The US plans to convene a meeting with the foreign ministers of India, Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran to forge a common approach on ending the war in Afghanistan while simultaneously taking steps to speed up a settlement with the Taliban.

This was conveyed by US secretary of state Antony Blinken in a letter sent to President Ashraf Ghani. The letter marks the first time the new Biden administration has outlined its approach towards Afghanistan as it undertakes a review of the troubled peace process with the Taliban as well as plans to withdraw all American forces from the war-torn country by May 1.

Soon after Blinken’s letter was accessed by Afghanistan’s Tolo News on Sunday afternoon, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, spoke over the phone with external affairs minister S Jaishankar to discuss the peace process.

“Received a call from US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad @US4AfghanPeace. Discussed latest developments pertaining to peace talks. We will remain in touch,” Jaishankar tweeted, without giving details.

There was no other official word on the developments from the US and Indian sides.

In his letter, Blinken outlined four elements that he said are part of a “high-level diplomatic effort with the parties and with regional countries and the United Nations” to move matters “more fundamentally and quickly toward a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”.

As a first step, the US intends to “ask the United Nations to convene Foreign Ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, and the United States to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan”, Blinken wrote.

“It is my belief that these countries share an abiding common interest in a stable Afghanistan and must work together if we are to succeed,” he added.

There was a perception in New Delhi that Khalilzad’s efforts under the Trump administration accorded greater significance to Pakistan and skipped over many of India’s concerns related to Afghanistan. Some quarters in New Delhi and Kabul even believed Khalilzad didn’t give adequate importance to the Afghan government in his efforts to push forward the peace process after the US and the Taliban signed an agreement at Doha in February 2020.

Blinken’s efforts to rope in both India and Iran appear to indicate a desire to balance the process by roping in all states that have influence in Afghanistan.

As the second element of the new effort, Blinken wrote he had asked Khalilzad to prepare and share with Ghani and Taliban leaders “written proposals aimed at accelerating discussions on a negotiated settlement and ceasefire”. These proposals will reflect ideas included in a roadmap for the peace process that Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib shared with the US ambassador to Kabul, Ross Wilson.

“In sharing these documents, we do not intend to dictate terms to the parties. Rather, the documents will enable [the Afghan government] and the Taliban to move urgently to the tasks of developing a) the foundational principles that will guide Afghanistan's future constitutional and governing arrangements, b) a roadmap to a new, inclusive government; and c) the terms of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” he wrote.

The third element will be the US asking the Turkish government to host a senior-level meeting of the Afghan government and the Taliban in the coming weeks to “finalise a peace agreement”. Blinken added, “I urge you or your authoritative designees to join other representatives of the Islamic Republic in this meeting.”

The fourth element of the efforts will be aimed at reducing violence. Blinken wrote he shared Ghani’s view that “every effort must be made to reduce the high levels of violence in Afghanistan, which are exacting an unacceptable toll on the Afghan people and deeply undermining efforts to achieve peace”.

He added that the US has prepared a “revised proposal for a 90-day Reduction-in-Violence, which is intended to prevent a Spring Offensive by the Taliban and to coincide with our diplomatic efforts to support a political settlement. He added that Khalilzad would share this proposal with Ghani.

At the same time, Blinken called for greater unity among Afghan politicians to take forward the process. “Unity and inclusivity on the [Afghan] side are, I believe, essential for the difficult work that lies ahead. As you and your countrymen know all too well, disunity on the part of Afghan leaders proved disastrous in the early 1990s and must not be allowed to sabotage the opportunity before us,” he said.

Blinken urged Ghani to build consensus on specific goals and objectives for a negotiation with the Taliban “about governance, power-sharing, and essential supporting principles”.

He also said that as the Biden administration’s review continues, the US “has not ruled out any option” and is still “considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1st, as we consider other options”.

“Even with the continuation of financial assistance from the United States to your forces after an American military withdrawal, I am concerned that the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains,” he said.

Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said this appeared to be a clear attempt by the Biden administration to move way from Donald Trump’s legacy on Afghanistan.

“Trump was often accused of not involving regional powers such as India and Iran because of his own foreign policy priorities. If there is to be lasting peace in Afghanistan, regional powers have to be brought in, along with a lessening of the focus on Pakistan. I would say this is a more balanced approach,” Patil said.