EghtesadOnline: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made surprise visits to Afghanistan and Iraq on Monday, meeting with the two nations’ leaders as he seeks to establish a stronger alliance against Iran and pursue the Trump administration’s new strategy to fight the Taliban.
The stops in Baghdad and at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base were Tillerson’s first to either country as secretary of state and were done in strict secrecy because of security concerns. Unlike Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last month, Tillerson didn’t venture to Afghanistan’s capital, asking instead that leaders come meet him at the heavily fortified U.S. base 30 miles (50 kilometers) to the north, Bloomberg reported.
While in Afghanistan, Tillerson called on Pakistan to clamp down on terrorists taking safe haven in the country and left the door open to the prospect of the Taliban joining the government.
“There’s a place for them in the government if they are ready to come, renouncing terrorism, renouncing violence and being committed to a stable prosperous Afghanistan,” Tillerson told a small group of reporters traveling with him.
The trip comes two months after President Donald Trump announced an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan that is putting as many as 4,000 more U.S. troops into the nation’s longest-lasting conflict. While Tillerson called the U.S. approach to the country “conditions-based,” officials say American forces will remain there as long as it takes to deny terrorists a haven and bring about a political settlement with the Taliban. Trump has criticized his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, for announcing timetables for withdrawal.
In Iraq, Tillerson met with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for the second time in two days, after seeing him in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 22. Tillerson helped inaugurate a new Saudi-Iraqi alliance aimed at raising money for Iraq’s reconstruction and trying to prevent Iran from filling a void now that Islamic State has been driven from many of its strongholds.
Tillerson’s visits were cloaked in secrecy, as is customary for top U.S. officials: He flew to Afghanistan in the pre-dawn hours from Doha, Qatar, where he was on a trip to forge a broader alliance against Iran and pursue a resolution to Qatar’s conflict with a coalition led by Saudi Arabia that has left the emirate economically isolated.
After returning to Doha to meet U.S. troops at a base in the tiny Gulf country, he flew to Baghdad’s airport and boarded a helicopter with his staff to the U.S. Embassy. His meeting with Abadi was to be followed by a visit with Iraqi President Fouad Masoum.
While secrecy is the norm on such trips into war zones, the security precautions in Afghanistan in particular highlight the troubles the country continues to confront almost 16 years after U.S. forces ousted the Taliban government in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
On a visit to Kabul on Oct. 3, Pentagon chief Mattis said the U.S. and its allies are “holding the line” against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the days since, however, Taliban fighters killed more than 40 Afghan soldiers in a bombing in Kandahar province, according to news reports, while attacks against police killed dozens more.
Behind Blast Walls
An August report from the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said a group affiliated with Islamic State has laid down roots in the country, part of a broad deterioration that has seen a record number of Afghan civilians killed. The inspector general depicted U.S. personnel as hunkered down behind blast walls.
In their meeting at Bagram, Tillerson and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani “reaffirmed the U.S.-Afghan commitment to achieving peace, stability and long-term prosperity in Afghanistan,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement posted to Twitter.
Tillerson made clear, as he and Trump have done previously, that the U.S. will pressure Pakistan to stop sheltering the Taliban and other groups fomenting violence in Afghanistan.
“In our conversations with Pakistani leadership, we are as concerned about the future stability of Pakistan, as we are in many respects here in Afghanistan,” he said at Bagram. “Pakistan needs to, I think, take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they are confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of Pakistan.”
Tillerson will visit Pakistan on Oct. 24, followed by stops in India and Switzerland.