By Steve Herman
September 8, 2019
John Walker of VOA’s Afghanistan service contributed to this report.
WHITE HOUSE — U.S. President Donald Trump says he has called off secret talks that were to be held Sunday at Camp David with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and “major Taliban leaders.”
Trump, in a series of Saturday evening tweets, explained he immediately canceled plans for the meeting at the presidential retreat in the state of Maryland following a car bomb blast in Kabul that killed 12 people, including an American soldier.
Trump said the Taliban carried out the attack “in order to build false leverage.”
The president added that if the Taliban “cannot agree to a cease-fire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then it probably doesn’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight.”
Afghan president’s statement
Ghani’s office released a statement Sunday in response to Trump’s cancellation of secret peace talks.
“Real peace will come when Taliban agree to a ceasefire,” the statement said, according to Reuters.
Ghani’s office said it was committed to working together with the United States and allies for a “dignified and long-lasting peace,” and emphasized the holding of the presidential election this month.
The Taliban spokesmen were not available for a comment.
Negotiations to reach a peace agreement have been underway for months between U.S. diplomats and the Taliban, who have rejected calls for a cease-fire.
Trump’s tweeted revelation of the planned secret talks and his cancellation of them stunned analysts.
“For months, U.S. negotiators had worked in painstaking fashion to get a deal. They were on the cusp of one. And now, seemingly, a single Trump tweet has yanked the rug from under them,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program and South Asia senior associate at The Wilson Center.
Kugelman tells VOA he does not think that talks are completely dead.
“Trump is a savvy negotiator and this may well be a ploy of sorts, meant to intimidate the Taliban and get it to scale down violence and come back to the negotiating table in a weaker position,” he says.
Trump’s tweet was completely unexpected in light of negotiations that had been continuing in Doha only hours earlier between U.S. officials and the Taliban — talks that the militant group characterized as very positive, according to David Sedney, executive chairman and acting president of the American University of Afghanistan.
“There’s a big, big disconnect” among U.S. officials, Sedney tells VOA.
“The people I talk to see the Taliban’s recent wave of attacks as a clear signal from the Taliban that the Taliban seek military victory and in that context many Afghans see a U.S. withdrawal agreement as enabling military victory because if this was a step towards peace, then the Taliban would agree to an immediate ceasefire,” he adds.
And Sedney expresses skepticism that the Taliban would have gone to Camp David unless they were essentially accepting an American surrender.
“I hope the Taliban have an immediate cease-fire — that’s what the people of Afghanistan want and deserve … but I don’t think it’s likely.”
A peace deal, which would be expected to see the withdrawal of 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, could end the longest war in U.S. history.
It is estimated 150,000 people — including 40,000 civilians — have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power in Kabul for providing refuge to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, who were responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Fighters for the Taliban launched fresh attacks on Kabul and two other cities over the past week. The group now controls more territory in Afghanistan than at any other time since 2001.
U.S. officials contacted by VOA following the president’s tweet declined to comment.
The American diplomat leading the effort to reach an accord, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Aug. 31, “We are at the threshold of an agreement that will reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit together to negotiate an honorable and sustainable peace, and a unified, sovereign Afghanistan that does not threaten the United States, its allies or any other country.”
A draft agreement between the American and Taliban negotiators was reached days ago, but a full peace pact hinges on subsequent intra-Afghan talks.
It was known before Trump’s tweets that Ghani had scheduled and abruptly postponed a trip Saturday to the United States.
Analysts in Kabul had told VOA that it was a signal that the government there was not happy with the U.S.-Taliban peace deal and that there were differences in finding common ground on the process between Kabul and Washington.