WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump stunned many people on Saturday evening when he announced that he was supposed to meet senior Taliban leaders and the Afghan president at Camp David on Sunday, but those talks had been called off.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told CNN that the United States was still interested in striking a peace deal with the Taliban, provided they gave up violence.
Camp David is a country retreat of the US president and it was there in 1978 that President Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David Accords between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Apparently, President Trump chose this site for his talks with the Taliban because he expected this meeting to be historically as important as the Sadat-Begin meeting.
As he often does, President Trump used his Twitter account to drop the bombshell on the unsuspecting public. “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,” he wrote in the tweet. “They were coming to the United States tonight (Saturday).”
Mr Trump’s announcement followed a Taliban statement, admitting to a Thursday car bombing at a security post near Nato headquarters in Kabul that killed 12 people. Two Nato soldiers — one American and a Romanian — were also killed in the attack.
“What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?” Mr Trump said in the tweet.
“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,” he wrote.
Cites Kabul bombing as reason for the decision; Taliban express disappointment; Pakistan urges resumption of negotiations
The Taliban also used Twitter to respond to Mr Trump’s announcement, saying they found his statement disappointing.
“A few days ago, we finalised an agreement with the American team, the text of which was addressed to the leaders of both teams and submitted to Qatar. Everyone was satisfied,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen wrote in the tweet.
“It was agreed that the country of Qatar would announce it. At this time, the disappointing President Trump’s tweets have been unbelievable and certainly damaged his credibility,” wrote the Taliban spokesman, indicating that while the militants were aware of the arrangement, they did not expect the announcement.
Hours after Mr Trump announced the cancellation of the Camp David meeting, his foreign policy chief told CNN that Washington still wanted a deal but would not move forward until Taliban leaders proved they could deliver on their commitments.
“I think as you saw, if the Taliban don’t behave, if they don’t deliver ... the president of the United States is not going to reduce the pressure,” he said.
Secretary Pompeo listed several items he said the Taliban had, in principle, agreed to — such as direct talks with Afghan leaders, reducing violence and breaking ties with Al Qaeda.
“If we can’t get those conditions met ... we’re not going to enter into any deal,” he said.
Secretary Pompeo also said the Sunday meeting was in the works “for a while” and defended Mr Trump’s decision to invite Taliban leaders to Camp David.
“When the Taliban tried to gain a negotiating advantage by conducting terror attacks inside the country, President Trump made the right decision” to walk away, he said. “It made no sense for the Taliban to be rewarded for that kind of bad behaviour.”
Taliban spokesman Shaheen referred to this in another tweet, saying that the two sides had agreed to hold “numerous intra-Afghan talks in different countries” but nothing had been finalised yet. “There were to be multiple international meetings in different countries” before a final agreement on direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, he wrote.
Michael Kugelman, a senior South Asia associate at the Wilson Centre, Washington, tweeted one possible reason for Mr Trump’s retreat: “He needed a pretext to back out of a deal that wasn’t going to work. He found one, and, in announcing it, sought to put the Taliban on the back foot to improve the US government’s bargaining position in potential future negotiations.”
A US media report claimed that Mr Trump decided to hold direct talks with the Taliban because he believed “he would be better positioned to do the negotiating himself”.
“The location was a subject of dispute but ultimately Mr Trump signed off on Camp David, cognisant of its history in hosting talks with foreign leaders,” the report added.
Barnett R. Rubin, a former adviser on South Asian affairs to the United States and the United Nations, wrote in a tweet: “Afghanistan desperately needs an end to over 40 years of torment. Unfortunately, that is not enough to motivate the various authors of the bloodshed to stop. We have no alternative but to keep searching for imperfect solutions.”
Secretary Pompeo said that the US was seemingly close to a good deal before the bombing in Kabul. “We have it in hand, and there’s still more work to do ... but in the end, it won’t be about the commitment, it’ll be about their delivery,” he said. “We’re going to keep driving toward that outcome.”
US media reports said the decision to invite Taliban leaders and President Ashraf Ghani to Camp David was made a week ago in a meeting between President Trump and his national security officials.
The reports claimed that Mr Trump had grown discouraged by the peace talks after being told by national security adviser John Bolton and Sen Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and foreign policy hawk, the emerging plan put too much trust in the Taliban. So, he decided to hold direct talks.
Arrangements were made over the past week to bring the Taliban leadership to the US, and President Ghani had already planned a trip to Washington.
CNN reported that after Thursday’s bombing, the national security team convened again and briefed Mr Trump on the situation. The decision was made then to cancel the talks and Mr Ghani cancelled his trip. The Taliban leaders never arrived in the US.
For its part, Pakistan reiterated that there was no military solution to the Afghan conflict and urged all sides to re-engage in an effort to find a negotiated settlement using the ongoing political process.
“Pakistan looks for optimised engagement following earliest resumption of the talks,” said a statement issued by the Foreign office.
“Pakistan has always condemned violence and called on all sides for restraint and commitment to pursue the process,” it said.
The statement added that Pakistan had been facilitating the peace and reconciliation process in good faith and as a shared responsibility, and had encouraged all sides to remain engaged with sincerity and patience.
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2019