On Brief Visit, Pompeo Says U.S. Is Afghanistan’s ‘Enduring Partner’

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Afghanistan for a few hours on Monday, but the brevity and extraordinary security of the trip contrasted sharply with his upbeat assessment of a country ravaged by a 17-year-old war.

“Now more than ever the United States stands as an enduring partner for Afghanistan,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Mr. Pompeo and President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan held a news conference where both insisted that, despite the Taliban insurgency’s control of a growing portion of the country as well as its recent rejection of peace talks, there was reason to hope that peace was at hand.

“An element of the progress is the capacity that we now have to believe that there is hope that many of the Taliban now see that they can’t win on the ground militarily,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Mr. Ghani declared that “the strategy is working,” adding that “It has had a significant impact.”

While security in the country has ebbs and flows, the extraordinary precautions taken for Mr. Pompeo to spend even a couple of hours in the country demonstrated that conditions are some of the worst seen in the war.

Mr. Pompeo flew into Bagram Air Base, transferred to a second plane for the 10-minute flight into Hamid Karzai International Airport, then boarded a helicopter for a brief flight to the United States Embassy in Kabul, the capital.

From there, he and his entourage rode in armored vehicles for the brief trip to the presidential palace. Walking would have been faster but not safe.

A year ago, the Trump administration announced a new strategy that officials said would give commanders the freedom and resources to push back Taliban advances. They said they would evaluate needs according to conditions on the ground, rejecting what they said were the artificial timelines of the Obama administration.

Although American airstrikes continue to pound Taliban positions, Afghan ground forces have struggled to regain or hold areas previously seized by the Taliban.

One outcome is that the administration has expressed a profound eagerness to engage the Taliban in negotiations, with officials saying that there would be no preconditions and that everything, including the future of American and NATO forces, would be up for discussion.

Taliban leaders have said they would talk only to the Americans, without any representative of the Afghan government. Trump administration officials have insisted that Afghan government officials be included.

“Peace must be decided by the Afghans and settled among them,” Mr. Pompeo said Monday.

One decided change from the Obama years is that Mr. Ghani is an eager partner. He showered Mr. Pompeo with praise and expressed thanks to the nearly one million service members “who have for 17 years fought shoulder-to-shoulder with us, and particularly those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

Former President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan would often complain to, and even insult, American officials, aware that previous administrations felt they could not withdraw troops entirely. But President Trump has sometimes expressed a clear desire to pull out, something he may yet order.

It was Mr. Pompeo’s first visit to Afghanistan as secretary of state. The visit was not announced in advance, and when an Afghan press report announced his arrival, Mr. Pompeo’s aides were upset.

Still, Mr. Pompeo’s willingness to brave the risks in traveling to Kabul and the presidential palace stood in stark contrast to his predecessor, Rex W. Tillerson, the Trump administration’s first secretary of state.

Mr. Tillerson was so concerned about safety that in his visit last year he refused to leave Bagram Air Base, forcing Afghan leaders and his own staff to drive from Kabul to Bagram — a much riskier journey than his own helicopter flight would have been going the other way.

Afghan officials doctored photos of the meeting to suggest that it had been held in Kabul instead of Bagram, which is about 12 miles away. When that information was revealed, the ploy proved embarrassing.

A cease-fire during the three days of the Muslim festival of Eid gave hope across the country that peace was possible, although the calm was marred by suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State.

Thousands of Taliban fighters poured into the cities during the cease-fire to celebrate in the open, and Afghan soldiers and police officers visited their home villages, many for the first time in years.

Tests of national stability will come with the parliamentary elections planned for October and the presidential elections in 2019. The last presidential elections in 2014 led to months of political paralysis, and the country’s political and ethnic schisms have not been resolved.

Just as worrisome, neighboring countries have begun to play more active and, for the Americans, destructive roles. Russia may be arming the Taliban as a bulwark against the Islamic State. Pakistan continues its quiet support for the Taliban. Iran also may be playing a role.

Afghan regional officials have accused Iran of supporting a Taliban offensive in western Afghanistan near the Iranian border after President Trump renounced the nuclear accord with Iran in May.

Just before leaving, Mr. Pompeo visited a small group of NATO service members drawn from several contributing countries in a hangar at Bagram Air Base and gave a speech thanking them.

“So many countries have stepped up to deliver in this incredibly tough environment,” he said.

The remarks came just after President Trump had posted on Twitter: “The United States is spending far more on NATO than any other Country. This is not fair, nor is it acceptable.”

Mr. Pompeo heads to Brussels on Tuesday for the annual NATO summit meeting, where European leaders are deeply worried that Mr. Trump may damage the alliance.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.

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