Pompeo in Kabul to push Afghan peace deal forward

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Kabul on an urgent visit Monday to try to move forward a U.S. peace deal signed last month with the Taliban.

Since the signing of the deal, the peace process has stalled amid political turmoil in Afghanistan, with the country's leaders squabbling over who was elected president.

President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival in last September's presidential polls, Abdullah Abdullah, have both declared themselves the country's president in dueling inauguration ceremonies earlier this month.

Pompeo met separately with Ghani and was meeting with Abdullah before going to meet together with both Afghan leaders. His schedule also has 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 U.S. and NATO have already begun to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan. The final pullout of U.S. forces is not 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 U.S. 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 good-will gesture by both sides to start the negotiations.

Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been trying to jumpstart talks between Afghans on both sides of the conflict — the next critical step in the U.S.-Taliban deal — tweeted early Monday that the two sides are talking about the prisoner exchange.

Pompeo’s visit is also extraordinary for the fact that the U.S., like the United Nations, had earlier said it would not again be drawn into mediating between feuding Afghan politicians. While the Afghan election committee this time gave the win to Ghani, Abdullah and the election complaints commission charged widespread irregularities to challenge Ghani’s win.

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