Kerry makes surprise visit to Afghanistan
Kerry will gather together with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Afghanistan Saturday hoping to promote cooperation from a would-be "unity" government he helped create less than two years ago, but which has proved largely incapable of governing. Following his trip to Iraq, it is the top American diplomat's second unannounced trip in as many days to a country the United States just can't seem to stabilize.
Kerry will gather together with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, before meeting the two leaders separately. He'll also take part in a set of security, governance and economic development talks with Afghanistan's foreign minister that should underscore the range of difficulties besetting a nation that remains largely ungoverned, rife with corruption and beset by the Taliban's stubborn insurgency.
The objective for the trip is far from ambitious. "The secretary wants to signal continuing U.S. support for the national unity government. It's at the 18-month mark in a five-year term, and we remain committed," said Richard Olson, President Barack Obama's special representative for the country, previewing the trip for reporters.
The challenges in some ways mirror those Kerry confronted Friday in Iraq.
The U.S. invaded both countries under President George W. Bush, hoping to install stable democracies. After spending some $2 trillion and losing several thousand Americans in military operations, neither has panned out.
Both governments lack control over significant parts of their territory, with Afghanistan's war against the Taliban entering its 15th year and Iraq still trying to muster up the strength for an assault on Mosul, its second largest city, and other places held by ISIS.
Sectarian and personal rivalries threaten both governments. Security vacuums in each threaten the U.S. And despite President Barack Obama's pledges to end both wars, American troops can't get out of either. There are still 9,800 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, dropping in principle to 5,500 next year. There are 3,780 in Iraq currently.
Obama has less than 10 months to leave both places in better shape, but the strategies differ. Whereas the U.S. seeks the ultimate destruction of ISIS in Iraq, it hopes to draw the Taliban into peace talks.
Kerry will "express support for the government of Afghanistan's efforts to end the conflict in Afghanistan through a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
First the government might need to reconcile its own internal divisions.
Following bitterly fought and inconclusive presidential elections in 2014, Ghani and Abdullah are sharing power under a deal Kerry brokered. But the partnership has never really been defined and the government is in disarray, with some predicting it could even collapse due to widespread corruption and administrative incompetence.
After almost two years, Ghani and Abdullah have been unable to set aside their rivalries. The bitterness stems from a belief in Abdullah's camp that the election was stolen and gifted to Ghani - an anthropologist who lived in the U.S. for three decades - as someone Washington could more easily do business with. The two are also seen as pandering to different constituencies: in Ghani's case, the majority ethnic Pashtoons, and in Abdullah's, the Tajiks.
The pair recently cleared their diaries for a full-day meeting to iron out differences. They gave up after only two hours, Afghan and foreign officials said.
The country's defense minister and intelligence chief are all acting in their posts because they haven't been confirmed by parliament, and several other ministers have resigned. A cabinet reshuffle is expected shortly, and ministers could lose their jobs over accusations of "incompetence."
Kerry's visit will try to focus on some of the positives, however.
"One of the things we want to do is look at Afghanistan in a broader context," Olson said.
"We want to take account of the advances that have been made in development, particularly health and education, electricity, telecommunications. It really is a very changed society," he stressed. "No doubt there have been challenges ... both in terms of politics, but also in terms of the resilience of the Taliban. But we are committed to supporting the national unity government."
Those challenges are great.
Afghanistan's economy is contracting and unemployment stands at 25 percent. Afghanistan needs to secure more international aid. The Taliban is nowhere near a defeated fighting force, while an affiliate of ISIS may be making inroads in the country. And the much-hyped peace process has been all but dead for almost a year.
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