- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2018

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Monday, hoping to give new momentum to peace talks with the Taliban in the wake of a brief truce last month, just as reports swirled that the militant group was ramping up violence against American and Afghan forces.

Fresh from two days of talks in North Korea over the weekend and stopovers in Japan and Vietnam, Mr. Pompeo touched down in Kabul for a visit to U.S. and coalition forces’ headquarters in the capital, along with stops at the U.S. Embassy and the presidential palace. Mr. Pompeo was on the ground for only a few hours before departing for the United Arab Emirates.

While there, Mr. Pompeo cited the political and diplomatic success of the recent cease-fire negotiated by the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with the Taliban, tied to the Muslim holiday of Eid, as a sign that President Trump’s revised South Asia strategy was making gains. Dating back to the days after the 9/11 attacks, the 17-year-old conflict ranks as the longest war in American history.

“The region and the world are all tired of what is taking place here in the same way that the Afghan people are no longer interested in seeing war,” he told reporters after meeting with Mr. Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

Mr. Ghani credited Mr. Trump’s new tack as one spur to progress.

“Because of this strategy and the conditions-based nature of it, we, the members of the government, have been able to take bold steps outside the box and articulate an agenda of peace that is truly comprehensive and asks for engagement,” he said.

But the peace process does not include elements of al Qaeda, Islamic State and other jihadi forces that have moved into parts of Afghanistan in the absence of a strong central government.

The unprecedented cease-fire between Taliban and Afghan government forces, which began on June 11 and coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, officially ended June 30. It proved unexpectedly successful, with Taliban fighters mingling with security forces in regional towns before returning to their territory.

Mr. Pompeo’s visit to Kabul was explicitly geared toward building on the success, said Johnny Walsh, a former State Department official who led American advisers on past peace efforts in Afghanistan.

“He wanted to build on the momentum of the peace process with the cease-fire, which was very successful,” Mr. Walsh, who is now a senior Afghan analyst at the Washington-based U.S. Institute for Peace, said in an interview.

During his visit, Mr. Pompeo said the U.S. would back the peace process but that it must be “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.”

“We can’t run the peace talks. We can’t settle this from the outside,” Mr. Pompeo said.

But since the cease-fire expired, the Taliban have renewed their offensive against Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces. On Sunday, the Pentagon identified Army Cpl. Joseph Maciel as the U.S. soldier killed during an insider attack against American forces in southern Afghanistan on Saturday. Cpl. Maciel was killed and two other U.S. soldiers were wounded during the incident in Tarin Kowt district in the country’s Uruzgan province.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning declined to comment on whether the soldiers were out on a mission with their Afghan counterparts during the attack or whether the attack took place inside the U.S. compound in Tarin Kowt.

If it occurred inside the compound, it would be the first successful insider attack on U.S. forces in Afghanistan in over a year. The Taliban have yet to claim responsibility for the strike.

Mr. Walsh said the attack was unlikely to derail the peace push, noting “all sides understand fighting while talking.”

Mr. Pompeo, who will join President Trump for the NATO summit in Brussels this week, also played down again critical official accounts in the North Korean press of his visit, saying the results of the nine hours of nuclear talks in Pyongyang were “mixed.”

“We still have a long ways to go,” he said. “But the commitment that the North Koreans made, frankly that [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un] personally made to President Trump, remains, has been reinforced.”

Mr. Trump on Twitter also defended his high-stakes personal diplomacy with the North on Monday and cautioned China against trying to undermine it.

“I have confidence that Kim Jong-un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake,” Mr. Trump wrote. “We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea. China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese trade — Hope not!”

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