Pompeo says US hoping for Afghan peace pact before Sept 1

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens to a question during a news conference at U.S. Embassy Kabul, Tuesday, June 25, 2019, during an unannounced visit to Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that Washington is hopeful a peace agreement to bring an end to the 17-year war in Afghanistan can be reached before Sept. 1.

Pompeo, in a brief visit to Afghanistan, spoke just days before the start of a fresh round of talks between Washington’s peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar, where the religious militia maintains a political office.

So far, the Taliban have refused to hold direct talks with the Afghan government and Afghan-to-Afghan talks planned for earlier this year in Doha were scuttled after both sides disagreed over participants.

“I hope we have a peace deal before Sept. 1, that’s certainly our mission set,” Pompeo told reporters in Kabul. He stopped in the Afghan capital on his way to Delhi on a tour of the Middle East and Asia aimed at building a broad, global coalition to pressure Iran.

Khalilzad accompanied Pompeo as he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his partner in power, Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive. He also met with several opposition politicians as well as former president Hamid Karzai.

Pompeo underscored Khalilzad’s strategy in the talks, which involves four interconnected issues: counterterrorism, foreign troop presence, inter-Afghan dialogue and a permanent cease-fire.

In what has become America’s longest war, U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks. Since then, America has lost more than 2,400 soldiers and spent more than $800 billion. The U.S. and NATO formally concluded their combat mission in 2014, but American and allied troops remain, conducting strikes on the Islamic State group and the Taliban and working to train and build the Afghan military. Taliban insurgents, however, control nearly half of Afghanistan and are more powerful than at any time since a 2001 U.S.-led invasion. They carry out near-daily attacks, mainly targeting security forces and government officials.

Talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban have focused on U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal and guarantees from the Taliban that Afghanistan would not again become a safe haven for terrorists to plan global attack like the airborne assaults on the United States in 2001. Pompeo said the United States and Taliban were close to a deal on countering terrorism.

“We’ve made real progress and are nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban commitments to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists,” Pompeo said. He added that discussions with the Taliban have also begun on U.S. troop withdrawal.

“While we’ve made clear to the Taliban that were prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear we’ve not yet agreed on a timeline to do so,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo said neighbor Pakistan has an important role to play and progress there has been made. Pakistan and Afghanistan have an uneasy relationship, with both countries accusing the other of harboring their terrorist enemies.

Ghani was to make his first visit to Pakistan on Thursday in an attempt to forge a fresh relationship with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. Last week, more than a dozen Afghan opposition politicians, many of whom met Pompeo on Tuesday, were in Pakistan to discuss peace in the region.

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Gannon reported from Islamabad.

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