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Collapse of US-Taliban talks stokes fears of new round of pre-election violence

09 Sep 2019 The Guardian

The collapse of a tentative agreement between the US and the Taliban following a series of weekend tweets from Donald Trump, has triggered fears of a spike in violence in Afghanistan in the run-up to presidential elections due later this month.

Trump announced on Sunday that he had cancelled secret Camp David meetings with the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and Taliban leaders, following a car bomb attack in Kabul on Thursday.

The Taliban then issued a statement saying an agreement had been “finalised” and that talks had ended in “a good atmosphere” but the deal had been sabotaged by Trump.

Taliban warns of more US dead after Trump says he cancelled peace talks Read more

“Reacting to just one attack, just before the signing of the agreement, shows neither patience nor experience,” the statement said.

The Taliban would continue their “jihad” against foreign “occupation”, the statement said. “Now, the announcement by the president of the United States, Donald Trump, of an end to negotiations with the Islamic Emirate [the Taliban] will harm America more than anyone else; it will harm its credibility, and further expose its anti-peace stance to the world; it would [result in] an increase in financial damage and casualties to its forces.”

The Taliban are expected to step up attacks on preparations for presidential elections on 28 September.

President Ghani had cancelled his flight to Washington on Friday, a day ahead of Trump’s Saturday night tweets. He had been opposed to the US-Taliban deal negotiated in Qatar by the US special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, because the Afghan government had been excluded from the talks, and the agreement reportedly gave no guarantees on the holding of this month’s election or the survival of the Kabul government. Nor did it commit the Taliban to talking directly to Ghani or his ministers.

“To satisfy his own ego and narrow political interests, Trump was willing to host the Taliban at Camp David and force [the] Afghanistan government to agree to a deal that benefited the Taliban only,” Vali Nasr, a former US special adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, said on Twitter. “And he couldn’t even pull that off.”

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said that Khalilzad had been recalled from Qatar and that it was up to the Taliban when talks would resume.

“The president ultimately made the conclusion that the meetings today wouldn’t deliver on the outcome that he is demanding we get for the American people,” Pompeo told CBS News on Sunday. “And when he saw that, when he saw that they couldn’t deliver on the reduction in violence commitments that they had made, he said there’s no sense in having this meeting.”

According to Time, Pompeo had refused to sign the “agreement in principle” Khalilzad had said he reached in Doha after nearly a year of talks because of his doubts about the deal and because the Taliban wanted to sign the agreement as the “Islamic Emirate of Taliban”, a recognition the secretary of state was not ready to bestow.

It was also reported that the US national security adviser, John Bolton, and Vice-President Mike Pence opposed meeting Taliban representatives in Camp David, a few days before the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Trump declared such reports “Fake News” but did not directly contradict them, saying only: “I always think it is good to meet and talk, but in this case I decided not to.”

Asked on Sunday whether the US would still proceed with the withdrawal of about a third of its 14,000-strong force in Afghanistan, a key element in the Khalilzad deal, Pompeo said: “I can’t answer that question. Ultimately, it’s the president’s decision.”

Former officials and Afghan experts doubted that Thursday’s attack in Kabul – in which 10 civilians, one US soldier and one Romanian soldier were killed – was the real reason for the cancellation. They pointed out that the Taliban had kept up attacks throughout a year of negotiations, and that US has also fought and negotiated at the same time.

Experts were also sceptical that Taliban leaders had been ever intended to fly to Camp David on Sunday. The movement has said it would not consider such a step before an agreement was signed.

According to one source familiar with the talks: “Both sides had initialled the agreement, but during a White House meeting it came up that Trump wanted to stage something at Camp David. He wanted to be the guy who did the deal. He wanted a TV show.”

According to this account, the Taliban were concerned how they would be treated once arriving in the US. So to pre-empt reports that Trump had been spurned, the president sought to “control the narrative” by tweeting he had cancelled a Camp David meeting that was never going to occur.

“What looks to be the failure of these particular talks makes a negotiated end to the war, for now, less likely,” wrote Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “Trust has been lost; finding a way for the parties of the conflict to talk to each other again has been made more difficult. No wonder many Afghans are confused about what they should think about the Trump tweets and the apparent end to the ‘peace deal’ – and fear that a further intensification of the violence will be the major result.”


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