WASHINGTON: The chief Taliban negotiator has been recalled to Washington and the US is not withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, announced the Trump administration on Monday amid threats by the Taliban to inflict more losses.
However, there was also an indication from the US government that the process of reconciliation with the Taliban would continue.
On Saturday, US President Donald Trump revealed that senior Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani were coming to the Camp David presidential retreat on Sunday over a draft deal that would see the US withdraw thousands of troops and wind down its longest-ever war.
In a tweet that took Washington by surprise, Trump also announced that he had called off the planned secret meeting because of Thursday’s Taliban attack in Kabul that killed 12 people, including an American soldier.
In a series of television interviews by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after the abrupt cancellation of talks, he told NBC News “so, for the time being, that’s absolutely the case. We’ve recalled Khalilzad back to Washington”, when asked if talks with the Taliban were completely off.
Special US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad had spent a year negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban. Last week, both Taliban and Khalilzad indicated that the deal was almost final and could soon be signed into a legal document.
Asked by Fox News if the talks were “now dead” and what it might take to restart them, Pompeo said “for the time being they are” dead and “if the other team commits an act that’s inconsistent with that, President Trump is not going to take that deal. He’s not going to take a bad deal.”
However, Pompeo also told CNN that Khalilzad and his team “made real progress” in Doha but now the Trump administration wanted to see if Taliban leaders were serious about the commitments they made in these months-long talks. “We have to see them be able to deliver it. We have to have proof that it’s delivered,” he said. “And when we get to that point … I am confident President Trump will continue the process of [reconciliation].”
The Taliban also indicated that the talks were going well and they were on the verge of signing an agreement. They said the US negotiating team was “happy with the progress made so far” in Doha and the talks were held “in a good atmosphere”. Both sides were preparing for “the announcement and the signing of the agreement”, their statement had said.
In his interview to Fox News, Pompeo said that the US and Taliban negotiators had been working for months for a peace and reconciliation deal. “But in the end, the Taliban overreached. They forgot that America is always going to protect its interests,” he said.
President Trump, Pompeo said, was focused on two main objectives: reduction of risk and cost levels for America and peace and stability in Afghanistan. “If they [Taliban] don’t deliver on the commitments that they’ve made to us now for weeks and in some cases months, the president of the United States is not going to reduce the pressure, we’re not going to reduce our support for the Afghan Security Forces that have fought so hard there.”
Asked if the US would keep all 14,000 troops still in Afghanistan or reduce them to 8,600 as announced last week, Pompeo said: “We’re going to have to take a good look at that …We want to make sure always we have the right number of forces.”
Responding to Trump’s decision to cancel the peace talks, the Taliban said it was an “anti-peace” move. “Now that US President Trump has announced the suspension of negotiations … this would not harm anyone else but the Americans themselves,” the group said in a statement on Sunday.
The Taliban said it would “lead to more losses for the US”, “harm [its] credibility” and “show their anti- peace stance in [a] more clear way”.
Queried by CBS regarding the incongruity of inviting Taliban leaders to Camp David days before the anniversary of Sept 11 attacks, Pompeo responded: “We know the history of Camp David. It’s where peace has been negotiated many, many times. And sadly, you often have to deal with some pretty bad characters to get peace.”
Pompeo said that before they were invited to Camp David, Taliban leaders had agreed to reduce violence, sever their links to Al Qaeda and hold talks with the Afghan government.
He assured the American public that US commanders in Afghanistan had all the authority they need to protect American forces and to prevent attacks on the homeland. “So, we’re still at this hard. We’ve been taking it to the Taliban this well, over a thousand Taliban killed in just the last 10 days alone.” “Our struggle for the past 18 years … will continue until the foreign occupation is finished and the Afghans are given a chance to live by their own choice.”
Islamabad, meanwhile, urged both sides to “re-engage to find [a] negotiated peace from the ongoing political settlement process”. “Pakistan looks for optimised engagement following [the] earliest resumption of talks,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.