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US Secretary of State Pompeo Meets Taliban Official in Qatar

US Secretary of State Pompeo Meets Taliban Official in Qatar

Tuesday, 24 March, 2020 - 07:15
Afghanistan's Abdullah Abdullah, President Ashraf Ghani's political rival, meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Kabul, Afghanistan March 23, 2020. Afghanistan's Chief Executive Office/Handout via REUTERS
Asharq Al-Awsat

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has flown to Doha to meet with Taliban officials on Monday on his way back from a one-day trip to Afghanistan as part of efforts to salvage a historic deal signed with the insurgent group in February.

“Secretary Pompeo is going to meet with Taliban officials in Doha including Mullah Baradar, Taliban’s chief negotiator, to press the Taliban to continue to comply with the agreement signed last month,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

Pompeo on Monday announced a $1 billion cut in US aid to Afghanistan after he had spent eight hours in Kabul meetings that failed to bridge a political divide that has led to the creation of parallel Afghan presidencies.

“The United States is disappointed in them and what their conduct means for Afghanistan and our shared interests,” Pompeo said as he flew back to Washington. “Their failure has harmed US-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonors those Afghan, Americans and coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country.”

The United States also is prepared to cut 2021 assistance by the same amount and is conducting “a review of all of our programs and projects to identify additional reductions, and reconsider our pledges to future donor conferences for Afghanistan,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was sworn in earlier this month for a second five-year term. But his election challenger, former ally Abdullah Abdullah, refused to accept the results amid allegations of fraud. Instead, Abdullah, the country’s former chief executive officer, has declared himself president and sought to create a parallel government in Kabul.

Pompeo got both men to agree to meet with him on Monday at Ghani’s presidential palace. Ghani rejected demands by Abdullah that he be named executive prime minister and have equal power, according to Afghan government officials.

“The mediation by Secretary Pompeo had no result, and he left Kabul,” a senior Afghan government official said.

Pompeo had planned to meet again with both men after they held private talks. He left Kabul without seeing the Afghan leaders again.

On his way back to Washington, Pompeo landed at a military base in Qatar for a 75-minute meeting with Taliban officials, including their top negotiator, Mullah Baradar Akhund.

Speaking to reporters after departing Qatar, Pompeo declined to detail how the $1 billion in aid cuts would be apportioned or whether he set a deadline for Ghani and Abdullah to settle their dispute.

But he indicated that the aid cut could be canceled if they came to an agreement.

“We are hopeful, frankly, that they will get their act together and we won’t have to do it. But we’re prepared to do that,” he said.

Instead, he announced plans to immediately cut $1 billion of an estimated $4.5 billion in annual military and political aid. And he threatened to cut another $1 billion next year.

The Trump administration agreed last month to pull all its forces out of Afghanistan by July 2021—if the Taliban does what it can to make sure the country isn’t used as a haven for terrorists planning attacks on the U.S.

After the deal was signed, President Trump spoke by phone with Mullah Baradar and expressed optimism that the Taliban leader would honor the pact.

U.S. officials have warned the Taliban that they are squandering an opportunity for peace by carrying out a series of deadly attacks across Afghanistan since they signed the deal in Doha.

After failing to broker a deal in Kabul, Mr. Pompeo flew to a joint U.S.-Qatar military base in Doha where he met with Mullah Baradar, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, in a bid to persuade the group to accept a compromise prison swap plan that is supposed to happen before the next phase of peace talks begins.

The Taliban are refusing to meet with the Afghan government for substantive talks until Kabul frees 5,000 of its prisoners—a deal the U.S. agreed to help broker when it signed the deal with the militant group.

The Taliban were supposed to sit down with Afghan leaders two weeks ago to launch direct talks. But they have to resolve the prisoner swap first.

On Sunday, the U.S. and Qatar helped broker an unusual Skype meeting between Taliban leaders and Afghan government officials to discuss the impasse. Mr. Pompeo sought Monday to advance a compromise that would allow peace talks to proceed.

The U.S.-Taliban deal raised hopes for a significant reduction in violence in Afghanistan. That hasn’t happened. The Taliban vowed to avoid attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but said they would keep fighting Afghan security forces.

At least 100 security forces and civilians have been killed since the deal was signed about three weeks ago. The deadliest attack took place last week in southern province of Zabul, where at least 25 security forces were killed in an attack on their checkpoints, local officials said.

Mr. Pompeo praised the Taliban for curbing attacks.

“The reduction in violence is real,” he said. “It’s not perfect but it’s in a place that’s pretty good.”

—Jessica Donati in Washington contributed to this article.

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