US defends cancellation of secret peace talks with Taliban
The US and Taliban leaders clashed on Sunday over the collapse of peace talks that could have ended the 18-year conflict in Afghanistan, after Donald Trump abruptly cancelled a summit to seal a deal at the Camp David retreat in Maryland.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, accused Taliban leaders of backtracking on their pledges including cutting ties with al-Qaeda, reducing violence in Afghanistan, and agreeing to reconciliation talks in Norway. He said they had “over-reached” after a terror attack last week in Kabul killed one member of the US military, a Romanian military officer and 10 civilians.
“We finally reached a point where we were close. We made real progress and then the Taliban failed to live up to a series of commitments they had made and when that happened President Trump said I’m not going take that deal,” Mr Pompeo said in a television interview on ABC.
Mr Pompeo said that the negotiations, led on the US side by Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran diplomat, had ended for now.
But he left the door open for them to resume in the future. “I hope it’s the case that the Taliban will change their behaviour” and “recommit to the things we have been talking to them about for months,” Mr Pompeo said.
“In the end this will be resolved through a series of conversations, I hope,” he added.
Mr Trump cancelled the peace talks in a series of tweets on Saturday night, saying that the Taliban had attempted to build “false leverage” after claiming responsibility for the attack in the Afghan capital, and disclosing that a secret gathering at Camp David had been scuppered. Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, was also expected to attend.
“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?” Mr Trump wrote in one of the tweets.
The Taliban said in a statement on Sunday they were willing to come back to the table but that calling off the talks revealed America’s “anti-peace stance” and would increase financial losses and lives, according to Afghan channel Tolo News. The Taliban later said a deal had been “finalised” with the American team that was supposed to be announced by Qatar, which has mediated the talks.
Following Mr Trump’s announcement, Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said that “we have consistently stressed that genuine peace is possible when the Taliban stop the killing of Afghans, embrace an inclusive ceasefire, and enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan government.”
Mr Sediqqi added that Kabul was committed to holding presidential elections on September 28 and wanted to “move forward the ongoing peace process with full wisdom and precision”.
Kabul, which had been frozen out of the talks, had been wary of a deal and warned that the Taliban could not be trusted to uphold a peace agreement.
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistan ambassador to the US and South Asia expert at the Hudson Institute, said that for talks to resume “the Taliban would have to end or substantially reduce violence, and US negotiators would have to give greater weight to the Afghan government than Mr Khalilzad has so far done”.
Mr Haqqani added that “President Trump seems to be signalling that he is not ready for the peace at any price approach that has become associated with Mr Khalilzad’s negotiations thus far”.
The terms of the deal included a drawdown in US troops in Afghanistan, with more than 5,000 members of the American military slated to leave the country by April next year.
But the reduction in the American presence in Afghanistan — which has long been a foreign policy goal which Mr Trump had hoped to achieve in time for his 2020 re-election bid — was thrown into question.
On Sunday, Mr Trump faced criticism for even considering a summit with the Taliban on US soil.
“Camp David is where America’s leaders met to plan our response after al-Qaeda, supported by the Taliban, killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11. No member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever. The Taliban still harbors al-Qaeda. The President is right to end the talks,” tweeted Liz Cheney, a senior Republican in the US House of Representatives, and the daughter of Dick Cheney, the hawkish vice-president at the time of the of 9/11 attacks.
Mr Pompeo dismissed those concerns, however. In the end if you are going to negotiate peace you often have to deal with some pretty bad actors,” he said.