New Delhi: US President Donald Trump late Saturday announced he had cancelled a secret meeting at Camp David, his official retreat in Maryland, with Taliban leaders and the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani besides calling off peace talks between the US and the Taliban that had appeared to be nearing an agreement.
“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," Trump said in a series of tweets late Saturday that seem to have caught many by surprise for its content and timing – i.e. days before the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US that triggered the US led war on terrorism in Afghanistan.
“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? They didn’t, they.... .only made it worse! 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?" Trump said.
Trump’s tweets came just days after US special envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad revealed few details of a deal worked out with the Taliban. Talks between the US and the Taliban have been on since late last year with Khalilzad making regular trips to the Qatari capital Doha for meetings. In nine rounds of negotiations, Khalilzad had worked out a phased peace agreement — initially a deal between the US and the Taliban to be followed by direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Khalilzad had proposed drawing down American military troops in exchange for a partial cease-fire by the Taliban with 5,400 troops leaving Afghanistan within 135 days of a signed agreement. The deal would have ensured that the number of American troops would have initially been reduced to what it had been when Trump took office in 2017.
In New Delhi, there was no immediate government reaction to the development. Analysts welcomed it albeit cautiously.
“It is not clear whether this is the final word said on the matter despite Trump’s tweets. The US has invested hugely in a peace deal with the Taliban. And all this while, the Taliban had committed horrific acts of terror," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.
“For India, the US Taliban talks were a sellout to Islamic extremism, terrorism and Pakistan which would have left us to cope with the worst aspects of Pakistan in the coming years. We can find some comfort that the momentum of the initiative has been broken but I am not sure the domestic political compulsions of Trump would not make him reverse on his position as he has done on many other issues," Sibal said.
A New York Times report described Trump’s announcement as “startling for multiple reasons." A surprise summit at Camp David with leaders of a terrorist group that has killed thousands of Americans since the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan “would have been a sensational diplomatic gambit, on par with Trump’s meetings with the once-reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un," it said.
Trump’s statement also appears to scuttle, at least for now, his hope to deliver on a 2016 campaign promise to withdraw American troops from an 18-year conflict, the report said. Afghanistan had been a major talking point during the 22 July visit to the White House by Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan accompanied by Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. The Khan-Trump talks were seen as crucial to bring the withdrawal deal on track.
“Pakistan has got one more taste of Trump’s unpredictability," Sibal said adding “This isn’t going to instil confidence in them that they can use the leverage of negotiation with the Taliban to bring them returns vis a vis India." The reference was to Pakistan’s tactic of using the talks with the Taliban as a bargaining chip to urge the US to put pressure on India for peace talks on the Kashmir dispute.
The development comes amid resistance within Afghanistan’s government about the peace agreement that had been under discussion. Afghan president Ghani is in favour going ahead with a planned election on 28 September that he expected to win. The Taliban on its part have insisted on postponing the polls before starting peace talks with the Afghan government.
According to the New York Times’ report, several people familiar with the US-Taliban talks were “puzzled" over Trump’s decision to cancel peace negotiations entirely in response to one US casualty, given that the Taliban had not agreed to halt their attacks on Americans in advance of a formal agreement. “That raised the question of whether Mr. Trump might have been looking for a pretext because the talks had run into trouble," the New York Times report said – a view that former foreign secretary Sibal seemed inclined to agree with.
That Trump was citing Taliban violence and the death of a US soldier to pull out of the peace talks suggests it is a “tactical move" than abandoning search for a peace deal to US forces to draw down and exit, Sibal said.
“What appears more likely is that the Taliban are refusing to declare a ceasefire and talk directly to the Afghan government. In the absence of these two basic requirements for a peaceful deal, no strategy could work on the ground. An advance indication of problems relating to deal became apparent when Secretary Mike Pompeo refused to sign deal with representatives of the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ which would have clearly meant that the larger agenda of Islamic extremists (like the Islamic State and other groups) would be represented" by the group, he said.