KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived on Monday in the Afghan capital, on a previously unannounced visit to help salvage a historic deal between Washington and the Taliban, struck in February but marred by a political feud.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the media at the State Department in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2020. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Pompeo will meet President Ashraf Ghani and longtime rival Abdullah Abdullah, who contests the result of a September presidential vote, raising the prospect of parallel governments that has paralysed selection of negotiating teams for talks.
His visit is being watched closely for clues to whether it can resolve the weeks-long political deadlock.
“We’ll see if…that would mean things are negotiated and they are ready for a final settlement,” said a diplomatic source in Kabul.
Pompeo is scheduled to meet the men separately and also hold meetings with both together on Monday.
A row over the release of prisoners and the politicians’ rivalry have hampered progress in mediation between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which was not a party to the U.S.-Taliban deal, signed in Doha.
The deal signed on Feb. 29 aimed to pave the way for the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government, including a pact to withdraw foreign troops that would effectively end the United States’ longest war.
But the Afghan government and the Taliban have not begun formal negotiation as planned, stymied in part by the bitter feud between Ghani and Abdullah, which has stalled appointment of a negotiation team to represent the Afghan government.
Pompeo’s visit comes at a time when much global travel has been stalled by the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 300,000 and killed more than 14,000 globally.
U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who has spent much of his time in Kabul since the deal signing, made a plea to both sides last week to act fast on the release of prisoners, a condition the Taliban have set for the talks.
Khalilzad said the pandemic added urgency for the release, illustrating how the outbreak is affecting one of U.S. President Donald Trump’s top foreign policy priorities.
With 40 infections in Afghanistan, fears are growing that the thousands returning home from neighbouring Iran every day might fuel the outbreak in a nation with a public health network devastated by years of war.
The Taliban and the Afghan government held a “virtual” meeting on prisoner releases on Sunday, officials said.
In February, Afghanistan’s Electoral Commission announced incumbent Ghani as the winner of the presidential election, but Abdullah said he and his allies had won and insisted that he would form a government.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Himani Sarkar