KABUL • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the Afghan capital of Kabul yesterday on an unannounced visit to help salvage a historic deal between Washington and the Taleban, struck in February but marred by a political feud.
Mr Pompeo met President Ashraf Ghani and his long-time rival Abdullah Abdullah, who is contesting the result of a September presidential vote, raising the prospect of parallel governments that has paralysed the selection of negotiating teams for talks.
His visit is being watched closely for clues to whether it can resolve the weeks-long political deadlock. "We'll see if... that would mean things are negotiated and they are ready for a final settlement," said a diplomatic source in Kabul.
Mr Pompeo met the two men separately and was also scheduled to hold meetings with both together yesterday.
A row over the release of prisoners and the politicians' rivalry have hampered progress in mediation between the Taleban and the Afghan government, which was not a party to the US-Taleban deal, signed in Doha.
The deal signed on Feb 29 aimed to pave the way for the Taleban to negotiate with the Afghan government, including a pact to withdraw foreign troops that would effectively end the United States' longest war.
But the Afghan government and the Taleban have not begun formal negotiation as planned, stymied in part by the bitter feud between Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah, which has stalled the appointment of a negotiation team to represent the Afghan government.
US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who has spent much of his time in Kabul since the deal's signing, made a plea to both sides last week to act fast on the release of prisoners, a condition set by the Taleban for the talks.
Mr Khalilzad said the coronavirus pandemic has added urgency for the prisoner release, illustrating how the outbreak is affecting one of US President Donald Trump's top foreign policy priorities.
On Sunday, the Taleban and the Afghan government held a "virtual" meeting on prisoner releases, officials said, offering some hope of a breakthrough on a matter that has deadlocked the two sides and threatened a nascent peace process.
The two sides have differed on the release of prisoners - the Afghan government wanting a phased and conditional release and the Taleban wanting all prisoners released in one go as envisaged in the Doha agreement.
The two sides spoke for over two hours in a Skype meeting facilitated by the US and Qatar, officials said.
"Prisoner releases by both sides is an important step in the peace process, as stated in the US-Taleban agreement," Mr Khalilzad tweeted. "Everyone clearly understands the coronavirus threat makes prisoner releases that much more urgent," he said, adding that "all sides conveyed their strong commitment to a reduction of violence, intra-Afghan negotiations, and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire".
The Taleban had previously refused to speak to the Afghan government until all prisoners were released. "Both sides exchanged options on initial technical steps for the release of prisoners," an Afghanistan National Security Council statement said, adding that a reduction in violence, direct talks as well as a permanent ceasefire were also discussed.
Kabul and the Taleban have clashed frequently in the past few days. Incidents include the storming of an Afghan military base last Friday that the authorities blamed on the insurgent group.