Apr 9, 2016 11:45 PM

Kerry presses Afghan leaders on unity; no US troop changes

The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday committed to pushing reforms after his picks for attorney general and interior minister won long-sought Cabinet confirmation, while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pleaded with the government's power-sharing leaders to bury their "factional divisions" for the good of the country.

Yet Ghani could not cite progress toward ending a bitter feud with Afghanistan's chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, that has hobbled the Kabul government for 18 months. The unwieldy arrangement, which Kerry helped to forge, has left interim ministers in critical positions while the U.S. ally struggles to confront lawlessness, corruption and the Taliban's resilient and perhaps expanding insurgency.

"Democracy requires credible institutions," Kerry told reporters at the end of his brief stopover in Afghanistan on his way to Japan for a meeting of foreign ministers. "More than that, it requires people from different political, ethnic and geographic factions to be able to come together and work toward a common good."

Underscoring the unstable security situation, several rounds exploded about 650 feet away from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after Kerry had left the premises Saturday evening. A U.S. official described the explosions as small, and said there was no indication the secretary of state was the target. Local media reported no injuries.

Ghani, at a news conference, hailed the Cabinet votes in parliament as a political turning point. Progress on that front "assures us there will be fundamental, comprehensive reforms," he said through an interpreter.

Kerry backed him up and stressed the need for a unified approach between the competing Ghani and Abdullah camps, hardened still almost two years after a contested presidential election.

In the coming months, NATO and international donor summits could define long-term security and aid commitments critical to the Afghan government's survival, so Kerry sought clarity on Afghanistan's direction.

Kerry called on the Taliban to re-engage in peace talks dormant for almost a year, and said there was no change now in President Barack Obama's plans for troop levels in Afghanistan. There are 9,800 U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan, and that number is set to fall to 5,500 next year.

"But he always has said he will listen to his commanders on the ground," Kerry said.

Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is reviewing needs; Kerry said that would guide Obama's final decision.

Ghani declined to weigh in on what he said was a U.S. matter.

For Kerry, the stop in Kabul was his second visit in as many days to a country that the United States long has wished to stabilize. On Friday in Baghdad, Kerry backed efforts by Iraq's prime minister to settle a political crisis and stressed the importance of having a "unified and functioning government" to confront the Islamic State group.

Kerry met alone with Ghani and then included Abdullah in a lengthy three-way discussion on a porch in the presidential compound. Kerry also participated in separate talks with the foreign minister on security, governance and economic development.

"We need to make certain that the government of national unity is doing everything possible to be unified and to deliver to the people of Afghanistan," Kerry said at that event, calling on Ghani and Abdullah to move past "factional divisions."

The challenges in Afghanistan are not unlike those Kerry encountered in Iraq.

The U.S. invaded both countries under President George W. Bush and hoped to foster stable democracies. It has not happened, even though the U.S. has spent some $2 trillion so far and several thousand Americans have died in military operations.

Governments in both countries lack control over significant areas. Afghanistan's war against the Taliban is entering its 15th year. Iraq is still trying to muster the strength for an assault on Mosul, its second largest city, and other places held by IS.

Sectarian and personal rivalries threaten both governments. Security vacuums in each threaten the United States.

Despite Obama's pledges to end both wars, American troops cannot just leave. In Iraq, there are 3,780 now.

Obama has less than 10 months to leave both places in better shape, but the strategies differ: In Iraq, the U.S. seeks the destruction of IS; in Afghanistan, it hopes to draw the Taliban into peace talks.

It is not clear why the Taliban would seek out negotiations at a time the militants appear to making gains in the south, and the fighting season is only just beginning.

First, however, the Kabul government might need to reconcile its own divisions.

The Ghani-Abdullah partnership has never been defined and the government is in disarray, with fears it could collapse due to corruption and incompetence.

The bitterness stems from a belief in Abdullah's camp that the election was stolen and gifted to Ghani an anthropologist who lived in the U.S. for three decades as someone with whom Washington could more easily do business.

The leaders also are seen as pandering to different constituencies: in Ghani's case, the majority ethnic Pashtuns, and in Abdullah's, the Tajiks.

And Afghanistan's challenges are only deepening. The country's economy is contracting, unemployment stands at 25 percent, Afghanistan needs to secure more international aid, and an IS affiliate may now be making inroads.


Follow Bradley Klapper at twitter.com/bklapperAP


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