Afghan officials, analysts and citizens on Sunday cautiously welcomed President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was canceling planned secret meetings with Afghan and Taliban leaders at Camp David, calling off the troubled U.S.-Taliban peace talks aimed at ending the 18-year conflict.
After weeks of mounting uncertainty and suspicion here, with insurgent violence raging across the country even as a bilateral deal neared, Trump’s surprising tweet late Saturday seemed to burst the pent-up tension across Afghan society and offer a moment of relief -even as it created new fears over what would come next
The Taliban, for its part, waited all day to issue a coolly worded statement saying it had been ready to sign a peace agreement with the United States, but Trump’s impatience had sabotaged the process and the insurgents would now continue their “jihad” against foreign “occupation.”
The days before Trump’s bombshell were filled with conflicting signals from Taliban and U.S. leaders. While U.S. negotiators said a deal was imminent, Taliban attacks intensified. An array of U.S. politicians, military figures and diplomats warned that a hasty deal and troop pullout could lead to chaos and even civil war.
“There is definitely a silver lining to this,” said Haroun Mir, an analyst based in Kabul. “There was total confusion before. Everyone was afraid the U.S. would sign a cease-fire but the Taliban would continue their war against the Afghan government and people. Now President Trump has personally rectified this with his own tweet.”
Few Afghans had trusted the closed-door process. Many expressed fears that the U.S. government would make too many concessions to the insurgents, giving them free rein to reimpose extreme Islamic rule and sacrificing gains in rights and freedoms under democratic rule.
President Ashraf Ghani, who had fumed for months about being excluded from the talks, prepared to fly to Washington this weekend without public explanation, but on Friday aides to Ghani said the trip was then postponed. Most observers here had assumed he was going to express his concerns about the proposed peace settlement.
Trump’s tweet, however, stated that separate secret meetings had been in the works with Taliban leaders and with Ghani and his senior aides. He tweeted that he had canceled the meetings due to the most recent Taliban attack Thursday, a bombing near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that killed 10 Afghans, one U.S. service member and one Romanian soldier.
It was not clear whether Taliban leaders had agreed to attend the meetings or not. The statement late Sunday by a Taliban spokesman made no mention of such meetings. A spokesman for Ghani declined Sunday to say what he had planned to do on his trip to Washington except express his concerns about the talks.
The Ghani government strongly welcomed Trump’s announcement early Sunday, saying it coincided with official concerns here that the Taliban were manipulating the peace process and reiterating Ghani’s long-standing insistence that only direct bilateral talks between Afghan and Taliban leaders could bring about an enduring and substantive settlement.
Sediq Sediqqi, the chief spokesman for Ghani, said Trump’s decision “showed he has a proper understanding of the situation and sees that the Taliban are not committed to peace.” He added that the government was grateful to the United States for its efforts, but that now the Taliban must “stop killing Afghans and agree to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. We have always been behind a meaningful peace process and we will always be the implementer of that process.”
But at an afternoon news conference, Sediqqi said direct talks among Afghans could not begin any time soon because of ongoing attacks. “We do not have conditions for talks, but peace has conditions,” he said. “How is it possible to sit in talks and continue the violence?” He said the Taliban had been enjoying a “honeymoon” in Qatar while “cheating Afghanistan and the world. This needs to come to an end.”
Several of Ghani’s rivals in a presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28 expressed similar comments after offering to quit the race if needed in the interests of peace. Many Afghans have called for the polls to be postponed, but Sediqqi said they would still be held on schedule. Ghani has been running hard for re-election to a five-year term despite Taliban threats to attack the polls.
“It is time for the Taliban to step forward, stop the bloodshed, announce a cease-fire and start direct talks with the Afghan side,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a candidate and former national intelligence chief.
Late Sunday afternoon, the Taliban issued an statement in Pashto saying it was still prepared to return to the table, but that Trump’s abrupt cancellation of bilateral talks would harm America and “increase its financial and human losses.” If talks are not resumed, spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said, “we will continue to (wage) jihad” and “put an end to the total occupation” of Afghanistan.
Taliban’s attacks during the past two weeks have killed scores of people in the capital and across the country in suicide bombings.
There were reports Sunday that the Taliban had stepped up operations in northern Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, possibly blocking a major highway to Kabul. The insurgents, who are based in the Afghan south, launched offensives in both strategic provinces over the past two weeks, likely seeking leverage at the now-cancelled talks.
Trump’s announcement came just before a week of public religious observances and political events that could be targets for further violence. Monday is the death anniversary of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban militia leader who was assassinated in 2001. Tuesday is the emotional peak day of Muharram, a Shiite religious mourning period, when Shiite mosques and communities have been attacked in previous years.
“A lot of Afghans are happy about Trump’s tweets because they may stop a bad deal with the Taliban, but they ignore the fact that there is a fundamental lack of strategy in Afghanistan that could prolong and exacerbate the bloody conflict,” tweeted Haroun Rahaimi, a law instructor at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. “I fear for what may come next!”
Some prominent Afghans took a hard line against the Taliban Sunday, saying the insurgents should never be forgiven for their wanton attacks on civilians, and that they had used the bilateral peace process as an excuse to show military might, while never abandoning the desire to return to power.
“The Taliban were never interested in peace … they just kept killing people indiscriminately to get a stronger bargaining position,” tweeted Raihana Azad, a member of parliament from Daikundi province. “Now the government should ask for the extradition of the Taliban based in Qatar. They should stand trial for all the atrocities they have committed.”
Some Afghans expressed anger with Trump for saying he had decided to cancel the talks because of Thursday’s attack that killed a U.S. soldier, even after months of Taliban violence that killed and wounded hundreds of Afghan civilians. Analysts here, however, said the recent attack was mostly an excuse for the president to abandon the increasingly troubled negotiations.
“American life matters for the U.S., but it is not important for them if Afghans are dying like lambs,” said Ahmad Shah Aria, 23, an economics student at a university in Kabul. In any case, he said, Trump’s decision will not stop the insurgent attacks. “Violence has been intense during the talks, and it will intensify if the talks stop.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Pamela Constable