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US-Taliban talks appear stopped for now, Afghan gov’t says

Posted at 8:38 AM, Sep 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-08 08:38:45-04

WASHINGTON — A startled Afghan government said on Sunday it believes U.S.-Taliban negotiations on ending America’s longest war will not continue “at this stage” after President Donald Trump said he canceled a secret weekend meeting at Camp David with Taliban and Afghan leaders and called off talks with the insurgent group.

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Trump in a series of tweets cited a bombing in the past week in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a U.S. soldier.

Trump’s announcement Saturday evening was surprising because it would mean that the president was ready to host members of the Taliban at the presidential retreat in Maryland just days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. More than 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to go after the Taliban, which were harboring al-Qaida leaders responsible for 9/11.

Canceling the talks also goes against Trump’s pledge to withdraw the remaining 13,000 to 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan and end U.S. involvement in a conflict that is closing in on 18 years.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s peace envoy in talks with Taliban leaders for months, said less than a week ago that a deal had been reached “in principle” with the group on ending America’s longest war and that it only needed Trump’s approval. The president, however, came under increased pressure from the Afghan government and some U.S. lawmakers, including Trump supporter Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who mistrust the Taliban and think it’s too early to withdraw American forces.

“Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday,” Trump tweeted.

“They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations,” he wrote.

On Thursday, a Taliban car bomb exploded and killed an American soldier, a Romanian service member and 10 civilians in a busy diplomatic area near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The bombing was one of many attacks by the Taliban in recent days. Sgt. 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, was the fourth U.S. service member killed in the past two weeks in Afghanistan.

“What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they only made it worse!” Trump tweeted. “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight?”

It remains unclear if the U.S.-Taliban talks are over or only paused. Trump said he called off the peace negotiations after the bombing, but Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy negotiating with the Taliban, was meeting with leaders of the insurgent group in Doha, Qatar, on both Thursday and Friday.

The State Department and the White House declined to respond to requests for clarification.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told The Associated Press he could not immediately confirm Trump’s account of a Camp David meeting, and he withheld comment for now.

“It is a political issue,” he said. “We are waiting for our leaders and will update you.”

The Afghan government seemed hesitant to directly respond to Trump’s announcement, saying simply that “we have always said that a real peace will come when the Taliban stop killing Afghans and implement a ceasefire and start direct negotiations with the Afghan government” on the country’s future — talks that were meant to quickly follow a U.S.-Taliban deal.

Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi, speaking to reporters, did not say whether the government had heard directly from U.S. officials since Trump’s tweets. Sediqqi confirmed that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had wanted to go to Washington to speak with Trump about his concerns “but I am not able to go into the details of the particular trip.”

The details of the deal that had been shown to Ghani last week “were not convincing,” Sediqqi said. “Let’s see the future.” He would not say whether Trump’s decision had complicated the peace process going forward.

Many in the Afghan government, which has been sidelined from the U.S.-Taliban talks, and among the Afghan people have been skeptical of the negotiations, fearing there was little if nothing in the deal to stop the Taliban from continuing its attacks against civilians. Two shattering Taliban car bombings in Kabul in the past week, which the insurgent group said targeted foreigners but killed far more civilians, renewed those fears.

One Afghan political analyst, Waheed Muzhda, said he believed that Khalilzad invited Ghani to Washington and then went to Qatar to invite the Taliban to come and sign the agreement. “The Taliban rejected his invitation and that made Trump upset,” he said. The Taliban likely asked the U.S. to sign the agreement somewhere else such as Qatar, he added. “Unfortunately, all these efforts have come to an end with no result and I think the fight in Afghanistan will continue for years to come.”

Laura Miller, Asia director for the International Crisis Group, said that whatever the reason for “pulling the plug” on talks, the U.S.-led peace process was in jeopardy.

“After all the violence during many months of negotiations, it’s difficult to see why last Thursday’s attack would be the sole reason for changing course,” Miller said. “This could be a blow to the credibility of the U.S. commitment to the peace process. Hopefully it can be brought back on track because there’s no better alternative.”

For Trump, who is determined to get out of Afghanistan, “leaving with a deal is better for him politically than leaving without one,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, said in a statement. “So talks are not off the table by any means.”

Amid the confusion, Afghans weary of decades of war once again pleaded for its end. “No one has a higher stake in ending this war than Afghans on both sides,” the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Shaharzad Akbar, said.