Pompeo says violence in Afghanistan must stop for peace process to move forward

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday said the recent upsurge in violence in Afghanistan was unacceptable and it must immediately cease for the peace process to move forward, urging both the Taliban and the Afghan government to stop posturing.

Speaking at a news conference at the State Department, Pompeo said President Donald Trump specifically discussed the rise in violence in his phone call on Tuesday with chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Baradar Akhund, the first known conversation between a U.S. leader and a top Taliban official.

“We know that the road ahead will be difficult. We expected it; we were right,” Pompeo said. “The upsurge in violence in parts of Afghanistan over the last couple of days is unacceptable. In no uncertain terms, violence must be reduced immediately for the peace process to move forward.”

The United States signed a deal with Taliban insurgents on Saturday that calls for a phased withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces if the Taliban keeps its commitments and for the start of talks on March 10 between the insurgents and an Afghan delegation on a political settlement to end decades of conflict.

Since the signing, the Taliban decided on Monday to resume normal operations against Afghan forces, though sources have said they will continue to hold back on attacks on foreign units.

Washington in response conducted an air strike on Taliban fighters in Afghanistan on Wednesday. A U.S. forces spokesman said the Taliban fighters were actively attacking an Afghan checkpoint and the strike was a defensive one.

“We still have confidence that the Taliban leadership is still working to deliver on its commitment,” Pompeo said, adding that U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who was a key American negotiator, was in Kabul on Thursday to help lay the groundwork for wider talks, including the problematic prisoner exchange issue.

That issue quickly emerged as an obstacle for the process to move forward, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani refusing to implement a part of the accord – to which his government was not a party – providing for the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

Ghani said the issue should be negotiated, but the Taliban demanded about 5,000 prisoners go free before peace talks begin.

“All the parties understand that it is time for prisoner exchanges to take place,” he said. “A number of the prisoners being held served their full sentences. We need to move that process forward. It will be political both sides, if they have leverage.”

The weekend agreement envisages a full withdrawal of all U.S. and coalition forces within 14 months, dependent on security guarantees by the Taliban, but faces a number of hurdles as the United States tries to shepherd the Taliban and Afghan government toward talks.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)