US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the Afghan capital Monday to help break a poisonous political deadlock that has further riven the country just as the Taliban are increasing attacks and a rise in coronavirus cases threatens an already-floundering peace process.
Afghanistan has been enmeshed in a political crisis since elections last year left the country in disarray due to numerous fraud claims that ultimately saw two men claiming the presidency and holding separate inaugurations.
Pompeo was to hold both separate and joint meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — the election’s official winner — along with his archrival Abdullah Abdullah, who also claims the presidency.
“We have tried… for the last several weeks to try to find the formula and encourage them to come to an agreement,” a senior state department official said, according to a pool report.
Pompeo has come “to help push, to encourage and to point out what our expectations are and what that assessment is if they don’t do the right thing”.
The top US diplomat was welcomed by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad — the lead US negotiator in recent talks with the Taliban — after arriving at Kabul airport.
The visit comes just a day after the Afghan government and Taliban held their first discussion on prisoner exchanges — a key step in a broader push for peace following a withdrawal deal signed between Washington and the militants.
The agreement established a framework for bringing to an end America’s longest war following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Khalilzad tweeted Sunday it was “urgent” to quickly conclude plans for the prisoner swap — as called for in the US pact with the Taliban — with the coronavirus pandemic complicating diplomatic contacts.
The deal envisioned the release of up to 5,000 Taliban fighters held by Kabul, and up to 1,000 members of the Afghan government forces in insurgent hands.
That was meant to take place before the start of peace talks originally set for March 10 between the government — which was not a party to the negotiations that produced the Doha deal — and the Taliban.
After initially refusing to release the Taliban prisoners, Ghani announced that the authorities would free 1,500 insurgents as a “gesture of goodwill” with plans to free another 3,500 prisoners after the talks are underway.
The Taliban rejected the offer.
Corona and clashes
The Doha accord also calls for the gradual withdrawal of American and other foreign troops over a 14-month period.
The first phase of that withdrawal has already begun, though some troop movements have been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
In exchange, the Taliban committed to fight jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda and promised to negotiate for the first time with Kabul. But since the Doha agreement was signed, the Taliban have carried out scores of attacks.
Political chaos in Kabul has further complicated matters. The spat between former chief executive Abdullah and Ghani, along with the world’s preoccupation with coronavirus, has sparked fears the window for a peace deal is closing fast.
Afghan health officials have reported just 40 cases of the novel coronavirus and one death to date.
However, health experts fear the contagion is spreading as tens of thousands of Afghans have returned home in recent weeks after fleeing virus-hit Iran.