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Pompeo says US close to draft deal with Taliban on terrorism

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center left, is welcomed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Presidential Palace during his visit in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. (Afghan Presidency Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images/TNS)

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a visit to Afghanistan that the U.S. is close to finishing a draft deal with the Taliban to ensure the country doesn’t become a terrorist haven, paving the way for talks on withdrawing American troops after 18 years of war.

Pompeo made the remarks Tuesday from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul during the unannounced visit in which he met with Afghan leaders including President Ashraf Ghani and former President Hamid Karzai, who remains an influential figure and has acted as a go-between with the Taliban and with nations with stakes in Afghanistan’s future.

Pompeo said the U.S. and the Taliban had made “real progress” and are almost ready to draft an agreement that would ensure Afghan soil “never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists.” In light of that, “we’ve begun discussions with the Taliban regarding foreign military presence which today remains conditions-based,” Pompeo said.

He made clear there was still no timeline on withdrawing NATO forces. U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The top U.S. diplomat underscored that the Trump administration remains committed to a four-issue agenda outlined after weeks of discussions with the Taliban by the State Department envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad: counterterrorism, the presence of foreign troops, a dialogue between Afghans and a permanent cease-fire.

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Pompeo’s suggestion that an agreement on terrorism and troops could precede the Afghan dialogue suggested a slight shift in position from the one articulated by Khalilzad, who has repeatedly said “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Khalilzad, who joined Pompeo in Kabul on Tuesday, tweeted on June 22 that the next round of talks with the Taliban would take place in Qatar on June 29.

The talks had stalled in recent weeks, done in chiefly by the Taliban’s refusal to sit down with Ghani’s government and the government’s wariness of entering talks with a group whose gains have only increased in recent years.

The central government has steadily lost ground in the years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and grave concerns exist about its ability to retain power once NATO forces, led by the U.S., depart.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he wants to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and approved letting his envoys enter into substantive talks with the Taliban.

Pompeo said he hopes to have a peace deal by Sept. 1, around the time the country is set to hold new presidential elections. While he called for an “intra-Afghan dialogue,” Pompeo didn’t explicitly say the Taliban should negotiate with Ghani, who has remained in power despite his term expiring in May and postponing the elections.

Instead, he said the talks should “include Taliban and government, but also representatives from opposition parties, civil society, women and youth.” He also said peace talks shouldn’t wait until after elections take place.

During his visit, Pompeo met with Afghan opposition leaders and other presidential candidates, sending a signal that he wants them involved in any reconciliation process. The secretary seldom meets with opposition groups on his travels abroad.

U.S. officials didn’t immediately offer details of what was discussed during Pompeo’s meetings with Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. Asked at the start of his meeting with Pompeo if he was optimistic about talks, Ghani told a reporter: “Always — not only optimistic, dedicated to achieve them.”

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(Eltaf Najafizada contributed to this report.)

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© 2019 Bloomberg News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.