U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo visits Kabul, hopes for a peace deal before September 1

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks from a helicopter with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, as Pompeo returns to his plane after an unannounced visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, June 25, 2019. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERS

By Rupam Jain

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during an unannounced visit to Kabul on Tuesday to discuss ongoing peace talks with the Taliban and the security situation ahead of Afghan presidential polls in September.

Pompeo stopped over on his way to New Delhi for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other officials.

His visit to Afghanistan, which lasted about seven hours, comes ahead of a seventh round of peace talks between Taliban leaders and U.S. officials aimed at finding a political settlement to end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan. The next round of peace talks is scheduled to begin on June 29 in Doha.

“I hope we have a peace deal before September 1. That’s certainly our mission set,” Pompeo said.

The talks between the United States and the Taliban will focus on working out a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan and on a Taliban guarantee that militants will not plot attacks from Afghan soil.

“While we’ve made clear to the Taliban that were prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear, we’ve not yet agreed on a timeline to do so,” said Pompeo.

About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.

In return for the withdrawal of foreign forces, the United States is demanding the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant attacks.

“We agree that peace is our highest priority and that Afghanistan must never again serve as a platform for international terrorism.”

He said the two sides are nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban’s commitment to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for “terrorists”.

The hardline Islamist group now controls more Afghan territory than at any time since it was toppled from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

At least 3,804 civilians were killed in the war last year, according to the United Nations. Thousands of Afghan soldiers, police and Taliban were also killed.

Taliban leaders nevertheless vowed this month to sustain the fight until their objectives were reached.

But momentum for talks with the Taliban is steadily building, with a special U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, pushing the process and insurgent leaders showing serious interest in negotiating for the first time.

Ghani has also offered repeatedly to talk with the Taliban but the group insists it will not deal directly with the Ghani government.

“All sides agree that finalizing a U.S.-Taliban understanding on terrorism and foreign troop presence will open the door to intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiation,” Pompeo said, adding that next step is at the heart of the U.S. effort.

“We are not and will not negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of the government or people of Afghanistan.”

Pompeo’s meeting with Ghani came as members of the opposition party held a large public gathering in Kabul to protest against his overstaying in power after his five-year term ended in May.

Ghani has refused to step down and Afghanistan’s Supreme Court says he can stay in office until the delayed presidential election, now scheduled for September, in which he will seek a second term.

Political opponents of Ghani met Pompeo and U.S. officials.

Preparation for the polls and a crucial chance to end the war with the Taliban are running in parallel, with international diplomats and politicians based in Kabul trying to prevent them running into each other.

Many Afghans are concerned that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, in its haste to end the war, could push for concessions that might weaken the democratic gains of the post-Taliban era.

(Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Pompeo urges China to release human rights prisoners to mark Tiananmen crackdown

FILE PHOTO: A man stands in front of a convoy of tanks in the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Beijing, China, June 5, 1989. REUTERS/Arthur Tsang/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday called on Beijing to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising this week by releasing all prisoners jailed for fighting human rights abuses in China.

In a statement, Pompeo again urged China to make a full public account of those killed or missing in the 1989 student-led pro-democracy protests in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

“Such a step would begin to demonstrate the Communist Party’s willingness to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Pompeo said.

“We call on China to release all those held for seeking to exercise these rights and freedoms, halt the use of arbitrary detention, and reverse counterproductive policies that conflate terrorism with religious and political expression,” he added.

The Chinese government sent tanks to quell the June 4, 1989 protests, and has never released a death toll. Estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.

The Tiananmen crackdown is a taboo subject in China and almost 30 years later it remains a point of contention between China and many Western countries.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus upset China when she referred to the Tiananmen demonstrations as a “full-on massacre of peaceful protesters” during a briefing last week. Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said on Sunday that the crackdown was the “correct” decision, citing the country’s “stability” since then.

Pompeo said China’s human rights record had not improved despite its rise on the international stage and condemned the treatment of the country’s estimated 1.5 million Uighurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang region.

“China’s one-party state tolerates no dissent and abuses human rights whenever it serves its interests,” said Pompeo. “Today, Chinese citizens have been subjected to a new wave of abuses, especially in Xinjiang, where the Communist Party leadership is methodically attempting to strangle Uighur culture and stamp out the Islamic faith.”

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Israel’s Netanyahu to make ‘significant’ announcement on Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, April 29, 2018. Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make a televised announcement Monday evening (1700 GMT) in what his office said would be a “significant development” regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran.

The announcement will be made from Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv, according to a brief statement from Netanyahu’s office.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make a statement on a significant development regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran,” the statement said, offering no further details.

Netanyahu met on Sunday with new U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the two had spoken about Iran.

Speaking alongside the Israeli leader, Pompeo said in Tel Aviv: “We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats towards Israel and the region.”

Netanyahu had said: “I think the greatest threat to the world and to our two countries, and to all countries, is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons, and specifically the attempt of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from the 2015 agreement reached between Iran and global powers, which granted Tehran relief from economic sanctions in return for curbs to its nuclear program.

Israel has long opposed the agreement. Washington’s major European allies have urged the Trump administration not to abandon it and argue that Iran is abiding by its terms.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Peter Graff)

Trump fires top diplomat Tillerson after clashes, taps Pompeo

FILE PHOTO: A combination photo shows U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 8, 2018, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., February 13, 2018 respectively. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (L) Aaron P. Bernstein (R)

By Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday after a series of public rifts over policy on North Korea, Russia and Iran, replacing his chief diplomat with loyalist CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

The biggest shakeup of Trump’s Cabinet since he took office in January 2017 was announced by the president on Twitter as his administration works toward a meeting with the leader of North Korea.

Some foreign policy experts criticized the decision to swap out top diplomats so soon before the unprecedented meeting and worried that Pompeo would encourage Trump to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and be hawkish on North Korea.

Trump chose the CIA’s deputy director, Gina Haspel, to replace Pompeo at the intelligence agency. She is a veteran CIA clandestine officer backed by many in the U.S. intelligence community but regarded warily by some in Congress for her involvement in the agency’s “black site” detention facilities.

Tillerson’s departure capped months of friction between the Republican president and the 65-year-old former Exxon Mobil chief executive. The tensions peaked last fall amid reports Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” and considered resigning.

“We got along actually quite well but we disagreed on things,” Trump said on the White House lawn on Tuesday. “When you look at the Iran deal: I think it’s terrible, I guess he thinks it was OK. I wanted to break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently.”

Trump said he and Pompeo have “a similar thought process.”

Pompeo, a former Army officer who represented a Kansas district in Congress before taking the CIA job, is seen as a Trump loyalist who has enjoyed a less hostile relationship with career spies than Tillerson had with career diplomats.

Senior White House officials said Trump wanted his new team in place before any summit with Kim Jong un, who invited the U.S. president to meet by May after months of escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

TILLERSON UNCLEAR ON REASON

Tillerson’s imminent departure had been rumored for several months and Trump said he and Tillerson had discussed the move for a long time. But Steve Goldstein, a State Department undersecretary of state for public affairs, said Tillerson did not know why he was being pushed out and had intended to stay.

Goldstein was fired later on Tuesday, two U.S. officials told Reuters.

Many Democrats in Congress expressed dismay at the firing, which they said would sow more instability in the Trump administration at a crucial time.

Foreign policy experts from Republican and Democratic administrations also questioned Trump’s timing and choice, noting that Pompeo was known as a political partisan who strongly opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat who dealt with North Korea under President George W. Bush, said Trump’s move sends “a bad signal about the role of diplomacy.”

“Tillerson’s replacement by … Pompeo, who is known as a political partisan and an opponent of the Iran agreement, raises the prospect of the collapse of that deal, and increases the possibility that the administration might soon face not one, but two nuclear crises,” he said.

Senior White House officials said White House chief of staff John Kelly had asked Tillerson to step down on Friday but did not want to make it public while he was on a trip to Africa. Trump’s Twitter announcement came only a few hours after Tillerson landed in Washington.

On Monday, Tillerson blamed Russia for the poisonings in England of a former Russian double agent and his daughter. Earlier at the White House, press secretary Sarah Sanders had refrained from saying Moscow was responsible.

He appeared to be caught by surprise last week when Trump announced he had accepted Kim’s invitation to meet.

“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!” Trump said on Twitter.

Tillerson joined a long list of senior officials who have either resigned or been fired since Trump took office in January 2017. Others include strategist Steve Bannon, national security adviser Michael Flynn, FBI Director James Comey, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, health secretary Tom Price, communications directors Hope Hicks and Anthony Scaramucci, economic adviser Gary Cohn and press secretary Sean Spicer.

OUT OF THE LOOP

Trump publicly undercut Tillerson’s diplomatic initiatives numerous times.

In December, Tillerson had offered to begin direct talks with North Korea without pre-conditions, backing away from a U.S. demand that Pyongyang must accept that any negotiations would be about giving up its nuclear arsenal.

The White House distanced itself from those remarks, and a few days later, Tillerson himself backed off.

Several months earlier in Beijing, Tillerson said the United States was directly communicating with North Korea but that Pyongyang had shown no interest in dialogue. Trump contradicted Tillerson’s efforts a day later.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump wrote on Twitter, using a pejorative nickname for Kim.

Tillerson had joined Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in pressing a skeptical Trump to stick with the agreement with Iran and other world powers over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and he has taken a more hawkish view than Trump on Russia.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate after an April committee hearing, Pompeo will be taking over a State Department shaken by the departures of many senior diplomats and embittered by proposed budget cuts.

Lawmakers from both major parties have criticized those cuts and the administration’s failure to fill dozens of open jobs there.

Tillerson faced a tougher confirmation that most nominees to be secretary of state last year as Democrats grilled him about his oil business ties to Russia. But over time, many lawmakers grew to appreciate Tillerson as a relatively steady hand in the chaotic Trump administration.

“He represented a stable view with regard to the implementation of diplomacy in North Korea, Iran and other places in the world,” said Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during most of Tillerson’s tenure.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, David Brunnstrom, Lesley Wroughton, Paul Simao, Susan Heavey; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Trott)

Tillerson leaves Gulf after making proposals to end crisis

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud meets with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

DOHA (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left Qatar on Thursday after a tour of Gulf Arab countries aimed at easing the worst regional dispute in years, saying he made proposals that would help in resolving the month-long crisis.

Tillerson met Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, to discuss Doha’s feud with four Arab states that cut ties with Qatar on June 5 over allegations it funds extremist groups and is allying with their arch-foe Iran. Qatar denies this.

“Well I think it was helpful for me to be here and actually talk to them about a way forward, first to listen and get a sense of how serious the situation is, how emotional some of these issues are,” Tillerson told reporters after leaving Doha.

“But we tabled some documents with both sides while we were here which lays out some ways that we might move this forward,” he added.

Tillerson had been flying between the two sides and Kuwait, which has been acting as the mediator between the feuding Gulf countries, in the last two days in an effort to ease a crisis that put the whole region on edge.

On Thursday he flew back to Doha where he met Qatari rulers for the second time in two days. He also met with Kuwaiti and Saudi officials.

Tillerson said he was not a direct mediator but supporting the emir of Kuwait’s role in building bridges to end the crisis.

“In my view there’s a changed sense of willingness to at least be open to talking to one another and that was not the case before I came,” he said.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain accused Qatar of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that has been the greatest challenge to Arab autocrats. The Brotherhood was a major player in the Arab spring revolts across the Middle East and North Africa.

Qatar hosts some of the movement’s prominent figures, including the spiritual leader and Egypt-born Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

“As to the Muslim Brotherhood, we’ve had sticking points with these parties ourselves, the U.S., in terms of how we view the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities,” Tillerson said. “And there’s a difference of view among these parties over the Muslim Brotherhood, and again in many ways it’s not much different than the differences we have.”

On Wednesday, Tillerson left the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah after talks with ministers from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, the four countries which have imposed travel and commercial sanctions on Qatar.

He earlier signed a U.S.-Qatari accord on terrorism financing in an effort to help ease the crisis, but Qatar’s opponents said it fell short of allaying their concerns.

“No wavering on the 13 demands” the headline of the Abu Dhabi government-linked al-Ittihad newspaper read on Thursday, referring to a list of demands the Arab states had put to Qatar.

(Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Sylvia Westall; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Leslie Adler)

Tillerson signaled U.S. policy of patience on North Korea is over

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looks on during a joint press conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (not pictured) at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, March 18, 2017. REUTERS/Lintao

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “sent a very clear signal that our policy of strategic patience is over” with North Korea during his recent visit to China, a White House spokesman said on Monday.

Spokesman Sean Spicer made the comment at a news briefing in reply to a question about Tillerson’s reaction to an announcement by North Korea about its latest rocket-engine test on Sunday. Tillerson was in Beijing during his first visit to Asia for talks dominated by concern about Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Eric Walsh; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)