United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and longtime rival Abdullah Abdullah, who conducted a parallel inauguration after contesting the presidential election result.
Pompeo arrived on Monday in the Afghan capital Kabul on a previously unannounced visit to help salvage a deal signed in February between Washington and the Taliban armed group amid tension among Afghan leadership.
Shortly after his arrival, Pompeo visited Ghani at his palace before meeting his political rival Abdullah. He was also scheduled to meet the rivals together.
One of the provisions of the US-Taliban agreement signed in the Qatari capital Doha on February 29 was the proposal to organise talks between Afghan leadership and the Taliban to achieve lasting peace in the war-torn country.
A dispute over the release of prisoners and the politicians’ rivalry have hampered progress in mediation between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which was not a party to the US-Taliban deal.
The February deal also calls for the gradual withdrawal of American 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 the coronavirus 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.
Victoria Fontan from the American University in Kabul told Al Jazeera that Pompeo is likely to focus on forming a unity government during his visit.
“The population is in support of in any peace at the moment. And Taliban pledged that it would be to control its ranks,” she said.
“If there is a unity in the government, the same is going to happen on the other side. Every party now knows that they have to put together and make this peace work.”
Pompeo’s visit comes at a time when much global travel has been stalled by the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 300,000 and killed more than 14,000 globally.
US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who helped negotiate the Doha agreement, made a plea to 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.