US Secretary of State Pompeo meets with Afghan government, Taliban negotiator in Qatar

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with negotiators from the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha on Saturday, amid signs of progress in their talks as Washington accelerates its withdrawal.

Pompeo’s visit comes in the wake of a deadly rocket attack that hit densely populated areas of Kabul and killed at least eight people in the latest outbreak of violence in the Afghan capital.

The Taliban denied responsibility and the Islamic State claimed the deadly strike.

Pompeo met separately with the Afghan government and the Taliban’s negotiating team at a luxury hotel in the Qatari capital.

“I would be most interested in getting your thoughts on how we can increase the likelihood of a successful outcome,” Pompeo said as he met with the Afghan government, noting the shared interest in such a scenario.

He also met with Qatari rulers Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani at a stop in Doha, the Taliban’s base for diplomacy.

The resigning top US diplomat is on a seven-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East as President Donald Trump shuts down late priorities.

Earlier this week, the Pentagon said it would soon withdraw about 2,000 troops from Afghanistan, speeding up the timeline set in a February agreement between Washington and the Taliban that predicts a full US withdrawal by mid-2021.

Trump has repeatedly promised to end “eternal war,” including in Afghanistan, America’s longest-running conflict ever, which began with an invasion to repel the Taliban following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Elected President Joe Biden, in a rare agreement with Trump, also advocates the end of the Afghanistan war, although analysts believe he will not be as married to a quick withdrawal.

Breakthrough?

The Taliban is speaking to the Afghan government for the first time.

Talks began on September 12 in Doha but almost immediately shook off disagreements over the agenda, the basic framework for discussions and interpretations of religion.

Several sources told AFP on Friday that both sides seem to have solved some of the problems, however.

Among the fixed points so far, the Taliban and the Afghan government have struggled to agree on a common language on two main issues.

The Taliban, who are Sunni hardliners, insist on following the Hanafi school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, but government negotiators say this could be used to discriminate against Hazaras, who are predominantly Shia Muslims, and other minorities.

Another controversial issue is how the US-Taliban agreement will shape a future Afghan peace agreement and how it will be referred to.

The Doha peace talks opened after the Taliban and Washington signed an agreement in February, in which the United States agreed to withdraw all foreign forces in exchange for security guarantees and a Taliban promise to open talks.

Violence is on the rise

Despite the talks, violence has escalated across Afghanistan, with the Taliban intensifying daily attacks on Afghan security forces.

Trump’s plan to reduce troops by January 15 – less than a week before his successor Joe Biden is to be sworn in – has been criticized by Kabul residents, who fear it will encourage the Taliban to unleash a new wave of fighting.

Afghan civilians have long borne the brunt of the country’s bloodshed.

Officials in Kabul are also worried that it will strengthen the Taliban’s position at the negotiating table, where the future of hard-won gains, including women’s rights, is at stake.

Saturday’s strike against the Afghan capital saw a barrage of rockets melting into various parts of central and northern Kabul – including in and around the heavily fortified Green Zone that houses embassies and international companies.

The Islamic State group said in a statement that 28 Katyusha rockets had been fired by “caliphate soldiers”.

Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian previously accused the Taliban and said “terrorists” had fired a total of 23 rockets. The Taliban, however, denied responsibility, saying they “do not shoot blindly in public places”.

The Iranian embassy said on Twitter that its main building had been hit by rocket fragments after a projectile landed on the site. No one at the association, which is located just outside the green zone, was injured.

The latest major attacks in Kabul, including two horrific abuses on educational institutions that have killed nearly 50 people in recent weeks, follow a well-known pattern in the aftermath, with the Taliban denying any involvement while the Afghan government blames them or their agents.

(AFP)