Pompeo Makes Surprise Stop in Afghanistan to Tout Trump Strategy

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday, insisting that President Donald Trump’s strategy to fight the Taliban is working even as the opposition group gains ground after almost 17 years of war.

The optimistic note sounded by Pompeo and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani contrasted with security measures that were taken for his trip. Visiting officials are frequently restricted in how much of the war-torn country -- about half of which is controlled or contested by Taliban forces -- they can see. As a result, high-level trips are usually not announced in advance, as was the case with Pompeo.

Nonetheless, he spoke positively about the situation in the country about a year after Trump authorized the Pentagon to bolster U.S. forces in what has become America’s longest war. The Taliban took part in a brief truce pushed by Ghani last month, but a breakthrough has remained elusive and the group has made steady gains at the government’s expense.

“My conclusion from this visit is that the president’s strategy is indeed working,” said Pompeo, on his first visit to Afghanistan as secretary of state. “Taliban momentum is slowing.”

Insider Attack

The U.S. and Afghan struggle to control security was underscored on July 7 when an American soldier in southern Afghanistan was killed in an apparent “insider attack,” a term used to describe Afghan forces that turn on U.S. or allied personnel.

The U.S. has more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, primarily in an advisory and training role. Last August, Trump agreed to a Pentagon request to send thousands of additional troops to the country, while U.S. commanders there were given more authority to strike the Taliban as well as Islamic State and al-Qaeda terrorists.

Adding to doubts about the country’s outlook, John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in a speech last month that $8.6 billion spent on U.S. counternarcotics efforts in the country since fiscal year 2002 have failed. Opium cultivation jumped 63 percent in 2017 from a year earlier to a record 328,000 hectares. Opium sales “fuel insurgent violence and foster corruption,” Sopko said.

Pomepo, continuing a week-long, around-the-world trip that will take him to a NATO summit in Brussels later this week, said the Trump administration supports the idea of peace talks with the Taliban. While the U.S. would assist that effort as much as it could, he said the process must be led by Afghanistan.

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