Trump Says He Canceled Secret Camp David Talks With the Taliban
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an interview in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Trump Says He Canceled Secret Camp David Talks With the Taliban

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said Saturday that he canceled secret meetings with major Taliban leaders and the president of Afghanistan, set for Sunday at Camp David, and discontinued peace negotiations after a U.S. soldier was killed.

The sudden demise of the talks may doom direct U.S. negotiations with the Taliban that held out the prospect of ending 18 years of combat in Afghanistan, making it America’s longest-running war. The planned meeting revealed by Trump on Saturday had been a closely-held secret.

The president had grown frustrated with the peace negotiations. His national security adviser, John Bolton, thought an agreement in principle that had been reached was inadequate and reminded Trump of the potential pitfalls, according to two people familiar with the matter. So Trump tried to hammer out an accord personally by inviting the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for talks with him.

While the Taliban delegation never made it to the U.S., Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the most senior Taliban leaders, would have been among those at Camp David, according to a person briefed on the plans. That would have produced the extraordinary scene of a U.S. president sitting down with a commander of the militant force American troops have fought for years.

But Trump said in a series of three Twitter messages that he called off the previously unreported talks at the presidential retreat because the Taliban representatives “probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.”

The Taliban admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed 12 people -- including an American soldier -- in order to “build false leverage,” Trump said in a tweet. “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?”

The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001, soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The talks would have occurred days before the 18th anniversary of the attacks that killed almost 3,000 people and prompted the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

On Thursday, a U.S. soldier and Romanian service members were killed when a Taliban car bomb exploded near the U.S. embassy in Kabul. It was the second major attack there this week, even as the protagonists were nearing a peace deal that’s been months in the making.

At the time, Ghani, the Afghan president, decried the attack in the “strongest terms,” saying that making peace with Taliban militants who are still killing “innocent people will be pointless,” according to an emailed statement.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said in a tweet days ago that “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 & sustainable peace and a unified, sovereign Afghanistan that does not threaten the United States, its allies, or any other country.”

But Bolton argued that Khalilzad was accepting terms from the Taliban that were too vague.

The U.S. has insisted that no deal would be final until the Taliban reached an accord with Ghani, direct talks that the Taliban long refused to undertake. Trump’s tweet indicated that the Camp David meeting was to be an effort to bridge that divide by having him meet separately with Ghani and the Taliban.

The State Department referred inquiries about Trump’s Camp David meeting -- including who was scheduled to attend -- to the White House, where communications officials declined to comment. Calls to a Taliban spokesman were unanswered.

The Afghan government said it’s committed to working with the U.S. and allies in bringing peace, according to a statement from Ghani’s press office on Sunday in response to Trump’s tweets.

“The government considers the Taliban’s obstinacy to increase violence against Afghans as the main obstacle to the ongoing peace negotiations,” according to the statement. “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.”

In the talks led by Khalilzad, the U.S. has proposed tying American and allied troop withdrawals to a pledge by the Taliban to prohibit terrorist groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan to stage attacks.

The breakdown in negotiations raises the prospect that Trump won’t be able to deliver on his pledge to bring troops home -- or that if he does the result will be revived Taliban rule with no assurances the group would curb terrorists.

“No one thinks it’s great that we have to negotiate with the Taliban, but the reality is that if we want to ensure our security interests in Afghanistan in a sustainable way it requires some kind of settlement to the civil war that’s been going on in Afghanistan for the last 40 years,” said Richard Olson, a former special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Barack Obama.

“My suspicion is that the president had seen the opposition building in certain quarters, particularly among conservatives, but others as well, and it was too much,” Olson said.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has scheduled appearances on five political talk shows on Sunday. The path to a peace agreement had been expected to be a major theme he’d advance in the interviews.

Trump promised during the 2016 campaign to bring home American troops from overseas conflicts, and conclude what he called endless wars.

The Americans have been negotiating directly with Taliban forces in an effort to deliver on the troop withdrawal pledge. Afghan authorities have been largely sidelined in the process, even as the Taliban have escalated attacks.

U.S. negotiations with the Taliban would be considered successful if they led to less violence by the insurgent group, and promoted peaceful dialogue among Afghans, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, said on Thursday.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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