SAM Staff,

Pakistan will host the next round of talks between the United States and the Afghan Taliban in a development that suggests significant progress in the ongoing negotiations to end the 17-year-long war in the neighbouring country.

The talks to be held in Islamabad on February 18 would be attended by US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and a team of Taliban negotiators, officials and the militant group confirmed on Wednesday.

Importantly, the Taliban delegation would also meet Prime Minister Imran Khan, the first such meeting between the insurgent group and a top Pakistani leader since 2001, when the government of the ultra-right group was overthrown after the US invasion.

In a statement, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban delegation would be visiting Islamabad at the invitation of Pakistan government.

“As the negotiations process continues to take place between the Islamic Emirate and the US and meetings have already been held in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the next round will resume on the 25th of February 2019 in the Qatari capital of Doha as per agreement reached during the previous meeting,” Zabihullah added.

“Similarly, by the formal invitation of the government of Pakistan another meeting is scheduled to take place between the negotiation teams of the Islamic Emirate and the US on 18th of February 2019 in Islamabad.”

He said the negotiation team of the Islamic Emirate will also meet with Prime Minister Imran Khan to hold “comprehensive discussions about Pak-Afghan relations and issues pertaining to Afghan refugees and Afghan businessmen.”

Officials familiar with the development said Islamabad meeting would be a follow up of the parleys held earlier in the UAE and Qatar. Both the Taliban and the US cited ‘progress’ in their marathon talks held last month in Doha.

Ahead of the crucial meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan has decided to reach out to the Afghan government despite recent diplomatic spat triggered by President Ashraf Ghani’s controversial tweets about the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM).

For this purpose, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi would meet the Afghan president in Germany on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference scheduled to begin on Friday.

The meeting, officials said, would review the progress so far made in the Pakistan brokered talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban. Qureshi is expected to brief Ghani about Pakistan and other stakeholders’ efforts to convince the Taliban for direct negotiations with the Afghan government.

He is also likely to convey Pakistan’s reservations over Ghani’s recent statement in which he commented on the PTM protests while expressing concerns over what he called “violence perpetrated against peaceful protesters…in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan.”

Ghani’s unprecedented tweets triggered a diplomatic row between the neighbours as Qureshi promptly rejected his remarks as “irresponsible and gross interference” in the internal matters of Pakistan.

Islamabad, through diplomatic channels, also warned Kabul that such an approach can undermine bilateral ties between the two countries as well as negatively impact the reconciliation process.

But officials said despite Ghani’s statement, Pakistan is still committed to the peace process in Afghanistan. And that is why it has decided to reach out to the Afghan president, who apparently feels isolated after the recent meeting of prominent Afghan opposition leaders with the Taliban in Moscow.

Speaking at a news conference, Foreign Minister Qureshi confirmed that he would be meeting Ghani in Munich. He and Ghani are also scheduled to chair a panel discussion on Afghanistan at the conference.

The meeting between the two comes just days before another round of talks expected to be held in Doha between US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban representatives.

Qureshi would also meet the Russian foreign minister in Munich as part of Pakistan’s efforts to evolve regional consensus on the Afghan endgame. He would also interact with a group of influential US congressmen, something, Qureshi said, would help him put across Pakistan’s perspective.

Saudi crown prince’s visit

Also flanked by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary and Prime Minister’s Adviser on Trade Abdul Razzak Dawood, the foreign minister said the upcoming visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) would significantly improve ties between the two countries.

He said MBS would be heading the largest ever Saudi delegation to visit Pakistan in history.

The foreign office on Wednesday officially announced schedule of the crown prince’s visit. The official handout said MBS will visit Pakistan on February 16-17.

The crown prince will be accompanied by a high-powered delegation including members of the Saudi Royal family, key ministers and leading businessmen. This will be first state-level visit of ‘His Royal Highness’ to Pakistan since his elevation as the crown prince in April 2017.

During the visit, he will call on the president of Pakistan. He will also meet the prime minister and the chief of army staff. A delegation of Pakistan’s Senate will also call on the crown prince to discuss ways to enhance parliamentary cooperation between the two countries.

The Saudi ministers accompanying the crown prince will meet their counterparts to discuss bilateral cooperation in their respective fields. On the sidelines of the visit, businessmen of the two countries will also meet to discuss opportunities of collaboration in the private sector.

During his stay, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia will be signing a number of agreements and MoUs related to diverse sectors, including investment, finance, power, renewable energy, internal security, media, culture and sports.

The two countries will also discuss ways and means to develop a robust follow-up mechanism to ensure effective implementation and quick progress on tangible areas of cooperation.

Speaking on the occasion, the information minister said Pakistan is playing a significant role in the Middle East. He said a warm welcome will be accorded to the Saudi crown prince on his arrival in Islamabad.

Authorities, meanwhile, finalised the unprecedented security plan during the visit of Saudi crown prince. The visiting dignitary would be provided four-layered elaborate security while cellular service would remain suspended in some areas of Rawalpindi and Islamabad.