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Top U.S. officials attend security forum in Germany amid strained relations

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, walks with his wife Susan, to board a plane as he departs on a multi-country trip, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, walks with his wife Susan, to board a plane as he departs on a multi-country trip, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP) Photo Gallery

WASHINGTON — Some of President Donald Trump’s top foreign policy priorities stand at pivotal moments as two high-level national security officials head to an annual security forum in Germany. Strains in the trans-Atlantic relationship have cast doubt on whether they can count on much help from European leaders in advancing Trump’s agenda.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s visit to Munich comes as the U.S. appears close to signing a truce in Afghanistan, is pushing for renewing sanctions on Iran, has introduced a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and is trying to discourage allies from allowing the Chinese company Huawei to be part of next-generation wireless networks.

Meanwhile, in the background are worries about the global spread of the deadly new coronavirus from China.

The Munich conference, which opens Friday, attracts a wide array of foreign diplomats and national security officials and has been the venue for unexpected and sometimes surprising revelations. It has been marked by turbulent U.S.-European relations before, notably during the debate over the Iraq war in early 2003. But the current level of tension exceeds that of previous years and spans a wider range of issues.

Europe is unlikely to play a major role in what could be the biggest highlight: Pompeo and Esper are to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of the conference on Friday amid strong indications that a seven-day “reduction in violence” agreement that would lead to formal negotiations between Afghanistan’s factions and is close and likely imminent. A proposal is “on the table,” Esper said Wednesday.

Trump has agreed in principle to the deal, the final details of which are being hammered out by U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. People familiar with the plan’s outlines say it calls for the successful conclusion of the weeklong truce to be followed within 10 days by the start of all-Afghan negotiations to set the road map for the country’s political future.

U.S. officials have brushed aside claims that a Taliban ultimatum forced their hand. And, they noted that despite his campaign pledge to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and elsewhere, Trump has nixed previous deals that appeared close in response to attacks on U.S. forces.

While Afghanistan has the potential to be the most significant development in Munich, others issues are more likely to highlight tensions with Europe — notably the future of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Pompeo, who has as many as 10 separate meetings with foreign officials and a speech crammed into his two-day visit, will arrive in Munich shortly after the State Department gave the clearest signal yet that the administration will deliver an ultimatum to European allies on ending the accord.

The administration has been frustrated by the reluctance of Britain, France and Germany to move forward quickly with a process that could lead to the re-imposition of U.N. sanctions on Iran.