March 23 (UPI) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday in a bid to break a political dispute gripping the government in Kabul and stalling peace talks with the Taliban.
Pompeo arrived in Kabul and was to hold separate and combined talks with President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, a candidiate for president last year who has disputed the results of the election.
Their disagreement has hampered the Kabul government and fanned fears that the window to implement a historic peace deal between the United States and the Taliban is quickly closing.
The trip is the first venture abroad for Pompeo since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease.
The political crisis in Kabul has prevented the government from appointing a negotiating team to begin intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban — a primary objective of the Qatar agreement.
U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad last week urged the two sides to come to a political agreement, as did NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Ghani has balked at part of the deal that requires releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 government security officers held by the Taliban. It was to happen by March 10, but was delayed after the Afghan government proposed freeing 1,500 prisoners in increments, and then only after the talks had begun.
The Taliban rejected the proposal, which prompted Kabul to suspend the entire process.
Hopes that a prisoner exchange could be accomplished were rekindled over the weekend when Khalilzad said the United States and Qatar had “facilitated the first Afghan government to Taliban technical talks on prisoner releases, via Skype video conferencing.”
Meanwhile, the Tailban has resumed its attacks on Afghan government forces.
An attack Friday at a security checkpoint killed more than two dozen soldiers and police officers in Zabul province. Investigators said it’s believed several members of the Afghan security forces aided in the attack.