–Khalilzad speaks ‘candidly’ to Taliban chief as Pentagon downplays new attacks
WASHINGTON: United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday demanded an immediate reduction in violence in Afghanistan but said he still had confidence that Taliban insurgents were committed to a landmark agreement to end the war.
Just days after Pompeo joined the signing of a deal with the Taliban in Qatar, the militants resumed attacks on Afghan government forces, leading US forces to carry out an airstrike on Wednesday.
But the US is still hoping that the Taliban will open talks with the Afghan government – set under the accord to begin next week – and the top US negotiator flew to Kabul in hopes of pushing through an accompanying massive prisoner swap.
“The upsurge in violence in parts of Afghanistan over the last couple of days is unacceptable,” Pompeo told a news conference in Washington.
“Violence must be reduced immediately for the peace process to move forward.”
Under Saturday’s deal with the Taliban, the United States will start to pull out troops with a goal of a complete withdrawal in 14 months, ending the longest-ever US war.
In a scenario that would have been unthinkable after the September 11, 2001 attacks that triggered the US invasion, President Donald Trump has spoken by telephone to Taliban political leader Mullah Baradar and praised the insurgents as a partner.
TALIBAN ‘WORKING DILIGENTLY’:
US officials have sought to play down the violence, describing the Taliban as more of a ragtag rebel force than an organized military that can control all of its members.
“We have seen the senior Taliban leadership working diligently to reduce violence from previous levels,” Pompeo said.
“So we still have confidence the Taliban leadership is working to deliver on its commitments. We’re working to deliver on ours.”
According to the Afghan interior ministry, the Taliban had carried out 30 attacks over a 24-hour period that resulted in the deaths of four civilians and 11 Afghan soldiers.
The head of NATO, the Western alliance that leads the 16,000-strong mission in Afghanistan, said that the path to peace will be “long and hard.”
“It is a very difficult situation and the Taliban must honor their commitment. We need to see a reduction in violence,” Jens Stoltenberg told AFP in an interview in Zagreb.
“We can only deliver our side of the deal if Taliban deliver their side of the deal,” he added.
PUSH AT UN:
At the United Nations, where Pompeo will travel Friday, diplomats said that the United States has opened discussions on a Security Council resolution that would bring international weight to the February 29 deal.
The resolution – an unusual move for an agreement with a guerrilla force – would call on all countries in the region to “provide their full support” to the deal.
The move could put pressure on the internationally-backed government in Kabul, which has had growing friction with Washington, by calling on Afghans to reach “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”.
One of the most sensitive issues is the release of prisoners. Under the accord, the United States commits to the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the insurgents releasing 1,000 captives.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has voiced his opposition to such a major prisoner release, saying it can only take place as part of talks with the Taliban and not as a pre-requisite.
But the Taliban want the release of their militants before sitting down for talks, which Norway has offered to host starting Tuesday.
Pompeo said in Washington that “all the parties understand that it is time for prisoner exchanges to take place”.
The Trump administration has distanced itself from the Kabul government, Washington’s ally for two decades, by pressing on corruption and pointedly declining to congratulate Ghani on his re-election, which was disputed by his rival.
In a new veiled swipe at the government, Pompeo urged Afghans not to care only on “the narrow interest that you happen to represent”.
“What we have urged all the parties to do is stop posturing. It’s time to move forward,” Pompeo said.
KHALILZAD SPEAKS ‘CANDIDLY’ TO TALIBAN CHIEF:
As the Pentagon played down the gravity of new Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, Khalilzad on Thursday said that he met with the insurgent group’s political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and his team for a “candid discussion” on next steps.
The recent attacks on Afghan forces had cast doubts on a four-day-old peace deal between the insurgent group and the United States.
In a tweet, Khalilzad said that his conversation with the Taliban chief was followed with a “constructive phone call” with US President Donald Trump.
“We all agreed the purpose of the US-Taliban agreement is to pave the path to a comprehensive peace in Afghanistan,” he said.
In a subsequent tweet, he said, “Increasing violence is a threat to the peace agreement and must be reduced immediately. In addition to discussing the need to decrease violence, we also talked about the exchange of prisoners.”
Khalilzad said that the US was committed to facilitating the prisoner exchange, which he said was agreed in both the US-Taliban Agreement and the US-Afghanistan Joint Declaration.
“We will support each side to release significant numbers,” he said.
“We must act on all fronts to clear the road of obstacles that slow our progress toward intra-Afghan negotiations. I once again call on all Afghans to rise to the occasion, put country first and not to lose this historic opportunity,” Khalilzad concluded.