President Donald Trump has thrown almost a year of delicate peace negotiations with the Taliban into doubt after canceling a summit with leaders of the militant group, leading to fears of renewed Taliban violence in Afghanistan ahead of elections later this month.
Trump surprised everyone on Saturday night when he announced that a previously secret summit with Taliban leaders, due to take place in Camp David on Sunday, had been canceled, citing an attack by the terrorist group in Kabul last Tuesday that left one U.S. soldier dead.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the summit was canceled because the Taliban “tried to gain negotiating advantage by conducting terror attacks inside the country,’’ resulting in the death of an American soldier in Kabul. “We’re going to walk away from a deal if others try to use violence to achieve better ends in a negotiation,’’ he said.
However, U.S. officials told the New York Times that the meeting was canceled abruptly because the Taliban balked at Trump’s desire for a made-for-TV moment that would make it look like he finalized the peace deal at Camp David. The Taliban had wanted the deal signed before they traveled to the U.S., so that the Camp David meeting would a celebration of the agreement.
The U.S. and the Taliban had in fact finalized a deal “in principle” last week, after nine rounds of delicate negotiations in Qatar that began last October. The deal would have seen more than 5,000 U.S. troops leave Afghanistan by early next year, and was announced by Zalmay Khalilzad, the top U.S. negotiator in Afghanistan — moments after the Taliban carried out a suicide attack in Kabul last Tuesday, killing 16 people and wounding 100.
While Trump had pushed hard for the summit, officials told NBC it was fiercely opposed by a faction within the administration that was led by National Security Adviser John Bolton, who didn’t believe the Taliban could be trusted. Bolton was reportedly backed up by Vice President Mike Pence.
The last-minute decision to cancel the summit has left the future of U.S.-Taliban relations up in the air: the White House failed to outline clear next steps in negotiations to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan.
According to officials, Trump first floated the idea of a summit at the presidential retreat in Maryland during a meeting in the situation room at the end of August. Trump viewed signing a peace deal as a way to deliver on his campaign promise to end the 18-year war.
Taliban leaders had reportedly accepted invitations to the summit, but with the understanding that the deal would be signed beforehand.
In a trio of tweets late Saturday, Trump torpedoed the meetings:
The White House put Pompeo in the firing line Sunday morning, with the diplomat appearing in five separate interviews. His comments highlighted the lack of a clear path forward following the sudden summit cancellation.
Pompeo told ABC that “the president hasn’t yet made a decision on” a troop withdrawal, while he told CNN that if the Taliban can make a “significant commitment” toward restoring the Trump administration’s trust in the group, peace talks could resume.
Pompeo added, however, that “if the conditions aren’t appropriate on the ground and proper to protect America, we’re not going to enter into any deal.”
Asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” whether U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan at their current level of more than 14,000, Pompeo said: “I can’t answer that question. Ultimately, it’s the president’s decision.”
Kabul has yet to respond directly to Trump’s tweets, but a spokesperson for Ghani said, “we have always said that real peace is possible only when the Taliban stop killing Afghans, accept a ceasefire and start direct negotiations with the Afghan government.” He added that the government “appreciates the sincere efforts of its allies” to bring peace in the country.
Afghanistan is due to hold elections on September 28. But the Taliban, which views the current government as a puppet regime, opposes the vote taking place. Officials in Washington and Kabul fear that the Taliban will escalate their attacks in the coming weeks as election day approaches.
While the Taliban has been negotiating with the U.S. about troop withdrawals, it has failed to engage at all with the Afghan government, and continued to conduct attacks throughout the summer, killing dozens of people.
The terrorist group told NBC that Trump’s cancellation “not only shocked us, it made us realize the people we were talking with were not sincere in peace talks.”
They added that the decision would be worse for Washington. "Now that US President Trump has announced the suspension of negotiations… this would not harm anyone else but the Americans themselves," the group said in a statement on Sunday.
Cover: President Donald Trump, accompanied by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, in Washington, as he announces state opioid response grants. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)