U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Taliban fighters to hold peace talks with the Afghan government, as he made an unannounced visit to the Afghan capital.
Pompeo’s July 9 trip — his first since becoming secretary of stat e– coincided with what officials hope will be a final operation to clear Islamic State fighters and other insurgents in a remote district in the eastern Nangarhar Province.
Around 14,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led mission, while also carrying out counterterrorism operations targeting Islamic State (IS) militants and Al-Qaeda.
That was a clear sign of U.S. commitment, Pompeo said at a news conference alongside Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
“The strategy sends a clear message to the Taliban that they cannot wait us out,” he said.
He also repeated assurances that Washington was prepared to participate in direct talks with the Taliban, but repeated that the peace process would be Afghan-led. Support from other neighboring countries would also be needed, he said.
“An American role will be important in this, but we can’t run the peace talks,” he said. “We can’t settle this from the outside.”
A spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Josh Thiel, said July 8 said the latest operations have been centered on the area around Deh Bala, next to the Achin district and near where the U.S. military dropped its largest nonnuclear bomb in 2017.
“This was one of the main green zones that did two things. One, it provided money, finance, logistics to ISIS and we’ve taken that away from them,” Thiel said, using an alternate name for the IS group.
“Additionally, ISIS was using this as a site to prepare and move high-profile attacks on Kabul and Jalalabad,” he said, adding that recent activities have included final mine-clearance operations.
The Nangarhar provincial government said a U.S. air strike was carried out late on July 8 in the Achin district near the Pakistan border, killing at least four militants linked to Islamic State. Those militants moved into Nangarhar four years ago and have been blamed for brutality against civilians, including the use of executions by beheading or explosion.
Insurgents had been using the area to raise funds through illegal logging and talc mining, as well as exploiting local villagers.
The overall assault, which began at the end of April, involved three companies of Afghan commandoes supported by U.S. air strikes and U.S. Special Forces.
Troops were ferried in by helicopter, and an operations base was set up near the village of Gargari, near where IS fighters were trying to establish a stronghold.
Heavy fighting ended in early June after 167 Islamic State militants were killed and large quantities of equipment captured, officials said.
The NATO-led Resolute Support operation has backed the government in Kabul in its fight against IS, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other militants, mainly by training and advising Afghan security forces.
The Afghan Defense Ministry on July 8 said its security forces had doubled their offensive operations against insurgents since the end of the government’s unilateral cease-fire directed toward the Taliban.
Ghani declared an end to the truce, but he also called on the Taliban to resume peace negotiations. IS was not part of the cease-fire.
The cease-fire lasted 18 days in all, after it was extended once and coincided with a three-day Taliban truce.
Along with Nangarhar, Afghan forces say they are focusing their fight against insurgents in Kunar, Farah, Helmand, Kunduz, Faryab, Uruzgan, and Ghazni provinces.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.