US envoy in Kabul amid election uncertainty, stalled talks

Kabul (AFP) –


Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy who led talks with the Taliban until negotiations collapsed last month, was in Kabul on Sunday meeting with top Afghan officials including President Ashraf Ghani.

His visit comes amid speculation the US is attempting to restart the effort to end America's longest war, after President Donald Trump last month declared talks "dead".

Khalilzad's arrival in the Afghan capital coincided with the announcement that preliminary results from recent presidential elections will be delayed for nearly a month, a lengthy postponement likely to stoke political uncertainty and fraud allegations.

"Khalilzad met with the president and briefed him about his recent activities," Ghani's spokesman Sediq Seddiqi said. "His viewpoints and the stance of the Afghan government for peace were discussed."

The US embassy in Kabul declined requests for comment, but officials told AFP Khalilzad may next stop in Pakistan, which he also visited earlier this month and met informally with Taliban representatives.

Ahead of that visit, a senior Taliban source in Pakistan told AFP that the group had not "backtracked" from talks, suggesting the ball was in America's court for how things might proceed.

Experts say the US may want to resume its quest to pull troops out of Afghanistan, but first wants to see some sort of Taliban concession -- such as a reduction in violence.

Ghani, whose government was cut out of negotiations, had sharply criticised the draft deal that was thought to be on the verge of completion following a year of negotiations.

- Results delayed -

Afghans went to the polls for a first-round vote on September 28, and initial results were supposed to have been released October 19.

But more than a week after saying the Independent Election Commission would miss that deadline, commission chairwoman Hawa Alam Nuristani said the results now would not be released until November 14.

"We have already apologised for missing the date, but this doesn't mean failure," Nuristani told reporters.

"This (election) is a fate-determining issue in the country and we cannot accept sacrificing transparency for speed."

Election officials cited several technical issues slowing the counting of ballots, including an attempt from unknown quarters to hack the central system of Dermalog, the German company that provided biometric machines designed to prevent duplicate votes.

In one bizarre incident, two police officers who were purportedly escaping chilly temperatures slept inside the main election data centre, which is supposed to be sealed, prompting howls of outrage from the team of key candidate Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

This year's election is considered a two-horse race between him and Ghani. The two squared off in 2014, with Ghani eventually named winner after a bitter campaign that was marred by violence and allegations of systemic fraud.

It was only after US involvement that Ghani and Abdullah agreed to a power-sharing setup that has only deepened their mutual contempt.

Days ahead of the election, the Trump administration cut $160 million in direct funding to Afghan authorities, citing corruption.

Violence in Afghanistan has continued unabated, with the last quarter the deadliest on record for civilians.

On Sunday, at least five Afghan children were killed when a landmine exploded in the northern Afghan province of Faryab, officials said.

Provincial police spokesman Karim Yourish blamed the Taliban for planting the device near the provincial capital Maimana, after Afghan security forces beat back the insurgents during an overnight attack.

The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment.