US president Donald Trump abruptly called off peace negotiations with the Taliban after accusing them of seeking “false leverage” through a terrorist attack last week that killed 12 people, including a member of the American military.
Mr Trump cancelled the talks in a series of tweets on Saturday, revealing that a secret meeting with Taliban leaders, as well as the president of Afghanistan, had been set for Sunday at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, but was no longer happening.
Mr Trump has been hoping to strike a deal with the Taliban as he heads into his presidential re-election campaign, allowing him to claim that he had ended the war in Afghanistan, an achievement that eluded both George W Bush and Barack Obama, his predecessors in the Oval Office.
“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. What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?”
Senior US officials, led by veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, have been engaged in reconciliation talks with the Taliban for about a year, and had set this month as their goal for an agreement. Not only has that effort now been put in serious jeopardy, but Mr Trump will also face criticism for inviting Taliban leaders to the US in the same week as the anniversary of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
A successful conclusion to the talks with the Taliban has been high on Mr Trump’s foreign policy agenda, prompting a rapprochement between the US and Pakistan in the hopes that Islamabad could help broker the deal.
When Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, visited Washington in July, Mr Trump had called America’s military presence in Afghanistan “ridiculous” and said he did not want the US to be a “policeman”.
The outline of the deal, which was mainly negotiated in Qatar, was that the US would start pulling troops out of Afghanistan next spring, with more than 5,000 Americans returning home at that time. The withdrawal was only intended to be partial, however, with more than 8,000 remaining in the country for some time. On their side, the Taliban would commit to ensuring that Afghanistan would no longer be a “safe haven for terrorists”, according to a description of the mooted agreement by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, in June.
The Afghan government, led by president Ashraf Ghani, has been anxious that an excessively rapid exit by US forces could further destabilise the country, undermining the goals of the deal.
The attack on Thursday that caused the talks between Mr Trump and the Taliban to collapse killed 10 civilians as well as two military service members, including one from the US and another from Romania. “Peace with a group that is still killing innocent people is meaningless,” Mr Ghani said following the attack.