KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the Afghan capital Monday amid a lengthy political crisis, a raging Taliban insurgency and rising coronavirus cases — all of which threaten an already-floundering peace process.
Pompeo was to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his archrival Abdullah Abdullah, who also claims the presidency after a contested election last year.
According to a pool report from a reporter accompanying Pompeo, the top U.S. 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 the day after the Afghan government and the Taliban held their first discussion on arranging prisoner exchanges — a key step in a broader push for peace after a withdrawal deal signed between Washington and the Taliban in February.
The agreement established a framework for bringing to an end the United States’ longest war, that began with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Khalilzad tweeted Sunday that it was “urgent” to quickly conclude plans for the prisoner swap — as called for in the U.S. pact with the Taliban — with the coronavirus pandemic complicating diplomatic contacts.
The deal called for the release of up to 5,000 Taliban fighters held by Kabul, and up to 1,000 members of the Afghan government forces in the Taliban’s 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 deal cut in Doha, Qatar — and the Taliban.
After initially refusing to release the Taliban prisoners, Ghani said the authorities would free 1,500 of them as a “gesture of goodwill,” with plans to free another 3,500 prisoners after the talks are underway.
The Taliban rejected the offer.
The Doha accord also calls for the gradual withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops over 14 months — the main focus of the U.S. diplomatic efforts.
The first phase of that withdrawal has begun, though some troop movements have been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
In exchange, the Taliban committed to fight jihadist groups including 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, with Ghani’s former chief executive Abdullah also claiming the presidency after last September’s bitterly disputed election.
The impasse and continued fighting along with the world’s preoccupation with coronavirus has sparked fears that the window for a peace deal is closing fast.
Afghan health officials have reported just 40 cases of the novel coronavirus and one death.
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.
© Agence France-Presse