Pompeo makes unannounced trip to Afghanistan

Pompeo makes unannounced trip to Afghanistan
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Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoRomney, Murphy 'extremely concerned' about threats to withdraw from US Embassy in Baghdad There is hope for the future: Create USAID 2.0 Trump announces new sanctions targeting Assad regime over human rights abuses MORE made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan on Monday in an effort to end a political crisis that has stalled U.S. efforts to end the war there.

Pompeo’s trip came even as most official government travel has been canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Pompeo met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Ghani’s chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah. The pair have been locked in a power struggle since Afghanistan's September elections.

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Afghanistan’s elections commission declared Ghani the winner of the election last month, but Abdullah continues to dispute the results. Ghani and Abdullah held dueling inauguration ceremonies earlier this month, and Abdullah has vowed to form a parallel government.

The dispute between Ghani and Abdullah has thrown a wrench into U.S. efforts to make progress on the deal the Trump administration signed with the Taliban late last month.

On Monday, Ghani and Pompeo spoke about “the Afghan peace process and the next steps, a regional consensus on Afghan peace and on current political and security issues,” Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, tweeted.

Pompeo and Abdullah similarly discussed “the critical significance of the Afghan peace process as well as the need to resolve the current political crisis rooted in the recent election,” Abdullah tweeted.

The U.S.-Taliban deal was supposed to precede peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but the March 10 start date laid out in the deal came and went amid the political crisis, as well as a dispute over a prisoner exchange and continued Taliban attacks on Afghan forces.

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The deal calls for the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners ahead of talks. Ghani initially rejected any prisoner releases but later offered to release 1,500 ahead of talks and the remaining 3,500 during talks if violence is reduced. The Taliban rejected the offer, saying it would only accept all 5,000.

Pompeo’s trip comes a day after the Afghan government and the Taliban talked about the prison releases, a meeting held over Skype due to the coronavirus outbreak.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad described the interaction as “technical talks” that lasted more than two hours.

“Everyone clearly understands the coronavirus threat makes prisoner releases that much more urgent,” Khalilzad tweeted Sunday. “All sides conveyed their strong commitment to a reduction of violence, intra-Afghan negotiations, and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire. We have also agreed to a follow-on technical meeting in the next two days.”

Pompeo’s trip also had echoes of one then-Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryMellman: Do debates matter? President Trump faces Herculean task in first debate Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose MORE made in 2014 when Ghani and Abdullah were also fighting about election results after running against each other for president. At that time, Kerry negotiated a power-sharing deal that made Ghani president and Abdullah the specially created position of chief executive officer.