US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday traveled to Kabul to meet with Ashraf Ghani and Afghan President Abdullah Abdullah and also to Doha, where he met with the Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar, saying the trip was intended to "try and drive the peace process to success."
However, a statement released by the US State Department following Pompeo’s visit sent shock waves through Kabul with an announcement that, because of the failure of the Afghan government to live up to the recently declared joint Afghan-US agreement, the US would be "immediately reducing assistance by $1 billion this year," and possibly "another $1 billion in 2021."
According to the US-Taliban agreement timetable, a prisoner release should have already begun, as well as intra-Afghan talks, but Ghani has refused to release prisoners--except under conditions that the Taliban have found unnacceptable--and a negotiating team from the Afghan government side has not been formed yet for intra-Afghan talks.
About the prisoner release, Pompeo said: "It hasn’t started yet and that’s really where I pressed President Ghani and CEO Abdullah. They still can’t see their way towards wanting to get on a team, the inclusive team." He continued: "That’s why you see in our statement that we are disappointed that they’ve not been able to do that."
According to the US-Taliban peace agreement, the intra-Afghan talks were scheduled to start on March 10 on the condition that the Afghan government ensure the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners from its jails, and the Taliban would reciprocate by releasing 1,000 captives. President Ghani’s refusal to release the prisoners-- except in installments and with other conditions--has caused the Taliban to ramp up violence against Afghan forces.
Nevertheless, Pompeo highlighted that the Taliban was upholding their part of the deal by not attacking US forces.
"There haven’t been attacks on American forces since the peace agreement was signed, what, three weeks ago now, three and a half weeks ago," Pompeo said.
"The reduction of violence is real. It’s not perfect, but it’s in a place that’s pretty good. We’re continuing to honor our commitment that says that we will engage only when we are attacked," he told reporters.
Feuding between President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah following the announcement of disputed election results in February has slowed down efforts for the peace process, and sources told that a primary reason for Pompeo’s trip was to address the stalemate.
Speaking of both Ghani and Abdullah’s sides, Pompeo said: "I think they are beginning to realize that we are intent upon executing the outlines of both the joint declaration with the Afghan Government and the document that we signed with the Taliban. So I’m hopeful in the days ahead we’ll begin this process which will begin with the prisoner release and lead to getting an inclusive team together at the negotiating table, which is, in the end, the Afghans sitting together...".
While the announcement of a $1 billion reduction is severe, Pompeo had follow-up comments to put it in context.
In response to a question about where specifically the funds would be pulled from, Pompeo said: "Yeah, I don’t want to talk about the details of what we’re going to do. We’re hopeful, frankly, they’ll get their act together and we won’t have to do it, but we are prepared to do that if they can’t."
"There’s a recognition not just with them, with all the leaders in Afghanistan, that the time has come for these negotiations to begin. I think that they realize it, too. But there’s a long history. There are lots of power centers in Afghanistan," he said.
He continued: "People want to try to gain advantage as they enter into these negotiations and we completely understand that. But it’s time to sit down at the table and begin to have these hard conversations that have been put off for too long."
He said that the Afghan leaders understand that "we will continue to defend the Afghan security forces" that "we have invested so much time and blood and treasure in."
"General Miller (US and NATO forces commander in Afghanistan) was with us for many of the meetings today. We made very clear that we are going to continue to do everything we need to do to support those Afghan Security Forces. That is central. The negotiations have to take place against the backdrop of this important institution inside of Afghanistan, the ANDSF," he mentioned.
He said that the Resolute Support forces, including all 29 countries, are reducing their footprint.
"We made a commitment that we would do a force reduction that would be - I think it was 135 days, so June, July. I can’t recall when that actually ends. We’re moving down that path. As long as these violence levels remain beneath the threshold, our commitment is that we’ll continue," he said.