US President Donald Trump cancelled peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders after the insurgent group claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 people.
Trump planned a secret meeting with the Taliban’s “major leaders” on Sunday at the presidential compound in Camp David. Trump also planned to meet Afghanistan’s president.
He immediately called the talks off when insurgents said they were behind the attack.
“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these important peace talks and even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Trump said on Twitter.
The surprise announcement left in doubt the future of the draft accord worked out by Zalmay Khalilzad, the special US envoy for peace in Afghanistan, for a drawdown of thousands of US troops over the coming months.
There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban but the decision appeared to catch them by surprise.
Hours before Trump’s tweet, a senior Taliban leader privy to talks in Doha with US officials including Khalilzad and Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said an agreement appeared close.
Taliban fighters, who now control more territory than at any time since 2001, launched fresh assaults on Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri and carried out suicide bombings in Kabul.
One blast, a suicide attack in Kabul, killed US Army Sergeant 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz (34), bringing the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 16.
A spike in attacks by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan is “particularly unhelpful” to peace efforts, a senior US military commander said when he visited neighbouring Pakistan, where many Taliban militants are based.
US Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversees American troops in the region, declined to comment on the diplomatic negotiations but criticised Taliban violence that cast a long shadow over the deal.
“It is particularly unhelpful at this moment in Afghanistan’s history for the Taliban to ramp up violence,” McKenzie, head of US Central Command, told reporters.
McKenzie said for the peace process to move forward, “all parties should be committed to an eventual political settlement” which should result in reduced violence.
“If we can’t get that going in, then it is difficult to see the parties able to carry out the terms of the agreement, whatever they might or might not be,” McKenzie said.
Under the draft accord, some 5,000 US troops would be withdrawn over the coming months in exchange for guarantees Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.
A full peace agreement to end more than 18 years of war would depend on subsequent “intra Afghan” talks involving officials and civil society leaders as well as further agreement on issues including the remainder of the roughly 14,000-strong US forces as well as thousands of NATO troops.
The Taliban rejected ceasefire calls and stepped up operations. It remains unclear whether they will accept direct negotiations with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate “puppet” regime.
NEW CIVIL WAR?
For Afghans, the Taliban’s recent escalation of attacks underscores fears it may be impossible to reach a stable settlement following any total US withdrawal.
Ghani dismissed the talks as “meaningless” following the suicide bombing and his spokesman said an official reaction to Trump’s announcement would come.
The Taliban strategy appears to be based on the assumption battlefield success will strengthen their hand in future negotiations with Afghan officials. Some field commanders said they are determined not to surrender gains close to victory, suggesting the leadership is under internal pressure not to concede a ceasefire.
That risks undermining acceptance of the deal by Washington and its NATO allies as well as Kabul.
“The Taliban leaders will have to show they can stop the attacks, if not, then what is the point of negotiations with Baradar?” said a Western diplomat in Kabul.
Within the Taliban ranks there appears to be doubt about how any agreement would take effect, given growing opposition to the deal from government.
“Don’t ask me how to implement the peace accord,” the Taliban official said.