better to sign the agreement, and then we will have a ceasefire with the Americans, and then intra-Afghan talks will be started immediately" to discuss issues "including a future government and a ceasefire. So that\’s the solution to the problem," he told AFP.
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Pakistan, which recognised the Taliban regime and has long been accused of supporting the insurgency, helped facilitate the talks and has also called for them to resume.
The Pakistani foreign ministry said the Taliban visit would "provide the opportunity to review the progress made under US-Taliban peace talks so far, and discuss the possibilities of resuming the paused political settlement process".
Pakistani media reported that the head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, was also visiting Islamabad. His spokesman declined to confirm the report.
A senior Pakistani security official said it was possible the insurgents would also meet with the powerful army chief, General Qamer Javed Bajwa.
The visits come as Afghanistan awaits the results of last weekend\’s presidential election which will decide whether President Ashraf Ghani will win a second five-year term, fending off a challenge from his top rival, Abdullah Abdullah.
Both are seeking a strong mandate to steer the war-torn country through darkly uncertain times and possible negotiations with the Taliban, who have long dismissed the government in Kabul as a "puppet" of the US.
One of the aims of the US-Taliban talks was to convince the insurgents to talk to the government in hopes of achieving a durable peace agreement.
But Ghani\’s administration was thoroughly sidelined in the negotiations. On Wednesday, the government spokesman Sediq Sediqqi repeated comments that Kabul must be at the centre of any peace process.
"No progress will be imminent if a peace process is not owned and led by the Afghan government," he tweeted.
Preliminary election results are not due until October 19, and if the leading candidate doesn\’t secure more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will run off in a second round.