ISLAMABAD  -   Pakistan has taken the centre stage in the Afghan peace process with the United States, Russia and China acknowledging Islamabad’s key role.

With the September 1 deadline to conclude talks with Taliban closing in, the US, China, Russia and Pakistan are in separate talks to hammer out a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban.

US Special Envoy on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, after the recent conclusion of Doha talks with the Taliban, briefed both Russian and Chinese officials.

Later, Pakistani officials were invited for talks in Beijing where all the four countries released a statement on the conclusion of the two-day meeting between the four nations.

The statement acknowledged importance of Pakistan in facilitating peace in Afghanistan. And interestingly, former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai – known for his close ties with India - became a facilitator of Taliban talks in both Beijing and Moscow.

Foreign Office spokesperson Dr Mohammed Faisal said Pakistan was happy about Doha talks between the Afghan Taliban and the US. He said Pakistan’s facilitative role in talks had been acknowledged and appreciated. He added: “We believe in an Afghan led and Afghan owned solution of the Afghan conflict.”

Faisal said Pakistan will continue to support international efforts aimed at bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan will travel to Washington this month to meet President Donald Trump on July 22 - a rare visit between leaders of the sometimes prickly allies. The visit – PM Khan’s first to the US since coming to power last year – comes at Trump’s invitation.

“The focus will be to refresh the bilateral relationship,” said Dr Faisal.

The announcement of the visit came as the US is seeking Pakistan’s help in finding a way out of neighbouring Afghanistan, where American forces are now in their 18th year of war.

This new strategic alignment on Afghanistan is causing India a great deal of discomfort. Not only it leaves India out of the decision-making loop, the US-led talks have not even accommodated concerns expressed by the Indian authorities.

The US has said it will not agree to the withdrawal of troops until the Taliban put in place security guarantees, implement a ceasefire across the country and commit to an ‘intra-Afghan’ dialogue with the Kabul government.

But the Taliban insist that the precondition of any agreement was the timeline for the withdrawal of the troops. The group also refuses to talk to the Afghan government, calling them a ‘puppet’ of the West.

There are about 17,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including a contingent of some 14,000 US soldiers, as part of a Washington-led Nato mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces.

This month, President Donald Trump said that Afghanistan was a ‘lab for terrorists’ and that even if the US did pull out its troops, it would leave a ‘very strong intelligence’ presence in the country.

Earlier, the US appreciated Pakistan for improving the trust level with Afghanistan as President Ashraf Ghani completed his two-day Pakistan visit in May.

Pakistan also decided to extend the stay of registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan till June 30 next year. The decision by the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions came during Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan and just before the June 30, 2019 deadline.

The two countries agreed to cooperate based on mutual trust and harmony for the benefit of the two peoples and countries and for advancing the cause of peace, stability and prosperity in the region.

Prime Minister Khan previously said that Pakistan had “no favourite” in the upcoming presidential elections. The PM, who met a delegation of senior Afghan leaders leading different groups here, said Pakistan respected the Afghan people’s right to elect their leadership.

The Afghan leaders had participated in the Lahore Peace Process organised by the Lahore Centre for Peace and Research in Murree in May prior to President Ghani’s visit. 

Fifty-seven Afghan politicians, including Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor, second deputy chief executive Mohammad Mohaqeq, and presidential candidate Abdul Latif Pedram, attended the peace conference in Pakistan.

The presidential election scheduled for September 28 will be a key moment to reaffirm the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s democratic political structure. There are significant operational and technical challenges to be overcome.  The Afghan government has announced to release almost 900 Taliban prisoners. So far, figures show that almost 400 of the prisoners have been released.