Pompeo was in Kabul on an urgent visit to try to move forward a U.S. peace deal signed in February with the Taliban. He’d traveled thousands of miles amid a near-global travel shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, at a time when world leaders and statesmen are curtailing official travel.
But as his plane took off from Kabul, there was still no announcement on whether he’d worked out a solution to Afghanistan’s political impasse between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. There were reports in the Afghan capital that Pompeo had given Ghani and Abdullah until the following day to come up with a compromise, but there was no indication either side had offered to step aside.
Since the U.S.–Taliban deal was signed, the peace process has stalled amid political turmoil, as Ghani and Abdullah remained deadlocked over who was elected president in the September 2019 presidential polls. They both declared themselves the winner in dueling inauguration ceremonies earlier this month.
Pompeo met separately with Ghani and then Abdullah on March 23 before meeting together with both Afghan leaders. His schedule also had Ghani and Abdullah coming together for a one-on-one meeting, presumably to discuss a possible compromise.
The United States pays billions every year toward the Afghan budget, including the country’s defense forces. Afghanistan barely raises a quarter of the revenue it needs to run the country, giving Pompeo considerable financial leverage to force the two squabbling leaders to overcome the impasse.
The political turmoil has put on hold the start of intra-Afghan peace talks that would include the Taliban. Those talks are seen as a critical next step in the peace deal, negotiated to allow the United States to bring home its troops and give Afghans the best chance at peace.
“We are in a crisis,” a State Department official told reporters accompanying Pompeo. “The fear is that unless this crisis gets resolved and resolved soon, that could affect the peace process, which was an opportunity for this country that (has) stood in this 40-years-long war. And our agreement with the Talibs could be put at risk.”
The official briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. concerns.
The United States and NATO have already begun to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan. The final pullout of U.S. forces isn’t dependent on the success of intra-Afghan negotiations but rather on promises made by the Taliban to deny space in Afghanistan to other terror groups, such as the insurgents’ rival Islamic State group.
But within days of the United States and the Taliban signing the peace deal in Qatar on Feb. 29, Afghanistan sunk into a political crisis with Ghani and Abdullah squaring off over election results and Ghani refusing to fulfill his part of a promise made in the U.S.-Taliban deal to free up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners. The insurgents were for their part to free 1,000 Afghan officials and soldiers they hold captive. The exchange was meant to be a goodwill gesture by both sides to start the negotiations.
Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been trying to jump-start talks between Afghans on both sides of the conflict—the next critical step in the U.S.–Taliban deal—tweeted early March 23 that the two sides are talking about the prisoner exchange.
Surprisingly, Khalilzad was not in attendance at Pompeo’s meetings with Ghani or Abdullah, but is in the Afghan capital. Ghani has been critical of Khalilzad’s talks with the Taliban, saying they were too secretive and the Afghan government was kept out of the loop until all the details had been worked out.
The intra-Afghan negotiations were never going to be easy but since Washington signed the peace deal with the Taliban, it has struggled to get the Afghan government to at least offer a unified position.
Pompeo’s visit is also extraordinary for the fact that the U.S., like the United Nations, had earlier said it would not be drawn into mediating between feuding Afghan politicians as it did in 2014 presidential polls. While the Afghan election commission this time gave the win to Ghani, Abdullah and the election complaints commission charged widespread irregularities to challenge Ghani’s win.
In Afghanistan’s previous presidential election in 2014, also marred by widespread fraud and deeply disputed results, Ghani and Abdullah emerged as leading contenders. Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry mediated between the two and eventually cobbled together a so-called unity government, with Ghani as president and Abdullah holding the newly created but equal in status post of the country’s chief executive.
However, the Ghani-Abdullah partnership was a difficult one, and for much of its five years triggered a parliamentary paralysis leading up to the September balloting.
By Kathy Gannon & Rahim Faiez