US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet Taliban officials in Qatar on Monday on his way back from a one-day trip to Afghanistan as part of efforts to salvage a historic deal signed with the armed group in February.
Pompeo will hold the highest-level talks ever between the United States and the Taliban, the US State Department said.
“Secretary Pompeo is going to meet with Taliban officials in Doha including Mullah Baradar, Taliban’s chief negotiator, to press the Taliban to continue to comply with the agreement signed last month,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
As part of the deal with the US, the Taliban is demanding the release of all its prisoners held by the Afghan government, which has been reluctant to follow through.
Pompeo and Mullah Baradarwere to meet at Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base, which is used by American and other forces in the Gulf state that served as the host to a year of talks between the United States and the Taliban.
Earlier, Pompeo met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his longtime rival Abdullah Abdullah, who conducted a parallel inauguration after contesting the presidential election result.
Pompeo arrived early Monday in the Afghan capital of Kabul on a previously unannounced visit to help salvage a deal signed in February between the US and the Taliban group amid tension among the Afghan leadership.
He visited Ghani at his palace before meeting Abdullah, both of whom say they are Afghanistan‘s rightful leader following a disputed presidential election in September.
Their standoff has stalled the selection of a negotiating team to represent the Afghan government in planned talks with the Taliban.
‘Neither of the two budged’
A diplomat in Kabul briefed on the meetings and two other Afghan officials said they were inconclusive.
“It did not work. Neither of the two budged,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition on anonymity.
A spokesman for Ghani declined to comment, saying details of the meetings had not yet been released.
Omid Maisam, a spokesman for Abdullah, said if there were more meetings, a solution was “not impossible” and that they wanted a peaceful end to the crisis.
One of the provisions of the US-Taliban agreement signed in Qatar on February 29 was the proposal to organise talks between Afghan leadership and the Taliban to achieve lasting peace in the war-torn country.
Formal talks have not yet begun, hampered by disagreement over the release of prisoners – a condition set by the Taliban – and by the feud between Ghani and Abdullah.
TheFebruary deal also calls for the gradual withdrawal of US and other foreign troops over a 14-month period – the main focus of the US diplomatic efforts.
The first phase of that withdrawal has already begun, though some troop movements have been slowed by thecoronavirus pandemic.
In exchange, the Taliban committed not to allow Afghan soil to be used against American security interests and promised to negotiate for the first time with West-backed Kabul leadership.
However, since the Doha agreement was signed, the Taliban have continued to carry out attacks.
Furthermore, the Afghan government and the Taliban have not begun formal negotiation as planned, stymied in part by the bitter feud between Ghani and Abdullah, which has stalled appointment of a negotiation team to represent the Afghan government.
Visit amid the pandemic
Pompeo’s visit comes at a time when much global travel has been stalled by the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 360,000 and killed more than 15,000 globally.
US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who helped negotiate the Doha agreement,made a pleato both sides last week to act fast on the release of prisoners, a condition the Taliban has set for the talks.
Khalilzad said the pandemic added urgency for the release, illustrating how the outbreak is affecting one of US President Donald Trump’s top foreign policy priorities.
With 40 infections in Afghanistan, fears are growing that the thousands returning home from neighbouring Iran every day might add to the outbreak in a nation with a public health network devastated by years of war.
The Taliban and the Afghan government held a “virtual” meeting on prisoner releases on Sunday, officials said.