Both the U.S. and Afghans anticipate a possible new wave of Taliban violence following President Trump’s abrupt break-off of talks with the hardline radical Islamic group. The President terminated the talks on Saturday after the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul last week that killed an American soldier, a Romanian soldier, and 11 others Afghan civilians.
President Trump canceled secret talks that had been planned for Sunday with the Taliban’s major leaders at the presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland. That meeting was to be in conjunction with members of Afghan President Ghani and his key advisors. In calling off negotiations, Trump cited the Taliban car bombing last Thursday near the U.S. Embassy as a critical reason indicating it didn’t show a sign of good faith going into the negotiations. The insurgent group has defended its continued attacks even while a deal was taking shape, saying they were intended to strengthen its bargaining position.
In turn, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, showed the organization’s true attitude and approach to the overall negotiations immediately criticizing and threatening President Trump for calling off the dialogue. He vehemently said; “This will lead to more losses to the U.S…,” noting, “Its credibility will be affected, its anti-peace stance will be exposed to the world, losses to lives and assets will increase.”
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo countered the Taliban’s so called angst, saying that Afghan peace talks were ‘on hold’ and that the U.S. would not reduce military support for Afghan troops until it was convinced the Taliban could follow through on significant commitments they had negotiated.
In the meantime, the White House has recalled U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad to chart the path forward, Pompeo said in appearances on the Sunday Morning TV news shows. On “Fox News Sunday” he was asked whether Afghan talks were dead, replying, “For the time being they are.”
This was reiterated by President Trump on Monday saying with regard to negotiations, “They’re dead despite the Taliban tacitly signaling they would return to talks. Of course, at the same time that seemed to end when the Taliban laid both a threat and conditions before the President saying Trump’s decision to upend the deal just before it’s signing “displays lack of composure and experience,” and they vowed to continue their fight against “foreign occupation.”
In a response Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said in an interview; “What more violence can they bring?” “What else can they do? You know they have killed 300 civilians in the past three weeks. So we will not be surprised if we see more attacks, but they have already done it.”
Following, the President’s terse weekend announcement that he had canceled a secret meeting with Taliban leaders and the Afghan president at Camp David and halted negotiations has put Washington and Kabul into a strategy position put a plan in place and better to understand just what happens next.
Some Afghans are wary of fresh violence in part because of the termination of talks. The announcement came shortly before a string of highly sensitive days in Afghanistan, including Monday’s anniversary of the killing of anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, a rare Afghan unifying figure who was killed two days before 9/11, today’s major Shiite Muslim holy day of Ashoura, and Wednesday’s 9/11 anniversary.
Over the past several days there have been no immediate reports of any major attacks in the country, but the streets of the capital, Kabul, were largely empty as armed supporters of Massoud, roamed in flag-draped vehicles, firing into the air in a show of power. Elsewhere in Kabul, a roadside bomb wounded three civilians, but there was no claim of responsibility. And in northeastern Takhar province, the Taliban claimed attacks on at least two districts overnight, with no immediate reports of casualties.
There are a number of analysts who have said while most seek peace above all after four decades of various conflicts. But some fear a failed or weak deal could lead to the government’s collapse and bring another civil war like the one that raged in the 1990s before the Taliban swept into power. Also, many Afghan women have been wary of a Taliban return to power in some form under the intra-Afghan talks that would follow a U.S.-Taliban deal, recalling the years of oppression under a strict form of Islamic law.
At this point the arrangement to have been discussed under the agreement in principle that the U.S. and the Taliban had worked out, stated the U.S. would withdraw about 5,000 of the 14,000 American troops in the country within 4½ months, with the Taliban agreeing to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a launch pad for global terror attacks by al-Qaeda and any other radical group. Of course, such assurances would be “unbelievable.”
Right now, for the Afghan’s they believe the only way now for the Taliban to re-enter the peace process is to accept a cease-fire and speak directly with the Afghan government. Many in the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani reacted positively to Trump’s decision to terminate the talks.
The Afghan government understood President Trump’s decision, stating;
“Inviting un-repenting and unapologetic terrorists and mass murderers to Camp David would have tarnished the stature of the camp. Gratified that the U.S. returned back to a principled stand,” as was tweeted by President Ghani’s running mate, Amrullah Saleh.
Further, Ghani, who is seeking re-election, has been insisting that the country’s September 28th election be held as scheduled and not set aside by a U.S.-Taliban deal. I firmly believe this too was a critical factor in President Trump’s decision to ensure that there was an open path to a vote for Afghanistan.
Likewise, President Ghani appeared to make an important shift in his stance on direct talks with the Taliban, declaring that his country is ready to meet, but that “negotiation without a cease-fire would not be possible.” If you recall, the Afghan government had previously said it had no conditions for entering talks with the Taliban.
The Taliban are not about negotiations, they are about power and control at the muzzle of a gun, the blade of a knife and total annihilation of an opposing or occupying force.
While President Trump defended his decision to cancel the secret meeting with the Taliban to discuss the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, despite the President declaring that negotiations are “dead,” there is more to that if you follow the full U.S. position. As I noted earlier in the article, Secretary of State Pompeo stated that Afghan peace talks were ‘on hold’ and that the U.S. would not reduce military support for Afghan troops until it was convinced the Taliban could follow through on significant commitments they had negotiated.
Understand that the Taliban has been pounded over the past year by U.S. and coalition forces. Their relevance is certainly part of the reason they are negotiating. Following their car bomb attack last week, the U.S. took out 1,100 of their fighters in just two days, the most ever in that short a period since 2001-2002. Currently, their main strength is centered around the capital of Kabul and the surrounding areas. That speaks to the point that they are negotiating partly for renewed power and presence. That’s not to say they will actually agree to anything but total control of Afghanistan or resort to that should an agreement be subsequently and eventually reached. Trump and his strategist know this all too well, and as SecState Pompeo noted the door is still open to engage.
That said, there are certainly unmentioned and revealed opportunities for talks to be reestablished in the coming months. We will have to standby for that possibility.