Sunday 22 September 2019

Trump cancels meeting with Taliban and Afghanistan leaders after Kabul bombing

US President Donald Trump (Alex Brandon/AP)
US President Donald Trump (Alex Brandon/AP)

Jonathan Lemire and Deb Riechmann

US President Donald Trump said he cancelled a secret weekend meeting at Camp David with Taliban and Afghanistan leaders after a bombing in the past week in Kabul that killed 12 people, including an American soldier, and has called off peace negotiations with the insurgent group.

His tweet on Saturday evening was surprising because it would mean that Mr Trump was ready to host members of the Taliban at the presidential retreat in Maryland just days before the anniversary of the September 11 2001 attacks.

More than 2,400 American troops have been killed since the US invaded Afghanistan to go after the Taliban, who were harbouring al Qaida leaders responsible for 9/11.

Cancelling the talks also goes against Mr Trump's pledge to withdraw the remaining 13,000 to 14,000 US troops from Afghanistan and end US involvement in an almost 18-year conflict.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration's diplomat who has talking to Taliban leaders for months, said recently that he was on the "threshold" of an agreement with the Taliban aimed at ending America's longest war.

The president, however, has been under pressure from the Afghan government and some US politicians, including Trump supporter Senator Lindsey Graham, who mistrust the Taliban and think it is 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," Mr 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 US Embassy in Kabul. The bombing was one of many attacks by the Taliban in recent days during US-Taliban talks.

The Defence Department said Sergeant 1st Class Elis A Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Morovis, Puerto Rico, was killed in action when the explosive device detonated near his vehicle. He was the fourth US 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!" Mr 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 US-Taliban talks are over or only paused.

Mr Trump said he called off the peace negotiations after the bombing, but envoy Mr Khalilzad was meeting 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. There was no immediate response from the Afghan government.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told the Associated Press that he could not immediately confirm Mr Trump's account of a Camp David meeting.

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

Many in the Afghan government, which has been sidelined from the US-Taliban talks, and among the Afghan people have been sceptical of the negotiations, fearing there was little if nothing in the deal to stop the Taliban from continuing its attacks against civilians.

The 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.

Longtime Afghanistan watchers, including former US officials, apparently did not see this twist coming.

After word emerged that a Washington visit by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had been postponed, some assumed Mr Ghani had been trying to make a last-minute effort to meet Mr Trump to express concerns about the approaching deal.

"Whatever was the reason for inviting Taliban leaders to Camp David and whatever the real reason for pulling the plug, the peace process has been disrupted at least for the moment," said Laurel Miller, Asia director for International Crisis Group.

"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," she said.

"This could be a blow to the credibility of the US commitment to the peace process. Hopefully it can be brought back on track because there's no better alternative."

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the Wilson Centre, tweeted: "It would've been a Trumpian move to the core: It would have legitimized bad guys, offered photo ops galore & generated tons of press attention. And very tacky. And ... little would've come of it."

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