Pence urges peaceful end to standoff over Afghan Governor

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called for a peaceful change of leadership in the northern Afghan province of Balkh, where the powerful governor has defied attempts by the central government to oust him for the past month amid sensitive ethnic rivalries.

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The standoff between President Ashraf Ghani and Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor has threatened to destabilize the fragile Western-backed administration in Kabul and raised fears the government could try to use force to break the stalemate.

Pence spoke to Ghani about Washington’s new South Asia strategy and afterwards posted a message on Twitter saying he had emphasized support for the Afghan government “to engage (with) Balkh Governor Atta and conduct peace transition of leadership”.

Noor is one of the most prominent of a number of powerful regional leaders who have been a thorn in the side of Ghani, a former World Bank official named president after a disputed election in 2014.

The confrontation, amid increasing political maneuvering ahead of presidential elections next year, has been colored by the ethnic rivalries that have become increasingly prominent in Afghan politics.

Noor is a leader of Jamiat-i Islami, a party mainly supported by Persian-speaking ethnic Tajiks in the north who have become increasingly resentful of Ghani, a Pashtun, whom they accuse of favoring his own ethnic group, which is mainly based in the south and east.

Negotiations between the president’s office and officials from Jamiat have been going on for weeks, so far without result and Western diplomats in Kabul are concerned the standoff could degenerate into violence.

As well as damaging the government, the uncertainty has threatened to undermine the new U.S. strategy of stepping up pressure on the Taliban through air strikes and increased support for Afghan security forces to try to force the insurgents to the negotiating table.

“The U.S. policy on Afghanistan is working,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told reporters in New York on Wednesday after traveling to Kabul at the weekend with the U.N. Security Council. “We are seeing that we’re closer to talks with the Taliban and the peace process than we’ve seen before.”

She said Afghan officials had told council envoys that since the U.S. strategy was put in place “they’re starting to see the Taliban concede, they are starting to see them move towards coming to the table.”

Haley said that the entire peace process was Afghan-led and owned, adding: “We don’t think that we need to facilitate the peace process, we think we need to support the peace process.”

Reporting by James Mackenzie, additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Nick Macfie and Susan Thomas