San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday)
Pompeo presses peace talks amid growing violence
KABUL — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday visited the Gulf nation of Qatar, where he met with Afghan and Taliban negotiators who are trying to break a deadlock in their stalled peace negotiations. He landed hours after a deadly rocket attack in Kabul, the latest evidence of the violence escalating across Afghanistan.
The rocket barrage slammed into the heart of Kabul, killing at least eight people and wounding more than two dozen. The attack early Saturday set off warning sirens that blared across the diplomatic quarters of the Afghan capital, and residents on their morning commute took cover.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors Islamic State group announcements. The group is seen by many experts as one of the primary spoilers for any future peace in Afghanistan.
Qatar is the latest stop on Pompeo’s whirlwind lap of diplomacy in the waning hours of the Trump administration, looking to push forward White House foreign policy objectives before Presidentelect Joe Biden takes office in January. The Pentagon said last week that it would reduce the number of U. S. troops in Afghanistan by nearly half — to 2,500, down from 4,500 by midJanuary.
The troop withdrawal has sown uncertainty among Afghan officials, who are hoping for a policy change under Biden. Afghan security forces, still reliant on U. S. air strikes, have struggled to defend territory from recent Taliban offensives.
In Doha, Qatar, which has been hosting the peace talks, representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban have been wrestling over two main sticking points for months, and negotiators from both sides have said in recent days that they are close to a breakthrough.
The United States will “sit on the side and help where we can,” Pompeo said to the Afghan negotiating team. “I would be most interested in getting your thoughts on how we can increase the probability of successful outcome that I know we share.”
Fawzia Koofi, one of the Afghan government negotiators, said they had asked Pompeo to put more pressure on the Taliban to accept a nationwide ceasefire and to not withdraw U. S. troops so quickly, adding that Pompeo did not address the issue.
Thomas GibbonsNeff and Fatima Faizi are New York Times writers.