KABUL: A volunteer wearing a hazmat suit and a mask sprays disinfectant on a bus during a preventive campaign against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Kabul. – AFP

KABUL: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the Afghan capital yesterday amid an ongoing political crisis, a raging Taleban insurgency and rising coronavirus cases – all of which further threaten an already-floundering peace process. Pompeo was set to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani along with his archrival Abdullah Abdullah, who also claims the presidency, following a contested election last year.

According to a pool report from a journalist accompanying Pompeo, the top US diplomat was welcomed by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad – the lead US negotiator in recent talks with the Taleban – after arriving at Kabul airport. The visit comes just a day after the Afghan government and the Taleban held their first discussion on arranging prisoner exchanges – a key step in a broader push for peace following a withdrawal deal signed between Washington and the militants last month.

The agreement established a framework for bringing to an end America’s longest war following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Khalilzad tweeted Sunday it was “urgent” to quickly conclude plans for the prisoner swap – as called for in the US pact with the Taleban – with the coronavirus pandemic complicating diplomatic contacts.

The deal called for the release of up to 5,000 Taleban fighters held by Kabul, and up to 1,000 members of the Afghan government forces in insurgent hands. That was meant to take place before the start of peace talks originally set for March 10 between the government – which was not a party to the negotiations that produced the Doha deal – and the Taleban. After initially refusing to release the Taleban prisoners, Ghani announced that the authorities would free 1,500 insurgents as a “gesture of goodwill” with plans to free another 3,500 prisoners after the talks are underway.

The Taleban rejected the offer. The Doha accord also calls for the gradual withdrawal of American and other foreign troops over a 14-month period – the main focus of the US diplomatic efforts. The first phase of that withdrawal has already begun, though some troop movements have been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic. In exchange, the Taleban committed to fight jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda and promised to negotiate for the first time with Kabul. But since the Doha agreement was signed, the Taleban have carried out scores of attacks.

Political chaos in Kabul has further complicated matters, with Ghani’s former chief executive Abdullah also claiming the presidency following last September’s bitterly disputed election. The impasse and continued fighting along with the world’s preoccupation with coronavirus has sparked fears the window for a peace deal is closing fast. Afghan health officials have reported just 40 cases of the novel coronavirus and one death to date. However health experts fear the contagion is spreading as tens of thousands of Afghans have returned home in recent weeks after fleeing virus-hit Iran.

An insider attack
Meanwhile, at least two dozen Afghan security forces were killed in an insider attack on their base in southern Afghanistan, officials said, as fighting raged in the war-weary country while efforts to start talks with the Taleban stalled. The pre-dawn attack in Zabul province comes as Afghanistan is grappling with several crises including an increase in Taleban violence that has thrown a supposed peace process into turmoil, mounting coronavirus cases, and a political feud that has seen two men claim the presidency.

The attack in Zabul saw several “infiltrators” open fire on their comrades as they slept, according to provincial governor Rahmatullah Yarmal, in one of the deadliest attacks since the US signed a withdrawal deal with the Taleban last month. The pre-dawn raid targeted a joint police and army headquarters near Qalat, the provincial capital. “In the attack, 14 Afghan army forces and 10 policemen were killed,” Zabul provincial council chief Ata Jan Haq Bayan said. He added that four other Afghan service members were missing. “The attackers had connections with the Taleban insurgents,” Bayan said.

They fled in two military Humvee vehicles, along with a pickup truck, weapons and ammunition. Yarmal confirmed the toll to AFP. Hours after the incident the defense ministry vowed to retaliate, while also giving a lower death toll for the attack, saying just 17 were killed. The Afghan security forces “will not leave this attack unanswered and will avenge the blood of the martyrs” the ministry added in a statement. The ministry has been known to downplay the size of attacks and losses.

The US embassy later condemned the attack on Twitter, saying “the time for peace is now”. “In the midst of a global pandemic & on Nowruz, attacks like these are obscene,” the statement added, referring to Persian New Year which is widely celebrated across Afghanistan. The Taleban did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Zabul province, bordering Pakistan, has long been an insurgent stronghold and was the holdout for former Taleban supreme leader Mullah Omar, who died in 2013.

‘Active defense’
The Zabul attack comes just a day after Afghan Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid called on the Taleban to commit to a ceasefire as a way of tackling the novel coronavirus, which observers fear is spreading unchecked through the impoverished country. Khalid also said Afghan forces should assume a more aggressive “active defense” posture against the Taleban, who have continued attacks across the country since signing a deal with the US on February 29. The continued uptick in violence comes as the US continued to plead with leaders in Kabul to press forward with efforts to engage with the Taleban while resolving their political crisis that has divided the government.

In a tweet marking Nowruz, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator who brokered the Taleban deal, called for Afghan leaders to take advantage of the “historic opportunity for peace” and work with the Taleban to contain the coronavirus. Both the Taleban and Afghan government in Kabul continue to bicker over a proposed prisoner swap that was set to pave the way for the opening of talks between the two sides. The US-Taleban deal said the Afghan government, which was not a signatory, should release 5,000 Taleban prisoners before “intra-Afghan” talks start. – Agencies