WASHINGTON: The fear of a coronavirus outbreak has forced US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper to postpone a key visit to Pakistan, India and other countries in the region, the Pentagon announced on Tuesday.
Secretary Esper planned to visit the region from March 16 to 20 for talks aimed at promoting the Afghan peace process. He was expected in Islamabad on March 19 for an overnight stay.
Other destinations on his trip included Uzbekistan and possibly Kabul, although visits to the Afghan capital are not announced due to security reasons.
“Out of an abundance of caution, the Secretary of Defence has decided to postpone his travel,” Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a statement, adding that the trip would occur at “a later date”.
The deadly virus, which first surfaced in China in December, has infected almost 120,000 people across the globe and killed more than 4,000. The epidemic has also forced Washington to review all foreign trips to avoid exposing its officials to the virus.
Secretary Esper’s postponed visit was directly linked to the peace deal that Pakistan helped finalise and now Washington wants Islamabad to help in implementing it as well.
The Doha deal required intra-Afghan talks to start by March 10, with full participation by the Taliban, the Afghan government and other factions. But a new twist in an already complex political and security situation in Afghanistan has already delayed the talks.
Another key component of the US-Taliban agreement — a prisoner exchange — has also been delayed but may happen soon. Initially, the Afghan government had refused to release about 5,000 Taliban prisoners it’s holding but President Ashraf Ghani indicated on Monday that he was willing to do so.
Taliban leaders have already agreed to release 1,000 prisoners they are holding.
Policymakers in Washington feel that Pakistan can influence the Taliban to fulfil their part of the bargain and expect it to do so, with the United States and its allies creating favorable conditions for starting the intra-Afghan dialogue.
Meanwhile, US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the Doha deal, has now been assigned another fire-fighting job, to prevent a political dispute in Kabul from flaring up.
On Monday, Kabul witnessed two presidents, Mr Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, taking oaths in two parallel ceremonies. Both claim to be the legitimate ruler, duly elected by the Afghan people, and refuse to recognise the other.
During Mr Ghani’s oath-taking ceremony several rockets landed inside the presidential palace, temporarily disrupting it. A Taliban spokesman said the militants were not involved in this attack.
As suspicions focused on Mr Abdullah’s supporters, Ambassador Khalilzad urged both sides to avoid further tensions. “I spent much of the last week trying to help President Ghani and Dr Abdullah come to an agreement on an inclusive and broadly accepted government,” he wrote in a tweet. “We will continue to assist.”
Washington fears that this political dispute could turn violent, which will further delay US plans to leave Afghanistan after implementing the peace deal.
“Both leaders made clear that they are open to negotiations to end the political crisis and that peace and reconciliation is the priority,” Mr Khalilzad wrote.
He also welcomed President Ghani’s announcements that he would issue a decree to allow for a significant exchange of prisoners and would lead in forming a national negotiating team for starting the intra-Afghan dialogue.
Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2020