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Secretary Of State Tillerson Says There Are Moderate Voices Among The Taliban


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent the day in two places where the U.S. is trying to end conflicts - Iraq and Afghanistan. He arrived at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan this morning in secret under heavy security. And he told reporters traveling with him that the fight against the Taliban must continue, but there is an opening for certain parts of the group.


REX TILLERSON: 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.

SHAPIRO: After Tillerson left Afghanistan he flew to Baghdad, where the focus was how to handle areas that ISIS militants have been forced out of. NPR's Michele Kelemen is one of the reporters traveling with the secretary and joins us from Baghdad. Hi, Michele.


SHAPIRO: So let's start with Iraq, where you are. What issues did Tillerson drill down on in his meeting with Iraqi leaders?

KELEMEN: Well, he was mainly here to call for unity. You know, ISIS has been mostly defeated, but Tillerson's worried about the tensions especially in northern Iraq between Kurdish forces - those are U.S. allies, and they're the ones who fought a lot of these battles against ISIS on behalf of the U.S. - and Iraqi troops that are moving back into these areas now that ISIS has left.

Tillerson tried but failed to persuade the Kurds to call off a recent independence referendum, and now he's worried that that's becoming a distraction. He says unity is required to achieve a real victory against ISIS. But, you know, again, the Kurds are strong allies of the U.S. So this is a very tricky bit of diplomacy here.

SHAPIRO: And this is the second time Tillerson has met with the Iraqi prime minister this week. The two men must be getting close.

KELEMEN: That's right. Well, he was - he met him in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which is interesting because the U.S. has been encouraging Iraq to build up closer ties to Saudi Arabia in part as a counterweight to Iran's influence in this country.

SHAPIRO: So in the last day you've been in multiple countries, multiple time zones. You were in Saudi Arabia yesterday, as you say, and Kabul today. Tell us more about the issues that Secretary Tillerson is working on in Afghanistan.

KELEMEN: He seems to be looking for that elusive exit strategy. You know, he was there to show support for the government, for the Afghan government. He said the U.S. remains committed to Afghanistan. But Secretary Tillerson said this is not a blank check. He says that country's president assured him that they're going to keep working on reforms and crack down on corruption. The real question is how to promote a peace process, though. Tillerson has said that the Taliban has to be convinced that they can't win this on the battlefield. And he wants Pakistan to deny the Taliban sanctuary. But he's also suggesting, as you heard a bit earlier, that there are moderate forces that could be engaged.

SHAPIRO: I know that this trip goes on to Pakistan tomorrow, which is another important part of the equation when you talk about the conflict in this region. Today, Secretary Tillerson delivered a warning to Islamabad about terrorists who have found safe haven in Pakistan. Tell us more about what he said and how this fits into the larger Trump administration strategy here.

KELEMEN: What he said is that solving Afghanistan is really going to take the whole region. And it's not just Pakistan, but also India. India - where he's also going to visit on this whirlwind trip - India could help with investments. India and Pakistan, of course, are rivals. So again, that's a tricky situation he has there. But he's going to be pushing the Indians to invest more. And he's going to be pushing the Pakistanis and - to do more, to deny sanctuary to terrorist groups.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen traveling with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson there in Baghdad. Thanks a lot.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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