US President Donald Trump said peace talks with the Taliban had resumed as he made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Thanksgiving, appearing at a US air force base alongside Afghan president Ashraf Ghani.
Following a meeting with Mr Ghani, Mr Trump told reporters that the Taliban “wants to make a deal” and that US officials were “meeting with them”.
Mr Trump abruptly halted peace negotiations with the Taliban in early September after accusing them of seeking “false leverage” through a terrorist attack that killed 12 people, including a member of the US military.
The US had been engaged in long negotiations with the group and appeared to be close to striking a deal that outlined a timeline for US troop withdrawal in exchange for a ceasefire agreement.
In a sign of apparent progress, US officials planned to hold further talks with Taliban leaders and Mr Ghani on US soil at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, but following the terrorist incident the talks never happened.
Mr Trump on Thursday said the Taliban was willing to agree to a ceasefire. “We’re saying it has to be a ceasefire, and they didn’t want to do a ceasefire,” said Mr Trump. “Now they do want to do a ceasefire. I believe it’ll probably work out that way.”
In 2016, Mr Trump made a promise to remove the US from foreign wars one of his signature campaign pledges. He has long hoped to strike a deal with the Taliban, which would allow him to claim he has ended the war in Afghanistan — something that eluded George W Bush and Barack Obama, his predecessors in the Oval Office.
Despite his desire to withdraw US forces from the country, Mr Trump on Thursday said some troops would remain. “We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal, or we have total victory, and they want to make a deal very badly,” said Mr Trump of the Taliban.
He added that he hoped US troop numbers would fall to 8,600. In August, the Pentagon said about 14,000 US troops were based there.
Despite the collapse of talks between the US and the Taliban less than three months ago, Mr Trump said there had been “tremendous progress” towards forging a peace agreement and that the US was drawing down its troops.
Analysts have questioned whether the US’s desire to leave the region weakens its negotiating position. General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has warned of the dangers of “prematurely” withdrawing.
The US presence has been reduced since 2011, when troop numbers surged towards 100,000 after Mr Obama committed reinforcements. He later set out plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
When Mr Trump took office in 2017, he said that while his “instinct” was to pull out, a withdrawal would reflect “conditions on the ground”. The Pentagon later deployed a further 6,000 troops as security deteriorated.