US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks to the media. File photo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the Afghan capital Monday amid an ongoing political crisis, a raging Taliban insurgency and rising coronavirus cases -- all of which further threaten an already-floundering peace process.
Pompeo was set to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani along with his archrival Abdullah Abdullah, who also claims the presidency, following a contested election last year.
According to a pool report from a journalist accompanying Pompeo, 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 the Taliban held their first discussion on arranging prisoner exchanges — a key step in a broader push for peace following a withdrawal deal signed between Washington and the militants last month.
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 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 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.
The Doha accord also calls for the gradual withdrawal of American and other foreign troops over a 14-month period -- the main focus of the US diplomatic efforts.
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 militant 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, with Ghani's former chief executive Abdullah also claiming the presidency following last September's bitterly disputed election.
The impasse and continued fighting 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.
The envoy, Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of a February agreement with the Taliban clearing the way for a US troop withdrawal, met Taliban leaders in Doha on Wednesday, hours after meeting government leaders in Kabul.
The US-Taliban deal signed on Feb. 29 was touted as Washington's effort to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan. The next crucial step was to be intra-Afghan talks in which all factions including the Taliban would negotiate a road map for their country's future.
His remarks come against the backdrop of the difficulties US negotiators face in shepherding the Afghan government and Taliban towards intra-Afghan negotiations, according to Western diplomats.
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