US Special Envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is on his third mission to hold talks with Afghanistan’s neighbours (minus Iran) and the Taliban to find a way out of the Afghan problem that has fatigued almost all the stakeholders involved in the crisis. Mr Khalilzad will be holding the third round of talks with the Taliban and this time Moscow and Beijing are also included in his itinerary, a clear signal that Washington would like to adopt an inclusive approach while addressing the problem. In a way, it is an attempt to respond to the Russian initiative which held a conference in Moscow on November the 9th, and which was participated by all the neighbours of Afghanistan as well as the Taliban. However, the US, Afghan government and India participated in the conference as observers and at a low-key level.Zalmay Khalilzad met with Pakistani leadership (4-5 December) and reiterated the US oft-repeated offer of “sky is the limit” cooperation if Pakistan could facilitate Taliban’s participation in the peace talks and secure their agreement to talk to the Ashraf Ghani government as well. Mr Khalilzad held delegation level talks with the Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua and called on the Prime Minster Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. A week ago President Trump had a U-turn in a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan pleading for closer cooperation on Afghanistan and bringing the Afghan problem to an amicable end. He acknowledged that both the US and Pakistan have immensely suffered due to the Afghan crisis and that the two countries should explore opportunities for closer cooperation. This letter came hardly ten days after his accusation against Pakistan of “not doing a damn thing for the US despite receiving billions of dollars”. By now Americans must have realized that browbeating Pakistan has not worked whether by President Obama or Trump. Pakistan has made it clear to the US that it cannot dump its failure in Afghanistan at Pakistan’s door.By now Americans must have realised that browbeating Pakistan has not worked whether by President Obama or Trump. Pakistan has made it clear to the US that it cannot dump its failure in Afghanistan at Pakistan’s doorAs I have said in my previous write-ups that the US is ready for a withdrawal and that it is now hinting for a pullout before April 2019. The US would not mind if the next presidential elections slated for April next year in Afghanistan are postponed for a later date. However, before such an arrangement is agreed to between the US and all Afghan stakeholders a couple of important issues need to be sorted out. First, the US is keen to seek Taliban’s consent for a token presence of its troops in Afghanistan. According to the US officials, “This is being asked to ensure that al-Qaeda or their associates do not reassemble in Afghanistan.” Apparently, Taliban have not agreed to the US proposal arguing that they do not entertain an overseas agenda implying that there would be no room for al-Qaeda or Daesh/ISIS. Second, the US would like to have some kind of understanding between Taliban and existing setup in Afghanistan led by Ashraf Ghani. Afghan commentators have been complaining that by completely ignoring the present dispensation, the US or Taliban would be committing a mistake as unless all stakeholders were given a place at the negotiating table, peace in Afghanistan would remain elusive.Third, it is yet to be seen if the US would lead the dialogue alone or allow the UN to play a role in facilitating the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. After all, the US presence in Afghanistan owes it to the UN Security Council resolutions 1368 and 1373, which legitimized use of force in Afghanistan. Now that the US is eager to leave Afghanistan would it not involve the UN? In any case, a withdrawal should be taken up by the UN Security Council in order to close the Afghan file. Fourth, as the dialogue between the US and Taliban proceeds would the US be ready to facilitate the deletion of Taliban’s name from the 1267 Committee list? This was also raised by the Taliban delegation at the Moscow Conference amongst other demands. The Taliban delegate described “Peace negotiations and sanctions list are two contradictory concepts and can’t go side by side” so that “representatives of the Islamic Emirate are able to participate in peace talks in different places without any hurdle”. Similarly, Taliban are demanding release of their members from the American and Afghan jails in order to pursue the peace dialogue. Yet another significant demand by the Taliban is the permission of opening a formal office of the Taliban “to issue peace related press releases, respond to questions of (the) people as a responsible entity and remove national and international concerns.”What does the US expect from Pakistan, especially when the Taliban are in control of half of the country and other neighbours of Afghanistan — China, Russia and Iran — are in direct contact with the Taliban. Naturally, the US is aware of the symbiotic relationship that exists between Pakistan and Afghanistan irrespective of the governments on both sides. Afghans of all hue and colour are familiar with Pakistan and have been beneficiary of this country in one way or the other, Taliban are no exception. Afghans are also aware that Pakistan provides easy access to the Afghans unlike its other neighbours; similarly Pakistan has provided such an access only to the Afghans in its neighbourhood. As regards facilitation of dialogue between the US and Taliban, Pakistan will have to weigh its options carefully. Despite having contacts with the Taliban, Pakistan, by and large, has been maintaining a respectable distance with all Afghan groups, especially after the 9/11. How much can Pakistan pressurize Taliban depends on issues on the table.Pakistan is keen to see stability in Afghanistan to address its own myriad of problems. It is likely to respond positively to President Trump’s letter. Given the past experience Pakistan would wish an orderly withdrawal of US-led NATO forces from Afghanistan, which was echoed by the military spokesperson, in his briefing that Washington should“leave Kabul as a friend of the region rather than a failure”. With this objective in mind, Pakistani policy makers are likely to urge the Taliban to consider long-term stability of Afghanistan and avoid raising unreasonable demands. While facilitating a dialogue between the US and Taliban, Pakistan should insist on taking the neighbours of Afghanistan onboard. Right now Mr. Khalilzad is touring all neighbours of Afghanistan except Iran for obvious reasons. However, being a direct neighbour and a substantive stakeholder, Iran cannot be ignored. An inclusive approach would be needed; especially Afghanistan’s direct neighbours will have to be involved in any future settlement in Afghanistan.From Pakistan’s perspective India is the bully on the block, which is evident from its involvement with the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and use of some factions of the Kabul regimes against Pakistan ever since the fall of Taliban. Naturally, Pakistan’s cooperation in facilitation of dialogue would be dependent on US’ counselling of India to stop spoiler’s role by using Afghan soil against Pakistan.Since so much blood and treasure has been wasted during the past seventeen years one has to be cautiously optimistic to hazard a guess about the success of US-Taliban dialogue. Hopefully, Americans while making plans for troop withdrawal would take into account the long-term stability of Afghanistan and its neighbours, for a negligent approach could only encourage the extremists and spell disaster.The writer is a former ambassadorPublished in Daily Times, December 10th 2018.