US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo late Monday met Taliban leaders in Qatar in the highest-level talks ever between the two sides as he sought to break an impasse over Afghanistan through shuttle diplomacy.
Pompeo flew to Qatar after a surprise visit to Kabul where he aimed to end a poisonous political deadlock that has further riven a country facing Taliban attacks and the coronavirus pandemic.
At Qatar's al-Udeid Air Base, home to US forces, Pompeo went into a closed-door meeting with three Taliban leaders including Mullah Baradar, the Afghan insurgents' formerly imprisoned top negotiator, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.
The top US diplomat will "press them to comply with the agreement signed last month," Ortagus said.
It marked the highest-level meeting ever between the United States and the Taliban, who signed a landmark deal on February 29 that set in motion a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan that aims to end America's longest war, launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Pompeo flew to Doha for the signing but did not sit down then to meet the Taliban, who have not given up violence against the internationally backed Afghan government.
The agreement has quickly floundered, with no sign yet of talks between the Taliban and Kabul government that had been slated to start on March 10, likely in Norway.
"We want it to happen as soon as possible," a senior State Department official said of the intra-Afghan talks.
The official said that the US withdrawal was tied to the Taliban carrying out promises.
"If the Talibs deliver on commitments on terrorism and other things that they are committed to, we are very much committed to reducing the force and meeting our obligations," the official told reporters.
- Chaos in Kabul -
Adding to uncertainties, Kabul has been enmeshed in a political crisis since elections last year left the country in disarray due to numerous fraud claims that ultimately saw two men claiming the presidency and holding separate inaugurations.
Pompeo held separate and joint meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani -- the election's official winner -- and his archrival Abdullah Abdullah, who also claims the presidency.
"We have tried... for the last several weeks to try to find the formula and encourage them to come to an agreement," the State Department official said.
Pompeo has come "to help push, to encourage and to point out what our expectations are and what that assessment is if they don't do the right thing".
The visit came just a day after the Afghan government and Taliban held their first discussion on prisoner exchanges -- a key step in the withdrawal deal signed between Washington and the militants.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator who brokered the deal in Qatar with the Taliban over a year, has said it is "urgent" to conclude the prisoner swap due to coronavirus pandemic complicating diplomatic contacts.
The deal envisioned the release of up to 5,000 Taliban fighters held by Kabul, and up to 1,000 members of the Afghan government forces in insurgent hands.
After initially refusing to release the Taliban 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 Taliban rejected the offer.
- Corona and clashes -
The Doha accord also calls for the gradual withdrawal of American and other foreign troops over a 14-month period.
The first phase of that withdrawal has already begun, though some troop movements have been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
In exchange, the Taliban 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 Taliban have carried out scores of attacks.
Political chaos in Kabul has further complicated matters. The spat between former chief executive Abdullah and Ghani, 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.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)