By David E. Sanger and Mujib Mashal
US President Donald Trump’s decision to break off peace talks with the Taliban, at least for now, left Afghanistan bracing for a bloody prelude to national elections this month, while the administration declined Sunday to rule out a withdrawal of US troops without a peace accord.
In a round of television interviews, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed an attack by the Taliban for the cancellation of talks at Camp David this weekend that the administration had expected would lead to the signing of a peace agreement.
Pompeo said that the Taliban had “tried to gain negotiating advantage by conducting terror attacks inside the country,” resulting in the death of a US soldier in Kabul. “We’re going to walk away from a deal if others try to use violence to achieve better ends in a negotiation,” he said.
But after abruptly scrapping a diplomatic process that appeared to be inching toward a conclusion, it was unclear where Trump would go from here.
The administration continued to face questions about what led to Trump’s sudden renunciation of the talks, including whether the sticking point was his desire to seal the deal himself in a dramatic summit meeting at Camp David and why he chose to go public with the decision to withdraw the secret invitation to the Taliban.
Pompeo and other administration officials left open the door to a resumption of negotiations, and so did the Taliban. But any new talks may not happen for several months, with each side feeling that an agreement that seemed within reach was sabotaged by the other, Afghan officials said.
And there was a consensus in Kabul and Washington that the sudden derailment of what had seemed like a carefully orchestrated effort for a deal could lead to a surge of violence before the Sept. 28 election. The Taliban have opposed holding the election, of which President Ashraf Ghani is seen as a front-runner.
Despite a series of car bombings and attacks, there has been a sense that the Taliban have been hanging back, hoping a deal would delay the election. Now, the Taliban have more of an incentive to disrupt the election and make clear that after an 18-year war they remain a potent political and military player.
Trump’s aides said they were mystified about whether the president had a new strategy for fulfilling his promise to withdraw U.S. troops or preventing escalating violence.
There were also questions about the accuracy of his assertion that the Taliban had accepted his invitation to Camp David on Sunday, and that he was the one calling off the meeting.
Taliban negotiators said Sunday that they had agreed to come to the United States only after a deal was announced and only to meet with the U.S. side, suggesting that Trump may have canceled a meeting that the key participants were not planning to attend.
Trump and Pompeo cited the Taliban attack that killed a U.S. soldier Thursday as the reason for calling off the talks.
But the death of the soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Elis Barreto Ortiz, was the 16th this year, one of many since talks with the Taliban began nearly a year ago. And Pompeo undercut the argument by acknowledging that the United States, too, has continued to fight, claiming “over a thousand Taliban killed in just the last 10 days alone.”
On Sunday, some of Trump’s fellow Republicans expressed outrage at the thought of the Taliban coming to Camp David, where President George W. Bush gathered his war cabinet days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to plan a military campaign against Afghanistan to wipe out al-Qaida and kill its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said “no member of the Taliban should set foot” in the presidential retreat. “The Taliban still harbors Al Qaeda,” she said on Twitter. “The President is right to end the talks.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, another Republican and a former Air Force officer who served in Afghanistan, said that “never should leaders of a terrorist organization that hasn’t renounced 9/11 and continues in evil be allowed in our great country. NEVER.”
Several pointed to a tweet Trump himself had written in 2012, criticizing President Barack Obama for “negotiating with our sworn enemy, the Taliban, who facilitated 9/11.”
Pompeo and other officials offered the same argument Sunday that Obama offered seven years ago: To achieve peace, you have to talk with your enemies.
That is a view, though, that has encountered resistance by some in the administration, including John Bolton, national security adviser, who opposed the emerging pact and argued internally that Trump could keep his campaign pledge to draw down forces without signing a deal with the Taliban, a group he said could not be trusted.
Pompeo said that the president had not yet decided whether to go ahead with a reduction in the forces now in Afghanistan.
Trump has vowed to reduce the number of U.S. forces there, saying two weeks ago that their numbers would come down to 8,600, from a current level of about 14,000. That is far below the 100,000 troops that were based there during the height of the war.
Trump has never set conditions on his decision to withdraw — a step many experts see as a mistake, since it has encouraged the Taliban to simply wait out the Americans, guessing they might begin a withdrawal with no agreement.
But Pompeo laid out two conditions for a withdrawal Sunday: that violence be reduced and that another terrorist attack on the United States from Afghanistan never be permitted. “We’re not going to withdraw our forces without making sure we achieve President Trump’s twin objectives,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The attempt to broker a deal came at one of the most precarious moments in Afghanistan since 2001.
Many of the hopes that Bush once had for a transformation of Afghanistan have long since been abandoned; with the resurgence of the Taliban, early efforts to assure the education of girls, protect the rights of women and transform villages with agricultural technology and U.S. aid have been abandoned.
But Afghans saw in the negotiations a chance to regain some sense of control, by engineering some kind of political accommodation between Ghani’s government and the Taliban, a form of power-sharing that a decade ago would have been unthinkable.
In an interview Thursday at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, argued that it had been clear for years that the only lasting peace would come from some kind of political process between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
He said that his idea of a successful negotiation would be one that “reduces the level of violence” and sets up an intra-Afghan dialogue.
That was the goal of the negotiations that Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan, had been painstakingly negotiating in Doha, Qatar, for nearly a year, and seemed on the verge of achieving. On Thursday, Khalilzad was in Doha again with Gen. Austin Miller, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who has also said that he believes the battle between the Afghan government and the Taliban would never be resolved militarily.
“The fight will go until a political settlement,” he said.
At the core of the tentative agreement between the United States and the Taliban were assurances from the group that it would not support international terrorist groups, and that Afghan soil would not be used for attacks against the West.
“We had the Taliban’s commitment to do that,” Pompeo said on Fox News on Sunday. “We had their commitment to break from al-Qaida, publicly. And they would obviously have to deliver on that commitment. So we’ve made real progress, but in the end the Taliban overreached.”
U.S. and Western officials said that until Trump’s announcement Saturday, they expected direct talks would start between the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government. In return, Trump would announce a withdrawal schedule for U.S. troops.
With the negotiations overshadowing electoral politics, the country had two national processes — peace talks and presidential elections — in a race with each other, each casting doubt over the prospects for the other.
Ghani, a 70-year-old former anthropologist and World Bank official who returned to Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban government, has been insistent that the election go ahead at any cost. He believes that his reelection would give him leverage with the Taliban, who have threatened violence if they do not regain significant political power.
Yet the Afghan government was not a party to the talks, and only recently did the U.S. government start briefing Ghani about the details, his aides said. Even then, U.S. officials would not leave him a copy of the draft agreement governing the fate of his country.
Ghani has reached out to the Taliban at various moments, offering passports to Taliban negotiators and urging them to engage in peace talks. But the Taliban has refused to recognize his government as legitimate, and Ghani has questioned whether, even if the United States announced a peace deal, the Taliban would negotiate an acceptable accord with any elected government.
But he was apparently willing to travel to Washington, at Trump’s behest, and attend the Camp David talks. And he was planning to do so, his aides said, though wary of not knowing what would transpire there..
He was also deeply worried about Trump’s insistence on reducing U.S. forces, fearing a rushed process that could bring about a repeat of the chaos that gripped the country a generation ago when Soviet troops left Afghanistan, paving the way for the Taliban and, ultimately, al-Qaida.
Pompeo did little Sunday to alleviate his concern. Asked by Margaret Brennan on CBS’s “Face the Nation” if 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan was “where it stays for the foreseeable future,” Pompeo hedged.
“I can’t answer that question,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s the president’s decision.”