KABUL — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has arrived in Kabul to try to jump-start a U.S. peace deal signed last month with the Taliban, a trip that comes amid a coronavirus pandemic.
Pompeo is due to hold talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani along with his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah.
Since the signing of the deal, the peace process has ground to a halt amid political turmoil, with the country’s leaders squabbling over who was elected president.
Ghani and Abdullah, the country’s former chief executive officer, both declared themselves the country’s president in dueling inauguration ceremonies earlier this month following contested elections in September.
Pompeo is expected to try to help end the political stalemate, which has put on hold the start of intra-Afghan peace talks that would include the Taliban.
Pompeo’s visit comes a day after the Afghan government held its first talks with the Taliban about a prisoner swap. The talks were announced by U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
“Prisoner releases by both sides is an important step in the peace process,” Pompeo said in a March 22 statement on Twitter.
The talks — held via Skype amid the coronavirus pandemic — lasted more than two hours and were facilitated by the United States and Qatar, Khalilzad said.
The spread of the coronavirus has made the release of prisoners “that much more urgent,” he said.
Afghanistan announced the same day the first death in the country due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Afghanistan had 34 confirmed cases of the virus as of March 22.
The United States on February 29 signed a historic agreement with the Taliban that could lead to the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and an end to the country’s 18-year conflict.
According to a joint declaration published by the U.S. and Afghan governments on February 29, the United States and NATO would withdraw all troops in Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban upholds the commitments made in the agreement.
“All sides conveyed their strong commitment to a reduction of violence, intra-Afghan negotiations, and a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire,” Khalilzad said.
The envoy said a follow-up meeting between the Afghan government and Taliban will be held in the next two days.