Mike Pompeo leaves Kabul, no word on political power-sharing deal
KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Afghanistan on Monday without saying whether he was able to broker an agreement between the country's squabbling political leaders.
Pompeo was in Kabul on an urgent visit to try to move forward a U.S. peace deal signed last month with the Taliban. He'd traveled thousands of miles despite 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.
Since the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed, the peace process has stalled amid political turmoil in Afghanistan, with the country's leaders deadlocked over who was elected president in last September's presidential polls.
President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, have both declared themselves the country's president in dueling inauguration ceremonies earlier this month.
Pompeo met separately with Ghani and then Abdullah 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 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.
The urgency of Pompeo’s surprise visit was highlighted by the fact that the State Department has warned American citizens against all international travel, citing the spread of the new coronavirus. Pompeo has cancelled at least two domestic U.S. trips because of the outbreak, including one to a now-cancelled G7 foreign ministers meeting that was to have taken place in Pittsburgh this week. That meeting will now take place by video conference.