One day after Rex Tillerson's visit to Saudi Arabia, which came as part of the US Secretary of State's concerted efforts to curb Iran's rapidly expanding influence in the region, including boosting the clout of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia in Shiite-majority Iraq, and urging Iranian militias to leave Iraq as the "fighting against ISIS comes to an end", Tillerson made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan's capital Kabul, where he is in discussions with President Ashraf Ghani about the United States’ policy towards South Asia.
Rex Tillerson speaks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani before their meeting
"Cloaked in secrecy and under heavy security, Tillerson slipped out of the Qatari capital of Doha in the pre-dawn hours" and flew to Bagram Air Base, AP writes. The secret visit was the third stop on his Middle East and South Asia trip, which started in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and will finish in Pakistan and India.
“The Secretary stated that the new U.S. strategy for South Asia makes clear the United States’ commitment to working with the government of Afghanistan and with partners across the region to achieve peace in Afghanistan and deny safe havens to terrorists who threaten that goal,” the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said in a statement. “President Ghani reiterated his support for the new U.S. strategy and emphasized his government’s commitment to reforms aimed at ensuring the safety, security, and well-being of all Afghans.”
“The U.S. has made it clear in terms of our support for Afghanistan, support a sovereign unified Afghanistan, a democratic Afghanistan, of charting a path to peace, prosperity and self-reliance,” Tillerson told the small group of reporters allowed to accompany him to Kabul. “It is imperative in the end that we are denying safe haven to any terrorist organizations or any extremists to any part of this world.”
“We also want to work with regional partners to ensure that there are no threats in the region,” he said. “This is very much a regional effort as you saw. It was rolled out in the strategy itself, demanding that others deny safe haven to terrorists anywhere in the region. We are working closely with Pakistan as well.”
“Clearly we have to continue to fight against the Taliban, against others, in order for them to understand they will never win a military victory,” he said. “And there are we believe moderate voices among the Taliban, voices that do not want to continue to fight forever. They don’t want their children to fight forever. So we are looking to engage with those voices and have them engage in a reconciliation process leading to a peace process and their full involvement and participation in the government.”
Tillerson praised Ghani for his reform efforts, notably to curb corruption, and to prepare for parliamentary elections next year.
* * *
As we reported over the weekend, Tillerson was previously Saudi Arabia and Qatar during a multi-nation tour that also includes stops in Pakistan, India, and Switzerland. During Tillerson's Gulf visit, Tillerson also called on European governments to join a U.S.-led sanctions regime against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, saying that countries doing business with the Islamic Republic’s force do so at their own risk. The Revolutionary Guards “foment instability in the region and create destruction in the region,” Tillerson told reporters in Riyadh on Sunday quoted by Bloomberg, after talks with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and other top officials. European countries and companies that do business with the IRGC “really do so at great risk,” he said.
Tilleron's visit takes place just one week after President Donald Trump refused to certify the Iran nuclear deal, leaving its fate to the US Congress, and laid out an aggressive new strategy against Tehran in a bellicose speech. As well as talks with senior Saudi officials in Riyadh including King Salman, Tillerson attended a landmark meeting between Saudi Arabia and Iraq aimed at upgrading strategic ties between the Arab neighbours.
"This event highlights the strength and breadth as well as the great potential of the relations between your countries," Tillerson said at the first meeting of the joint Saudi-Iraqi coordination council in Riyadh.
Following years of tensions with Riyadh, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hailed the meeting as an "important step toward enhancing relations", while King Salman warned of the dangers of "extremism, terrorism, as well as attempts to destabilise our countries." As part of his Saudi visit, Tillerson is also seeking more money for reconstruction in Iraq, after U.S.-backed forces ousted Islamic State from its key strongholds in the country.