US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has held separate meetings with negotiators from the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar, amid signs of progress in their stalled talks as the United States speeds up its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The top US diplomat on Saturday also met Qatar’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, on his stop in Doha, which hosts the group’s political office at the request of the United States.
Pompeo’s visit came in the wake of a rocket attack which struck densely populated areas of Kabul, killing at least eight people in the latest outbreak of violence in the Afghan capital. The ISIL (ISIS) affiliate in Afghanistan claimed the responsibility for the attack, according to SITE Intelligence Group.
“I would be most interested in getting your thoughts on how we can increase the probability of a successful outcome”, Pompeo said as he met the Afghan government side, noting the shared interest in such a scenario.
The outgoing top US diplomat is on a seven-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East as President Donald Trump shores up late-term priorities.
Earlier this week, the Pentagon said it would soon pull some 2,000 troops out of Afghanistan, speeding up the timeline established in a February agreement between Washington and the Taliban that envisions a full US withdrawal in mid-2021.
Police stand guard after rockets hit residential areas in Kabul on Saturday [Omar Sobhani/Reuters] Breakthrough?
The Taliban are speaking to Afghanistan’s government for the first time.
The talks started on September 12 in Doha but almost immediately faltered over disagreements about the agenda, the basic framework of discussions and religious interpretations.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Doha, said it has been a “difficult process moving forward”.
“The message from Mike Pompeo will certainly be that they are keen that the two sides sit together to get to the difficult issues,” she said.
Several sources told the AFP news agency on Friday the two sides appear to have resolved some of the issues, however.
Among the sticking points so far, the Taliban and the Afghan government have struggled to agree on common language on two main issues.
The Taliban are insisting on adherence to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, but government negotiators say this could be used to discriminate against Hazaras, who are predominantly Shia, and other minorities.
Another contentious topic is how the US-Taliban deal will shape a future Afghan peace deal and how it will be referred to.
The Doha peace talks opened after the Taliban and Washington signed a deal in February, with the US agreeing to withdraw all foreign forces in exchange for security guarantees and a Taliban promise to start intra-Afghan talks.
Despite the talks, violence has surged across Afghanistan, with the Taliban stepping up daily attacks against Afghan security forces.
Trump’s plan to slash troops by January 15 – less than a week before his successor Joe Biden is to be sworn in to office – has been criticised by Kabul residents who fear it will embolden the Taliban to unleash a new wave of fighting.
Afghan civilians have long borne the brunt of the bloodshed.
Officials in Kabul also worry it will harden the Taliban position at the negotiating table, where the future of hard-won gains including women’s rights is on the line.