US Secretary of State Pompeo in Kabul to meet Afghan political rivals

KABUL (REUTERS) – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived on Monday (March 23) 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.

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 Taleban and the Afghan government, which was not a party to the US-Taleban deal, signed in Doha.

The deal signed on Feb 29 aimed to pave the way for the Taleban 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 Taleban 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.

US 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 Taleban have set for the talks.

Khalilzad said the pandemic added urgency for the release, illustrating how the outbreak is affecting one of US 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 Taleban 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.

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