WASHINGTON - Washington still hopes to "bring the Taliban to the negotiating table" in Afghanistan, a senior State Department official said Tuesday, even though President Donald Trump had ruled out such talks any time soon.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, returning from a trip to Kabul, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that all Afghan leaders "reiterated their support for our strategy," and pledged to create "the conditions that will bring the Taliban to the negotiation table."

"We hope the Pakistanis will also help to convince the Taliban to enter a peace process," he said.

Pressed by Democrat senators on this apparent contradiction, Sullivan appeared to draw a distinction between moderate and extreme factions of the group.

"What President Trump was expressing was a reaction to the horrible terrorist activities last month in Kabul," he said. "Significant elements of the Taliban are not prepared to negotiate and it may take a long time before they are willing to negotiate." But some factions do have a place at the table, Sullivan said, adding that Afghan leaders agree.

US could unfreeze aid if Pakistan takes steps

The US could lift its freeze on the $900 million in security assistance it gives to Pakistan, if it targets terror groups using its territory. “We have shared with Pakistan our South Asia strategy in detail and have made our expectations clear, emphasised that they must take decisive action against all militant and terrorist groups based there,” Sullivan said.

“We may consider lifting the suspension when we see decisive and sustained action to address our concerns, including targeting all terrorist groups operating within its territory,” Sullivan said.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the administration had “rightly” taken a more pointed approach by suspending the aid as long as Islamabad continues to shelter terror groups. He has previously called the Pakistani government “duplicitous” over the issue.

The panel’s top Democrat, Senator Ben Cardin, questioned whether the administration truly believed the suspension would work this time, when punitive measures have failed before. “Are we prepared to do more to elicit the behaviour we want, or is this more about the same?” said Cardin, of Maryland.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the panel who also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed to alleged ties between the Haqqani network and Pakistani intelligence—and questioned whether the government could withstand a crackdown.

“I understand it’s a delicate balance for Pakistan,” Sullivan replied. “We want to do all we can to support them in that effort, and we have provided an enormous amount of assistance — monetary and otherwise — to the Pakistani government.” Sullivan, however, told the committee the Trump administration has so far seen no evidence that Pakistan has met its demands for a crackdown on extremist groups.