- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed cautious optimism Tuesday that a formal truce with the Taliban will be signed this weekend, saying a temporary reduction in violence pact with the militants is “working perfectly,” but also warning the path ahead will be “arduous” and “complex.”

The messaging came as U.S. troops in Afghanistan watch for any sign the Islamist Taliban, which has fought American and Afghan government forces for nearly two decades, will break the current week-long ceasefire that must hold for a more lasting deal to be signed Saturday.

Mr. Pompeo’s remarks at a press conference at State Department headquarters came amid mounting uncertainty over what will occur after a more lasting truce gets inked.

The secretary of state said he’s confident the next step of intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban, the U.S.-backed Afghan government and a wide spectrum of other Afghans will occur. But he steered clear of commenting on political disarray currently gripping Kabul — disarray that could undermine the fragile peace process.

Analysts say the success of intra-Afghan talks will be crucial to any lasting peace in Afghanistan and could lead to the formation of a new political system there.

During the past 18 months of talks with U.S. negotiators, however, the Taliban has refused to even recognize the legitimacy of the U.S.-backed government in the Afghan capital, and some believe the militant group is now poised to exploit infighting among political leaders there, if and when the intra-Afghan negotiations do take place.

At issue specifically is an escalating clash between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his chief political rival, Abdullah Abdullah. The release last week of long-delayed September election results gave Mr. Ghani a second term in office, allowing him to avoid a runoff against Mr. Abdullah by the narrowest of margins.

Mr. Abdullah, who serves as chief executive in a shaky unity government with Mr. Ghani, has rejected the results and announced his intention to now form a parallel administration.

The Trump administration has sought to stay out of the dispute and has so far not issued any statement on whether it recognizes the Afghan election results as legitimate.

Separate from Mr. Pompeo’s press briefing Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus suggested in a statement that the administration may be frustrated with Mr. Abdullah’s claim to be forming a parallel government in Kabul.

Ms. Ortagus said the United States has noted the announcement on the results of the Afghan election “in favor of President Ashraf Ghani,” but that “concerns have been raised about the election process.”

“We expect these concerns to be handled in accordance with constitutional and legal procedures,” she said. “Moving forward, we call on the new government to be inclusive and reflect the aspirations of all Afghans. The country’s leaders and their supporters should ensure that political debate is carried out in a calm manner, free from the use or threat of violence.

“They should also desist from destabilizing actions, including purported efforts to establish parallel government structures inconsistent with the constitution and rule of law,” Ms. Ortagus added. “Such moves call into question the country’s sovereignty and unity that the United States strongly supports.”

Despite questions over the extent to which Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah will be able to forge a coherent, unified front in any future talks with the Taliban, Mr. Pompeo said Tuesday that the U.S. role is purely to help provide security so the intra-Afghan talks can occur.

“Our hope is that when they sit at the table together, that they can grind through the broad range of issues that confront this country, whether that’s the security situation, the economic situation [or] all the political dynamics that are at play there,” the secretary of state said. “It will be arduous. It will be complex. But it has to begin with a moment where the Afghans all sit together.

“Our mission set is very clear,” Mr. Pompeo said. “The Afghan people have spoken. Over the last 16 months, we’ve been working to get to this point that we are at and so far the reduction in violence working perfectly.

“The United States’ effort is to let the Afghans lead this process,” he said, adding that “we are now on the cusp of having an opportunity, which may not succeed, but an opportunity for the first time to let the Afghan people’s voices be heard — voices all across the Afghan political spectrum, the voices of women, the voices of minorities, the voices from all the different tribes and sects and political views.”

Should the intra-Afghan talks succeed, it may pave the way for President Trump to come through on his 2016 campaign promises to end 19 years of war in Afghanistan and bring home most, if not all, of the more than 12,000 U.S. troops stationed there.

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