By Humeyra Pamuk, Hamid Shalizi and Charlotte Greenfield
DOHA/KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought on Monday to salvage a U.S.-led effort to bring peace to Afghanistan, meeting with Taliban officials at a Qatari military base after visiting Kabul to try to end a feud between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political foe.
Recent Stories in National Security
U.S. officials said Pompeo held talks for about 75 minutes with Taliban officials at the Qatari section of al Udeid Air Base, which also houses the largest U.S. military facility in the Middle East, as he flew home from a day-long mission to Kabul to end completing claims to the presidency between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.
The outcome of his meeting with the Taliban was not immediately clear. But Pompeo's extraordinary trip amid the global coronavirus pandemic indicated deep concern within the Trump administration over the stalled U.S. effort to end decades of conflict in Afghanistan.
His mission came nearly a month after his last visit to Doha for the Feb. 29 signing of a deal negotiated with Taliban officials for a phased U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Ghani's government was not a party to the agreement aimed at ending America's longest war.
The agreement was to have been followed by the opening by March 10 of negotiations on a political settlement between the insurgents and a delegation of Afghans that would include government officials.
But the process stalled over a Taliban demand for the release by Kabul of 5,000 prisoners and the feud between Ghani and Abdullah, both of whom claimed the presidency following a disputed September election marred by allegations of fraud.
While in Kabul, Pompeo met with Ghani and Abdullah, both separately and together.
Absent from the meetings was the chief U.S. negotiator, U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born veteran diplomat. It was not immediately known why Khalilzad was not included.
A senior State Department official, speaking before the meetings ended, said the purpose of Pompeo's visit was to try to mediate a solution between the two men.
"The fear is that unless this crisis gets resolved … soon, that could affect the peace process … our agreement with the Talibs could be put at risk," the official said.
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 that if there were more meetings a solution was "not impossible" and that they wanted a peaceful end to the crisis.
Khalilzad, who has spent much of his time in Kabul since the deal was signed, made a plea to both sides last week to act quickly on the release of prisoners.
The Taliban and Afghan government spoke for more than two hours on prisoner releases on Sunday in a Skype call facilitated by the United States and Qatar, offering some hope of progress. But domestic politics have been a complicating factor.
In February, Afghanistan's Electoral Commission announced incumbent Ghani as the winner of the presidential election, but Abdullah said he and his allies had won and insisted that he would form a government.
Key sticking points in recent weeks between the two men have included Abdullah's desire to retain the role of chief executive, which he held in the previous government, and that his camp be given more ministerial roles than Ghani was offering, according to the diplomat and an aide to Abdullah.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Charlotte Greenfield and Hamid Shalizi; additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Nick Tattersall, Leslie Adler and Tom Brown)